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The Charge of the Troll Brigade

Online trolls on social media has been abusing freedom of speech with irrational derogatory verbal abuse to critics of their favourite political parties. (Google images)

Trolling of public figures on Twitter is perhaps as old as Twitter itself. It is a well known fact that Indian political parties have cells to trend hashtags and manage social media opinion. The excellence of BJP in this regard is also very well known.

The recent interest in the topic of organised online trolling started with a series of explosive claims by journalist Swati Chaturvedi (@bainjal) in her new book, “I’m a troll”. Sadhavi Khosla (@sadhavi), a disillusioned ex-volunteer of BJP revealed to Swati that social media trolling against Indian public figures including journalists and actors was directly co-ordinated from inside BJP. She revealed that volunteers received direct instructions from senior members of BJP’s social media teams about the campaigns to run. From time to time, “Hit Lists” singled out targets and actor Aamir Khan was picked as one for his comments on rising intolerance in the country. What followed was a targeted campaign to pressurize Snapdeal to drop Aamir Khan as a brand ambassador. Sadhavi had later disassociated with BJP as a volunteer as she got increasing uncomfortable with such planned social media attacks.

The claims have been denied by Arvind Gupta (@buzzindelhi) who has been closely associated with BJP’s social media team. “BJP or its IT Cell have never encouraged trolling. Internet support for BJP is an organic, bottom-up mass movement and a voluntary connect”, tweeted Gupta to clear the air.

Twitter user, Suresh Nakhua (@sureshnakhua) claimed that the campaign to downgrade and uninstall the Snapdeal App was an individual campaign most probably started by his tweet. In reality, his was the second tweet on the topic, identical to the first one by another user. Nakhua is followed by Prime Minister, Narendra Modi on twitter.

 

Screen shot from Twitter.com

A quick search revealed that the trolling did not seem as spontaneous as claimed. Nor did it seem to be the work of individuals working on their own without any direction. It was a well-orchestrated campaign run over several hours. An identical message asking Snapdeal to remove Aamir Khan as a brand ambassador was posted by a large number of handles. Of course, as the campaign gathered steam, many others voluntarily joined in with their own messages.

Screen shots from tweets

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The troll army also got busy manipulating the rating of the Snapdeal App by giving it a one-star in large numbers. This is the same tactic that was used when hordes of trolls descended on Amazon to rate Barkha Dutt’s book without reading it. In fact as soon as Swati Chaturvedi announced her book, “I’m a troll”,  one-star ratings started to appear on the Amazon site.

The falling ratings of the Snapdeal App were enthusiastically tracked and shared by supporters who believed this to be a great victory for their cause. They had reason to cheer. The number of ratings had gone up from 36 to 800 and the average rating had come down from 4 star to 1.5 star.

Screen shots from tweets

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Twitter user, Dr Gaurav Pradhan (@DrGPradhan) however disputed the role of the BJP IT team and claimed that the call for Aamir-Snapdeal boycott was in fact started by him. It is quite possible that the BJP IT cell joined with its coordinated effort only after initial calls were made by other social media influencers. Dr. Pradhan is also one of the select few followed by the Prime Minister on twitter.

It may seem ironical that the supporters of a Prime Minister who is pushing for Digital India, target a digital trading platform over a perceived insult. BJP supporters however consider the fact that they could arm-twist Snapdeal to distance itself from Aamir Khan to be a success story. The boycott had support at the highest levels as Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar himself had made a statement that was reported in national newspapers in July, 2016 that anyone speaking against the country must be “taught a lesson” in the same way that an “actor” and an “online trading company” were taught.

The nationalist pride of the “Proud nationalists” is indeed a very fragile construct. It can get hurt by someone merely expressing an opinion. In their enthusiasm to support the government, the nationalists often also struggle to differentiate between a criticism of the government and criticism of the country. By targeting Aamir Khan for expressing his opinion, they demonstrated an intolerance for dissent and proved him right about the atmosphere of growing intolerance. The fact that this attack was not individual but the work of a well-orchestrated troll brigade and its commanders, is a sad reflection of the times we live in.

Onwards marches the troll brigade to charge at its next target.

Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die

– Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

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About Sam Jawed

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