Earlier today, Delhi-based journalist Swati Chaturvedi released a slim non-fiction book, I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, on the Juggernaut Books app. Published by digital-first publishing house Juggernaut, the book is also available as a paperback. In it, Chaturvedi, who was at one time a deputy editor at the Hindustan Times and has worked as an independent journalist writing for publications such as the Indian Express and The Statesman, narrates her investigation into the workings of the BJP’s ‘IT and social media cell’, which allegedly runs an army of volunteers and paid employees to spread fake news on social media and garner support for the party’s activities. (See our story on paid tweets in support of demonetisation).
Chaturvedi is active and popular on Twitter, and in 2015, she was in the news for filing an FIR against the anonymous user of the Twitter handle @LutyensInsider, which was maliciously targeting her on social media and spreading rumours about her. She also filed a complaint against Bollywood singer Abhijeet when he abused her on Twitter, following a vicious spat between them.
Chaturvedi says she researched the book over two years, interviewing over 30 “trolls” who help the ruling party create certain narratives on social media, as well as a former member of the media cell, Sadhavi Khosla, who claims she left the pro-bono job when it became clear to her that people like Arvind Gupta, National Head, Information Technology Department of the BJP, were leading online smear campaigns against people speaking out against the government.
In an interview with FactorDaily, Chaturvedi talks about getting paid trolls to talk, the proliferation of fake news, and its dangers:
(The interview is recorded almost verbatim here, with minor edits for coherence and clarity).
Q. Would you have embarked on this investigation if it hadn’t been for the kind of malice you have faced personally?
A. Not at all. It’s got nothing to do with what I have faced online. I’ve not done this because of anything I have faced, I am not a cheerleader or a megaphone for anyone… I am a journalist, have been one for 20 years. I have worked as an investigative journalist at Express and Statesman, and that is my job. I don’t want to whine about things that have happened with me. My interest is in investigative fact-finding. I linked the facts (about political trolls). It’s a story that was waiting to be done. The BJP has brilliantly used the power of social media, and it had a first-mover advantage. But it has to take a deep breath and see where it’s headed. Is this really what a party in power wants to be seen as doing?
Q. How did you connect with the people you have quoted in your book, especially the anonymous users who allegedly work for the BJP’s IT cell in Delhi?
The BJP has brilliantly used the power of social media, and it had a first-mover advantage. But it has to take a deep breath and see where it’s headed
For me, it was my job. I’m a very old-fashioned journalist. I believe in going out there, cultivating contacts, getting people to open up. It took me two years. I think most people like to chat, they seek an audience. Plus they’ve seen me on TV and recognise me. And the guys who do this kind of thing, they have a strong belief system — they like to talk about it. They are rather proud of their views. I had to try and convince them but it wasn’t that hard. They take pride in their worldview.
Q. What kind of backlash are you expecting to this? Do you have any fears of being targeted by the establishment?
If the government decides to target me, there’s not not much I can do. I have been 20 years a journalist, my personal or professional life are not defined by fear. I am not scared. They are free to do what they want.
If the government decides to target me, there’s not not much I can do. I have been 20 years a journalist, my personal or professional life are not defined by fear. I am not scared
I am a bit scared for Sadhavi — you can see the way she is being targeted by BJP, being called a member of Indian National Congress. There is no evidence of that, she is not even a volunteer. She is passionate about drug abuse in Punjab, and her disillusionment with the work she was doing started when she tried to get the PM’s attention on this, and failed. I’m trying to make sure she’s in the public eye so that she’s protected.
Q. Do you have any political affiliations?
I have nothing to do with any political party. I have zero connections. In this kind of rumour factory universe, you can toss about any kind of statement, but I challenge anyone to prove that I have any links with any political party.
Q. You mention the impact of fake news on social media. This is also something of a burning topic in the US and other countries. In your opinion, why is fake news dangerous and what are the ways to counter fake news?
I have covered communal riots — they are awful. I have serious apprehensions that the kind of hateful messages against communities and people being shared on WhatsApp etc — it will trigger real riots. Messages like… saying Dr Narang (the Delhi dentist who became a victim of road rage in 2015 and was killed in a violent act) was killed by Muslims… it incites people. We are a country on the knife edge. The BJP needs to think what it wants to do, does it really want to take the country down this path?
I am a bit scared for Sadhavi — you can see the way she is being targeted by BJP, being called a member of Indian National Congress
The US has some of the strongest free speech laws. But it arrests hundreds of people every year for hate speech and making threats on social media. Unfortunately, in our country because it’s the ruling party doing it laws are not being implemented. There are enough laws to counter this sort of thing — but the question is whether you get protection from police and other mandated authorities.
Q. What is the situation with your FIR against the @LutyensINsider handle?
See, in that case only, Twitter cooperated with Delhi Police. They shared the IP address of the user, his email ID. But they have not acted. They had everything. But the person is politically connected. When I ask them why they have not acted on this information, they have nothing to say. They say ‘madam aapko bhi pata hai kyun nahi raha hai’. You know why it’s not happening.
Q. Is it fair to say that it’s only the BJP and its supporters who abuse social media for propagating untruths or hounding opponents? Isn’t it true that the Congress and AAP also do this?
Congress is barely on social media. It’s as irrelevant there as it is in the political sphere. AAP is fairly active. But it does not issue death threats, rape threats. I have written about how the AAP social media wing operates in the book. See, there are equal opportunity bigots – there are bigots everywhere. But those bigots are not supported by dominant political parties. The average uninformed bigot does not have the sanction of the ruling power.
Q. Do you propose to take this story forward or add to it?
I am a journalist, not an activist. It was my job to nail the links, and show how it is being done and now it’s up to others to take it forward.
From the book:
“When Maneka Gandhi, as Minister for Women and Child Development, tried to put a stop to the incessant cyber bullying and violence against women by setting up a helpline called #IAmTrolledHelp, the right-wing trolls went ballistic. Even handles being followed by PM Modi trolled her. Gandhi was accused of trying to stop freedom of expression and was forced to hastily clarify that she was only going to look at complaints, not monitor social media. In an interview to Aaj Tak four days after my run-in with Abhijeet, Gandhi said she was setting up the helpline because ‘that singer’s tweets were absolutely unacceptable’. She also called a meeting with Twitter officials. Till date, her ministry is following up some complaints, with zero results I might add.”
From the chapter ‘Blessed to be Followed by PM Modi’ of ‘I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army’ published by Juggernaut Books.