Update: iSpirt had teams of trolls to fight Aadhaar critics, Internet activist alleges

Jayadevan PK May 17, 2017

Update #4: In yet another post, Jonnalagadda presents more evidence that the anonymous Twitter accounts Confident_India and Indiaforward2 is being used by Sharma. You can read the full post here.

Update #3: iSpirt has responded to Jonnalagadda’s article mentioned in Update #2. To summarise, the think-tank has said that evidence presented is a deliberate misreading of their intent to engage with those speaking against India Stack. It admitted to having discussed a strategy to deal with this. “We called one category of people “informed yet trolling”, a category of people deliberately misleading people, despite understanding the nuance behind the debate. An explanation of the effect is given in the slides itself, but Kiran ignores it and uses this one phrase to allege that we are running an entire anonymous trolling campaign. All volunteers who attended the meeting can confirm the same.” For the informed yet trolling category, iSpirt said, it encouraged volunteers to engage from their handles but never recommended anonymous trolling.

Update #2: Jonnalagadda just published a detailed post (based on his investigation into the rise of anonymous Twitter accounts and trolls responding to criticism of Aadhaar and a presentation circulated among iSpirt volunteers) here. He writes that the anonymous handle Confident_India is operated by Sharad Sharma, the co-founder of iSpirt as detailed out in the initial post below. Further, he writes that at the 27th fellows meeting of the think tank, a plan was detailed out to respond to critics of India Stack. A group called Sudham that was created earlier, divided people airing different views on Aadhaar, into different categories and proposed how to deal with them. One of the groups called “archers” were to carry out the mainstream debate, another group of “swordsmen” to challenge people who were categorised as informed yet “trolling.” Swordsmen, to counter trolls, were to be coordinated on WhatsApp with quick responses and multiple accounts. The existence of such a group was confirmed to FactorDaily by a source earlier in the day.

Update #1: Responding to FactorDaily’s questions on the matter, iSpirt founder Sharad Sharma responded: “I can categorically say that I am NOT operating the @Confident_India Twitter account! Just woke up to a tweetstorm. I’m in Atlanta attending to a family medical emergency. Some kind of silly frameup as far I can make out.”

The controversy over Aadhaar, India’s massive biometric identification program, has been playing out on social media for many months now. In the beginning, it was mostly a civil debate. But lately, anonymous accounts have entered the scene — some arguing for Aadhaar and others against.

On Wednesday, things got ugly.

One of the fiercest critics of Aadhaar is Bengaluru-based startup founder Kiran Jonnalagadda (@jackerhack). He’s also the cofounder of Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an advocacy group.

Earlier on Wednesday, at 10.33am, he tweeted “Have we caught an Aadhaar troll?” According to him, it’s possible that @Confident_India, one of the anonymous accounts arguing for Aadhaar and deriding its critics on Twitter, is being operated by Sharad Sharma, the founder of software products think tank iSpirt.

 

 

Jonnalagadda used Twitter’s account reset option with Sharma’s number to see if it is being accepted. And according to a screen grab posted by him, it did. More users (@pacificleo, @deepakshenoy ) tried it and confirmed that it worked. This points fingers towards Sharma.

We tried the method to test it and couldn’t independently replicate it. If you try and reset the password for the account now, the option to use the phone number doesn’t show up.

We’ve reached out to Sharma and Jonnalagadda for comment and we will update the story when we hear from them.

Sharma is a long-time software products champion. iSpirt, which he cofounded with other volunteers, has worked on developing what is called the India Stack, a set of APIs that allow governments, businesses, startups and developers to build applications on top of India’s biometric identity system and other digital infrastructure.

The not-for-profit organisation has been championing Aadhaar and its benefits and also advocating that government’s digital systems be treated as “public goods”.

Earlier in the month, the @Confident_India handle had challenged Jonnalagadda to show privacy loopholes in Aadhaar.

 

 

There have been frequent flame wars between the two sides on Twitter. On social media, the battle has been mostly about privacy and data leaks. Over the last few months, the Aadhaar program has come under criticism for being a “leaky system” and for that it doesn’t really address concerns of privacy of the individual. Critics also point out that Aadhaar will enable mass surveillance and also lead to compromising an individual’s privacy. India doesn’t yet have a privacy law.

Also see: FactorDaily’s interview with Nandan Nilekani on Aadhaar


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.

Updated #1 on 17 May 2017, 5.05 pm IST with headline change.

Update #2 on 17 May 2017, 7.32 pm IST.

Update #3 on 17 May 2017, 10.14 pm IST.

Update #4 on 19 May 2017, 10.44 am IST.

Update, 17 May 2017, 9.26 pm IST: The story has also been edited for typos.

Update on 18 May 2017, 9.10 am IST: Changes to Update #2. We'd written that Jonnalagadda's post was mostly based on a presentation circulated among iSpirt volunteers. We've made changes to that statement to depict a more accurate picture.