The curious case of agenda-free volunteer trolls in Kerala

Navya PK January 30, 2017

What does it take to tickle millions of Malayalis? Two Kerala troll groups who have made crowdsourcing memes — ranging from truism disguised as humour to the sublime cerebral — a fine art.

In doing so, Troll Malayalam (TM) and International Chalu Union (ICU) have made trolling — simply put, making provocative posts — a phenomenon in Kerala. So much so, in an age of smartphone and internet ubiquity, they are fast overtaking conventional forms of satire like political cartoons and TV shows. Any interesting statement or action of a public figure is satirised within minutes, once the news breaks. To be sure, there are several Malayalam troll sites out there but TM and ICU lead the pack in traction: TM’s Facebook page has some 880,000 likes and ICU has nearly 700,000 likes.

Memes and other takes — mostly based on humour — on daily events are much more accessible that mainstream media, feel some. “Memes are easily relatable as we are familiar with the context of the movies whose screenshots are being used,” says Lisha L P, a college lecturer in Kozhikode, north Kerala. Sometimes troll groups take up major issues even before TV news channels do, as in the recent case of private engineering college student Jishnu who committed suicide allegedly due to harassment by faculty.

Sometimes troll groups take up major issues even before TV news channels do, as in the recent case of private engineering college student Jishnu, who committed suicide allegedly due to harassment by faculty  

Memes also get discussed on news TV channels and online portals often in Kerala.

ICU and TM, both not-for-profit groups that have not registered themselves as a formal legal entity yet, get thousands of submissions from contributors daily. Both have an elaborate setup of moderators, editors and admins who go through these posts, and publish approved ones — all of who volunteer their time for no remuneration.

ICU in support of Rohit Vemula
ICU in support of Rohit Vemula

Both had modest beginnings. TM, the first troll page in Kerala, was started in 2012 by Sharath Menon, 32, currently a filmmaker in Malayalam. It was a time Internet memes were not the rage they are today. Sharath was then an admin of ‘Troll Football’, a global troll page. “Keralites are highly sarcastic and can take sarcasm well too. So I thought, why not start a page in Malayalam? At first, I used Hollywood memes and common jokes, but by 2013-14, I started using screenshots of Malayalam movies,” he says.


Also read:In Goa, election officials crack down on Facebook pages


Sharath soon appointed five visitors as co-admins. These included teachers, a software engineer and a student. By 2014, memes on current affairs were coming in, and the page had around 80,000 likes. A closed Facebook group, also named Troll Malayalam, was set up then.

The ICU team came together over the past decade. It started with an Orkut group started by engineering college students in Kottayam, central Kerala, in 2006. Later, Roshan Thomas, one of the group’s founders, moved the group to Facebook, and added his friends too in it. Initially, the group only had common forwarded jokes. By 2012-13, more creative material in Malayalam, including memes, started getting posted.

But, as numbers on the group ballooned to around 40,000, many of whom were strangers with contradicting opinions, the need for a formal presence was felt. “What we were putting forth as a group became a question and so we launched our official page in 2013 end,” says ICU admin Hrishikesh Bhaskaran, 27. Hrishikesh is software engineer at a startup based in Kochi.

Loose command-control

In both TM and ICU, moderators themselves put out posts, though the majority comes from group members. TM has over 110,000 members today while ICU around 180,000. The teams of moderators, editors and admins in both are loosely structured. When some become inactive, others take their place. In ICU, new moderators usually are from the friend circles of existing team members. In TM, active members with a good record get selected as moderators. Team members are spread across the world: Kerala, other parts of India, the Middle East, Europe, US, among other places. Some meet up often while others remain anonymous even to other moderators. They include doctors, accountants, bank managers, software engineers, homemakers, business persons etc.

