The BJP and its troll army

By Karan Anand

BJP president Amit Shah, on Sunday, asked the youth of Gujarat not to “fall prey” to the anti-BJP propaganda run by the Congress on social media.  This came as a surprise coming from Shah’s mouth as the BJP is renowned for their social media troll army. His statement came at a time when messages critical of the “Gujarat model of development” began circulating on Whatsapp and Facebook. Addressing the youths at Yuva Townhall, Shah was also critical of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who recently visited the poll-bound state.

The politics of fake news

Many people found the statement hilarious coming from Amit Shah’s mouth. Since the past few years, BJP, with the help of its IT cell, has mastered the art of social media trolling. Not only trolling, doctored videos being circulated on WhatsApp have resulted in riots in Basirhat in 2017 and in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

In Basirhat, an image from 2002 Gujarat riot was used by a BJP spokesperson to call for protests at Jantar Mantar.  In 2013, a WhatsApp video of two boys being beaten was circulated which triggered the Muzaffarnagar riots. By the time it was discovered that the video was two years old, six people had already died and 50000 people were homeless.

Not only riots, fake news is also circulated to polarize opinions and fuel an anti-Muslim rhetoric. The murder of an Awami league leader in Bangladesh is passed off as a Hindu man being murdered by a Muslim in Bihar. The caption reads, “Share this video so much that it reaches Narendra Modi. If you are a true Hindu, then forward it.” After India’s defeat to Pakistan in the 2017 Champions league final, videos of Indian Muslims celebrating were circulated though they were fake. While some were old, others were from Karachi.

The BJP’s IT cell doing wonders

Writing for Newslaundry, Amit Bhardwaj did a full-fledged report on how BJP’s IT cell waged war against the opposition parties during the 2017 UP elections. JPS Rathore, UP-BJP’s IT cell in-charge told Newslaundry, “Our aim was to capture the mind of the voter. To message them night and day. Whenever they look, they should see us, hear our message.”

A huge network was created using WhatsApp which continuously bombarded people with praises for BJP and Modi. At the same time, they would see content which would portray that Samajwadi Party (SP) is anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. To understand the expanse of their network, we have to look at their organisational structure.

BJP appointed 1.28 lakh block-level presidents in UP, and each of these levels had IT cell workers. After their “missed call” drive, the IT cell had verified data of 1.3cr people, who would later become consumers of BJP’s online propaganda. With their net fully woven around the people, by the time UP went to polls, the IT cells had access to over 9000 WhatsApp groups across the state with each group having a minimum 150 members. Numerous messages were sent to these groups on a daily basis, with at least 13.5 lakh people reading them every day. Even these people further forwarded these messages on various other groups.

One member of the BJP IT cell told Newslaundry, “A lot of these messages sent by our members included propaganda against our opponents. Many had statements which were factually incorrect”. Thereby, by forming these vast networks on WhatsApp and brainwashing the public, BJP’s IT cell has helped the party achieve serious political gains.

The PM himself is following the trolls

Narendra Modi, who projects himself to be the flag bearer of free speech (which he is not), has never condemned these trolls. Not only that, he himself follows some of these trolls on twitter. In her book “I am a troll”, Swati Chaturvedi goes deep into this network and investigates the Twitter activities of some of these trolls who the PM himself is following.

Some of the handles Modi follows issues rape threats, death threats and are involved in communal incitement. A person followed by Modi and photographed with I&B minister Smriti Irani (@Nikhildadhich) tweeted, “A bitch died a dog’s death” on the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh. This tweet resulted in the condemnation of Modi and #BlockNarendraModi trending on Twitter.

Although the PM did not unfollow any of the trolls, he did unfollow Jwala Gurunath. Gurunath, a staunch supporter of the PM, was unfollowed following repeated complaints Twitter alleging she was sexually harassed by Tajinder Bagga; Bagga is also followed by the PM.

This online troll army jumps on each and every occasion to bash anyone who criticizes either the BJP or Modi. Liberal journalists are often labelled as ‘libertards’ and ‘sickulars’ and abused for expressing their opinions. Rape threats are issued and abuses are hurled at people like Gurmehar Kaur who try to take a stand against the party. By following these accounts on Twitter, Modi hints at their affiliations with the BJP.

Shah’s statement is completely baseless

Amit shah’s statement may be true for certain occasions but the magnitude of BJP’s troll army cannot be matched by anyone. They have helped BJP increase its voter base by polarizing opinions and creating communal tensions. Let alone condemn, the PM himself follows some of these trolls which comes as a huge surprise.

By asking the youth of Gujarat to be aware of them, Shah understands the vast potential of social media and how it can even work against the BJP if it is not monitored effectively. He suspects that they might have created a monster which even their IT cell cannot handle in the future. Undoubtedly, he will take every step to ensure that doesn’t happen.     

Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt