Book review

This book links hate-filled tweets to right-wing political strategy and deep planning

Casual social media users should read Swati Chaturvedi's 'I Am A Troll' and then make up their minds.

Anyone from India who has spent any time at all on Twitter is aware of the overpowering presence of a troll army, mostly representing a set of conservative, right-wing ideas. These warriors violently attack those who tweet news, views or opinion that runs contrary to their world-view. The viciousness, crudity and arguably criminal nature of such attacks – threats to rape and murder, for instance, are routine – is visible to everyone.

What is perhaps less known is the sheer scale on which this army operates. No individual on Twitter can fathom the widespread reach and intensity of this activity. This is where journalist Swati Chaturvedi’s book I Am A Troll: Inside The Secret World Of The BJP’s Digital Army comes in. It’s one thing to come across these tweets in ones and twos and threes, over several days or weeks, but it’s another altogether to turn the pages of a book and see them stacked up continuously. It makes you physically sick, in need of retching.

Little of what Chaturvedi has put together between the covers of her book is actually unknown. What she does, though, is to try to join the dots, and establish that behind this army of abuse lies the planning and strategy of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

It’s not just tweets, but also those ubiquitous Whatsapp forwards that people now receive as a matter of course and pass on without a second thought, assuming they’re telling the truth. Chaturvedi contends that generating these is also part of the daily operations of the “BJP’s digital army”. She also asks a crucial question: why does Prime Minister Narendra Modi follow so many members of this army of abusers on Twitter, giving many of them the opportunity to flaunt the fact that their tweets make it to the timeline of the prime minister of the country?

In fact, the book shows that the idea of conquering through social media, bypassing the natural resistance of the mainstream media in India, which is more liberal than conservative, originated in the RSS well before any other political party realised the potential of the force.

The troll who came out

Chaturvedi’s piece de resistance, so to speak, in the book is the testimony of Sadhavi Khosla, a technology entrepreneur who spent two years volunteering for the BJP’s social media efforts, but gave up eventually in disgust at what she – and many others like her – were being asked to do, and chose to tell her story to Chaturvedi. Almost predictably, the BJP IT cell, through its former head Arvind Gupta, has denied that Khosla was part of the party’s social media cell.

Khosla, too, reveals, what was already known: for instance, that attacks on certain journalists – among them Barkha Dutt, Sagarika Ghosh, and Rajdeep Sardesai – and the concerted campaigns against Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan were carried out under instructions. Khosla is a case study for a specific reason: she tells Chaturvedi she belongs to a family loyal to the Congress, and embraced the original offer to join the BJP’s campaign – but was gradually disillusioned as she was asked to target individuals.

While this is a somewhat naive, even theatrical, moment of discovery, it also points towards the sheer motivating power of the narrative with which the troll army has been – and continues to be – assembled. Chaturvedi’s book does not close the loop on this point, but it makes the reader think, and worry, about the compelling power of a story that can make people turn into abusive monsters online.

Channelling resentment

This is the real story in the book, though not spelt out in as many words. Chaturvedi conducts interviews with three members of this army, revealing a pattern of low confidence, tentative articulation, and an inferiority complex vis-a-vis an upwardly mobile urban society. The RSS/BJP have been prescient enough to channel these into the creation of engines of resentful energy that manifests itself through the tweets we see.

In doing this, of course, the genie has been let out of the bottle. It may only be a matter of time before the violence building up within this tweeting army spills over into the physical world. It will be too late by then.

The strategy behind the use of torrential abuse is clear: either provoke the subject into retorting in kind, or bully them into silence and, perhaps, even off twitter altogether. Chaturvedi has fallen victim to the first impulse too, as she said in an interview: “When I got serial rape threats in September 2014 I called the hyena pack ‘fuck wits’ which the Oxford dictionary defines as ‘stupid or contemptible.’”

Others have responded to abuse with abuse too, playing into the hands of a strategy to split people into taking hard positions on one side or the other, with hatred and anger, rather than rational thought, as the ammunition of this war. But with individuals arraigned against battalions, there’s no prizes for guessing which side is likely to win.

It would probably be wrong to examine Chaturvedi’s work by the conventional standards of a book. This is a piece of extended journalism, put together with an eye on immediacy, which rules out the possibility of sociological, political and psychological analysis.

There’s no doubt that those books will be written too, once a historical perspective is acquired on what is probably a first-of-its-kind social media war in the world, if the scale, violence and filthy language are anything to go by. For now, this quick package is chilling enough.

I Am A Troll: Inside The Secret World Of The BJP’s Digital Army, Swati Chaturvedi, Juggernaut.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Watch Ruchir's journey: A story that captures the impact of accessible technology

Accessible technology has the potential to change lives.

“Technology can be a great leveller”, affirms Ruchir Falodia, Social Media Manager, TATA CLiQ. Out of the many qualities that define Ruchir as a person, one that stands out is that he is an autodidact – a self-taught coder and lover of technology.

Ruchir’s story is one that humanises technology - it has always played the role of a supportive friend who would look beyond his visual impairment. A top ranker through school and college, Ruchir would scan course books and convert them to a format which could be read out to him (in the absence of e-books for school). He also developed a lot of his work ethos on the philosophy of Open Source software, having contributed to various open source projects. The access provided by Open Source, where users could take a source code, modify it and distribute their own versions of the program, attracted him because of the even footing it gave everyone.

That is why I like being in programming. Nobody cares if you are in a wheelchair. Whatever be your physical disability, you are equal with every other developer. If your code works, good. If it doesn’t, you’ll be told so.

— Ruchir.

Motivated by the objectivity that technology provided, Ruchir made it his career. Despite having earned degree in computer engineering and an MBA, friends and family feared his visual impairment would prove difficult to overcome in a work setting. But Ruchir, who doesn’t like quotas or the ‘special’ tag he is often labelled with, used technology to prove that differently abled persons can work on an equal footing.

As he delved deeper into the tech space, Ruchir realised that he sought to explore the human side of technology. A fan of Agatha Christie and other crime novels, he wanted to express himself through storytelling and steered his career towards branding and marketing – which he sees as another way to tell stories.

Ruchir, then, migrated to Mumbai for the next phase in his career. It was in the Maximum City that his belief in technology being the great leveller was reinforced. “The city’s infrastructure is a challenging one, Uber helped me navigate the city” says Ruchir. By using the VoiceOver features, Ruchir could call an Uber wherever he was and move around easily. He reached out to Uber to see if together they could spread the message of accessible technology. This partnership resulted in a video that captures the essence of Ruchir’s story: The World in Voices.

Play

It was important for Ruchir to get rid of the sympathetic lens through which others saw him. His story serves as a message of reassurance to other differently abled persons and abolishes some of the fears, doubts and prejudices present in families, friends, employers or colleagues.

To know more about Ruchir’s journey, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Uber and not by the Scroll editorial team.