The Editors Guild of India on Tuesday condemned the “continuing online harassment of women journalists”, particularly those who have openly criticised the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
“This is a travesty of all democratic norms, and in violation of law,” the journalists’ body said in a statement. It asked the Narendra Modi-led central government to take urgent steps “to break and dismantle this misogynistic and abusive digital eco-system”.
The Editors Guild statement pointed out that a recent investigation by The Wire has revealed that social media operatives apparently affiliated to the BJP use a specialised app to hijack Twitter trends, harass critics and spread propaganda through defunct WhatsApp accounts.
The app, called Tek Fog, allows users to bypass controls like email and text-message verification. It can also act as a master control for a number of Twitter accounts, fake or otherwise, pushing hashtags, content and retweets through a single interface. On WhatsApp, Tek Fog takes over inactive accounts to then send messages to their contacts.
“App operators also use this feature to phish the personal information of targeted users to add to a…political database,” The Wire reported. “The addition of private citizens into this database makes them available as potential targets in future harassment and trolling campaigns.”
Between January 2021 and April 2021, when The Wire tracked 46 lakh replies received by 280 prominent women journalists, it found that 18% of these replies came from accounts managed by the Tek Fog app.
The investigation is among the clearest pieces of evidence yet of the BJP’s orchestration of online propaganda and hate speech. Tek Fog’s manipulation of Twitter includes, at the most basic level, the amplification of pro-BJP hashtags through artificially generated mentions and retweets. It also includes an “auto-reply” function that can target users by religion, age, gender or profession.
“The purpose of these deeply hurtful messages was to instill fear in them and to prevent them from expressing themselves freely and go about their jobs,” said the Editors Guild.
The press body demanded that the Supreme Court orders a probe into the matter as it may involve many influential people from the ruling dispensation.
The guild also spoke about two open-source apps which used photos of Muslim women taken from their social media accounts without permission and displayed them for “online auction”.
The “Sulli Deals” app was called out on social media after it targeted Muslim women in July. In January, the other app, Bulli Bai, was found to be hosted on web platform GitHub, which has since taken it down amid widespread anger on social media. Both “Sulli and “Bulli” are derogatory words used to refer to Muslim women.
Arrests have been made in connection with the two apps – Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai.
On Sunday, the Delhi Police made the first arrest – Aumkareshwar Thakur who allegedly created the app – in the “Sulli Deals” case. The Delhi Police had filed a first information report on the matter in July but had made no arrest in the six months since then. In the “Bulli Bai” app case, four persons, including the alleged creator, have been arrested.
“Though law enforcement agencies have arrested those supposedly behind such apps, there is need for further investigation in order to ensure that all those behind such despicable acts, even beyond those arrested, are brought to justice,” said the Editors Guild.