ICU-admins-(from-left)-Hrishikesh-Bhaskaran-Binu-K-S-Priya-Binu-Aardraa-Nambiar-and-Rahul-G-Nair
ICU admins (from left) Hrishikesh Bhaskaran, Binu K S, Priya Binu, Aardraa Nambiar and Rahul G Nair

Team members are spread across the world: Kerala, other parts of India, the Middle East, Europe, US, among other places. Some meet up often while others remain anonymous even to other moderators  

ICU Facebook group has 26 moderators and seven admins to sift through the 3,000-4,000 posts that come in daily. “Some moderators will be online at any time. If a moderator likes a post, he shares it with others, and everyone votes on it. If the post gets enough votes and aligns with our stand, admins approve it,” says admin Binu K S, 31, who works in molecular diagnostics. There are another 17 admins to take care of the official page alone. Before publishing, the memes are polished — image quality improved, spelling errors corrected — in another Facebook group ‘Page Factory’. The youngest moderator in ICU is 18 years old and has been active for 3-4 years. Most are aged between 25 and 30.

“Some moderators will be online at any time. If a moderator likes a post, he shares it with others, and everyone votes on it. If the post gets enough votes and aligns with our stand, admins approve it” Binu K S, ICU admin  

TM group has 23 admins and its page has six. Like ICU’s Page Factory, they have ‘Troll Malayalam Elite’ group, where 130 moderators are split into teams that take care of quality management, page support etc. These moderators are anything from 16 to 45 years old. “Any admin who is free schedules the memes to be posted every 45 minutes from 9.15 am to 10.30 pm. Some days are busier. We had the most posts in a day — 47 — during (the May 2016 assembly) election season,” says Subash Nair, 32, admin at TM page. Subash works as an area manager in Wayanad, north Kerala, for a computing and mobile phone multinational.

Trolling, pro bono

Why do so many moderators work for free? Subash says this is only due to their personal interest. “If I post something in my own Facebook page, may be some 10% people in my friend list will notice it. But TM reaches a huge audience. My life has changed after coming into it. I’ve been on TV shows, and even strangers come and talk to me about the page now.” Subash says that he spends more time talking to like-minded people in TM than those he meets daily.

For group members, their posts getting selected feels like a privilege. Samshan T V says that of the 1,500 memes and jokes he submitted, some 200 of have featured on the TM page since last April. Samshan, 22, is an MSW postgraduate and guest lecturer at a private college in Malappuram. “Thousands of posts come to the group daily, so I can’t expect all my posts to be accepted. My memes are mostly on (Narendra) Modi, and some on Kerala ministers. Once I get an idea, it takes only 3-4 minutes to make a meme,” he says. Group members of both TM and ICU sift through thousands of movie screenshots; they only have to compile the necessary screenshots, write script over them, and add the official TM/ICU logo.

“If you want to die, you should die like men, for your family — not for a political party, leader and all that. Those who want to die at someone’s knifepoint should remember that the loss is not for the party or those who put status messages on Facebook; it will be only for your family.” (In the context of recent political murders in Kannur district, Kerala).
“If you want to die, you should die like men, for your family — not for a political party, leader and all that. Those who want to die at someone’s knifepoint should remember that the loss is not for the party or those who put status messages on Facebook; it will be only for your family.” (In the context of recent political murders in Kannur district, Kerala).

“We watch all movies on laptop, even bad ones, and download screenshots of actors’ interesting expressions. TV serial screenshots are also used sometimes. Real photos of public figures are used rarely — like of Modi doing yoga or Baba Ramdev’s positions,” says Subash, the TM admin. About 40% of TM posts come from the diaspora, especially those in the Middle East, he adds.

ICU and TM admins have strong positions on what posts are acceptable and why. Both don’t accept posts that are discriminatory (racist, casteist etc), abusive, or invading someone’s privacy, they say

ICU and TM admins have strong positions on what posts are acceptable and why. Both don’t accept posts that are discriminatory (racist, casteist etc), abusive, or invading someone’s privacy, they say. “For example, making fun of something Sachin Tendulkar said or did is fine but calling him a midget to troll him is not,” says Subash.

ICU’s Hrishikesh is clear, too, of staying away from cyber bullying or not stepping into someone’s personal issues. “We also did not post on the wedding of celebrity couple Kavya and Dileep, as it’s a personal matter. The question is, to what extent we can go, without restricting people’s freedom of expression.” (It was a second marriage for Kavya Madhavan and Dileep, both cine stars of some following, with rumours of their relationship predating their wedding.) At times, both TM and ICU have to call out topics that they don’t want memes on. Members are given warnings, and sometimes banned.

Religion, politics no bar

Both TM and ICU actively troll sensitive topics, especially religion and politics. In the case of political posts, it is usually the party followers rather than leaders who take issue, say admins. Many posts get abusive comments from followers. But some politicians and actors even think that memes give publicity, and have requested that they be trolled.

Neither pages are affiliated with any political party, and they troll all parties. But ‘sanghi jokes’ (jokes on BJP/Sangh Parivar) is a popular category now. “This is because most issues now are created by the BJP government in centre, and their supporters. We troll whoever gives us the most opportunities,” says ICU admin Aardraa Nambiar, a filmmaker in her early 30s. Subash says that imposing of ‘nationalism’, ‘patriotism’, ‘respect for army’ and similar topics are tailormade for trolling.

For some leaders, nicknames have stuck after massive trolling. For example, Kerala BJP General Secretary K Surendran now has multiple nicknames, one of which is ‘Ulli Sura’, ulli meaning onion in Malayalam. Surendran was trolled after a photo of him eating beef went viral around the time that BJP took a position against beef-eating. Surendran had defended himself, saying that he was in fact having onion curry, and that he reared 20 cows at home.

BJP General Secretary K Surendaran trolled
BJP general secretary K Surendran features in “Selfie with onion plant”

Despite their similarities, TM and ICU have clear differences in their political worldview. ICU admins say that their group’s politics is progressive, and that it reflects in their posts. “Political correctness is something we actively talk about. We study political issues and pick the progressive side. For example, we took a position against death penalty when many in Kerala were demanding it for Govindachamy,” says Hrishikesh. Govindachamy was convicted in the 2011 Soumya rape and murder case but his death sentence was commuted.

ICU also took a position during the recent controversy on whether women aged 10-50 years should be allowed into Sabarimala Ayyappa temple. Religious women had started a Facebook campaign ‘ReadyToWait’, saying they did not feel discriminated against. The page had photos of women holding up placards saying ‘Ready To Wait’. ICU put out a post about the practice of Sati with a woman holding a placard saying ‘Ready to die’. Says Hrishikesh, “Some posts are beyond jokes, we are trying to give an indirect message through them. We want to contribute to the making of a progressive society.”

ICU's 'Ready To Die' post trolling the 'Ready To Wait' campaign
ICU’s ‘Ready To Die’ post trolling the ‘Ready To Wait’ campaign

 Buddy trolls

Admins of both pages say they only have a healthy competition, and give suggestions and criticisms to each other. Many are friends with each other, being part of other online circles.

While memes and posts on movie and sports stars get their share of abusive comments from fans and their associations, it is religion that draws the most heat for both ICU and TM. They say their intention is not to troll religion itself, and that the posts are usually on statements made by religious leaders or put when a controversy comes up. TM’s Subash has made many posts on religion, and got threats that he would be killed or his hands cut off. “Earlier I was scared that they would actually do it. Now I know nothing will happen. When people threaten and ask for my address, I give it to them.”

Subash says that sometimes the people who react the most are those who are only 15-18 years old. “They speak like this as they are indoctrinated, but it also shows how big a social problem this is. In such cases, we don’t remove posts, rather we post even more memes,” he says.

TM3
(Panel1): Sanghi says, “I bought it six months back. Mileage has been decreasing by the day.” (Panel2): Person2: “For how many rupees do you fill up petrol?” (Panel3): Sanghi, “For 50 bucks.” (Panel4): Person2: “Nothing’s wrong with your bike. Just read the papers daily.”

ICU has also been harassed by religious fundamentalists. Their page was taken down once, after a meme featuring Christ. Though someone had reported it to Facebook initially, it was not taken down. Someone then, says Hrishikesh, tracked down the Canadian creator of the clip art used in the meme. The Canadian wrote in asking for $5,000 compensation for copyright infringement. “When we told him that we were a non-profit, he reported us to Facebook. Still nothing happened. Then he posted our logo on an auction site, backdating it, claiming ownership of the logo creative, and reported to Facebook that we had violated the logo’s copyright,” says Hrishikesh. The page was taken down but was put back up when ICU showed Facebook news reports of the formal launch of its logo.

ICU has also been harassed by religious fundamentalists. Their page was taken down once, after a meme featuring Christ  

In another instance two years ago, ICU had published a meme making fun of new generation guys going to Sabarimala. “There was this viral photo of a swami trying to look cool, and we published a post trolling it. Some people tracked down the creator of the troll, and threatened him online,” says Hrishikesh.

The post had to be taken down. “There is intolerance when anything related to religion comes on print. We are trying to develop a culture of tolerance, so that religion can be talked about.”

Still, the admins say that there is much more tolerance now compared to the times when they had started off. There are more counterarguments rather than abusive comments, they say.

When anonymity works

In both TM and ICU, many moderators and admins remain anonymous. Fear of being judged is one reason. Subash says, “Many in Kerala, especially the older generation, still think that internet is bad or dangerous. So some, especially girls, use anonymous profiles fearing that their relatives may be in the group and will judge them.” Female admins are also bullied more online. Recently, TM posted in their page that legal action would be taken against those who bully their female admins. The post says that bullies track down address and phone numbers of female admins, add them in different online groups, and shower them with expletives if those admins had banned a member or expressed a contradicting opinion.

“Impersonation is not allowed but there is nothing wrong with using a name that people know is obviously fake like one ID ‘Swami Kidukidananda” — Hrishikesh Bhaskaran, ICU admin

Hrishikesh says that anonymous profiles may help people speak more openly. He himself had used an anonymous ID until recently, which was unknown to other admins who were also his friends in real life. “There is no need to insist on an authentic profile, because even those profiles that seem original could be fake. Impersonation is not allowed but there is nothing wrong with using a name that people know is obviously fake like one ID ‘Swami Kidukidananda’,” he says.

The world’s first chaliyan (bad joker), who fooled his disciples by saying it was his last meal and then coming back after three days
The world’s first chaliyan (bad joker), who fooled his disciples by saying it was his last meal and then coming back after three days

Both ICU and TM have remained non-profits and plan to continue so, but they plan to branch out into new areas. They are already on more social media platforms like Google+, Twitter, Instagram etc. Selected memes from both TM and ICU were published in a book Troll, Troll, Troll by DC Books about four months ago. The book was published in August 2016, and 702 copies have been sold so far. The teams only gave permission to republish the posts, and have not got any proceeds from it. There were even plans to make a movie in the name of ‘Troll Malayalam Studios’.

Will the two groups get a more formal legal structure as they grow in scale and reach? Registration as a trust, for instance, will give TM the copyright over what it puts out and “prevent people from lifting our posts,” says Subash. But the group is also wary that registration could lead to commercialisation. “If we become a business or accept donations, we will be no better than a paid news channel. For now, we are satisfied that we are a brand, and can work without pressures,” he says.

Subash Nair, admin at Troll Malayalam
Subash Nair, admin at Troll Malayalam

“If we become a business or accept donations, we will be no better than a paid news channel. For now, we are satisfied that we are a brand, and can work without pressures,” — Subash

ICU has no plans to get registered as of now. A compilation of its posts is to be published as a coffee table book by Timeline Publishers in two-three months. “Recently we had put up our posts in an all India cartoon exhibition, and paid for the expenses ourselves. Royalty from the book will be used to cover expenses like these,” says Hrishikesh. There are plans to develop an Android app to expand its sphere of influence.

For sure, ICU and TM — and, indeed, other troll groups — are changing the narrative in Kerala’s society that is as hyper-sensitive as it is hyper-aware. ICU believes that it is more relevant in the current times when people are becoming increasingly apolitical. TM says that their memes may prompt people to think and speak freely rather than be controlled by religious and political establishments.


Update (1.42 PM, IST): This story has been updated to replace Troll with Meme in several instances. We regret the error.