The brief is straightforward and clearly not unexpected in a busy election season. Posing as a frontman for a fictitious politician from an opposition party (known only as Netaji), an undercover team approaches two dozen IT companies in three cities (Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore) with a simple request: Netaji wants to launch a campaign on social media before the assembly elections. Simultaneously, his opponent’s reputation has to be destroyed with negative publicity. The target: help Netaji win the assembly election with a handsome margin, and also get him a Lok Sabha ticket in the 2014 election, then a cabinet berth. Budget not a problem. The payment will be in cash, of course. Deal?
Not surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes. But—and this is where it gets sinister—most of these firms didn’t bat an eyelid while agreeing to do negative, defamatory and illegal acts.
Everyone has heard about it: the fake Twitter/Facebook followers, the rumours on WhatsApp and SMS, the YouTube video from Pakistan passed off as neighbourhood violence to start a riot. This online myth-making is itself internet lore now, only heard about, never seen. Operation Blue Virus, the Cobrapost undercover investigation, brings them alive: the shadow warriors operating at the grey end of India’s politics, deploying their dubious tools of trade. Dirty tricks? Call now.
Ashok Gehlot’s Istanbul ‘fans’
As the sting reveals, there is little of the ‘social’ to be found in a lot of social media—in letter or spirit. These firms are engaged in a racket—of manipulating reputations on popular social media sites. On offer: the standard menu option of fake followers, plus well-placed systems to sully names. For a fee, of course. Besides individual politicians and parties, other clients, as we discover, include corporates, NGOs and scam-tainted officials.
What exactly do they peddle? All companies in the expose can create an online fan base—not necessarily genuine—in the lakhs. Some provide demographic data on voters, divided on linguistic and communal lines, for ‘effective booth management’ to win elections. Others offer to hire journalists or even detectives to throw muck at Netaji’s opponent. They would use different IP addresses, offshore servers, proxy codes or wireless connections, disable the tracking device of a computer system and destroy the same when the job is over, to cover their tracks. The asking price for these reputation management services ranged from a few lakhs to a couple of crores, to be paid in cash.
For some time now, we have been hearing about the intersection of politics and social media—this is a global trend, as evinced by US President Barack Obama’s internet-friendly re-election campaign last year. In India, it has been evident that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has a strong online presence, backed by a so-called army of supporters. Even a mild criticism of the BJP’s star campaigner invites scathing attacks from his followers on social media, claimed to be in millions in count. The Congress too is playing catch-up in this game, evident by the recent controversy about Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s fake Facebook followers, most of whom were based in Istanbul. Similarly, according to fakers.statuspeople.com, 69 per cent of @narendramodi followers and 65 per cent of @ShashiTharoor followers are fake.
Modi’s fake Twitter legions.
But as a majority of the IT companies surveyed by Operation Blue Virus reveal, there’s a lot of hazy backroom action going into burnishing Modi’s image—and targeting his detractors. This raises questions about the BJP’s claim that there is a wind blowing in favour of Modi—remember Nitish Kumar’s quip about it not being “kudrati hawa” but “blower ki hawa”? It also raises questions for traditional media, which often quotes and cites massive online support—it is, on the face of it, measurable—as an indicator of the “buzz” around this leader or that.
Many of the claims made by the IT companies could be dismissed as examples of Indian ingenuity—or jugaad—in order to win a contract. While a certain amount of bluster can be discounted, for sure, the easy acceptance of certain ways to promote negative content against Netaji’s opponent is revealing—and scary. Actually, many of these malpractices directly violate laws, such as the Information Technology Act, 2000; the Representation of People Act, 1951; and the Income Tax Act, 1961—and are as such punishable under various sections of the ipc. The Election Commission recently issued guidelines for social media, and asked companies to set up monitoring cells for such content. The culprits are the political parties—or individual supporters.
In an already vitiated election season, more disturbing is the use of social media for fanning hatred and communal sentiments. As the darker side of social media is raising its ugly head, time and again, be it the recent riots in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh or the exodus of Northeastern people from cities across India last year. A few of the IT firms in the expose are quite at ease with making negative videos about Netaji’s opponent and sharing it via platforms like YouTube and WhatsApp. Other firms offered constituency data on the basis of language, caste or religion—and, shockingly, one of the IT firms even boasted about having engineered a riot (see Working Out the Riot Math). Worryingly, social media is being used to play a dangerous role in an already-vitiated communal environment.
Campaign against northeasterners
All this matters, of course, because of the huge role social media is supposed to play in the coming polls. The numbers bear repeating—the Internet & Mobile Association of India, IAMAI, says the country has 205 million internet users at present (one-third of these are in rural India). This is projected to go up to 243 million users by June 2014. There have been numerous reports over the past few months pointing to how a young India—first-time voters connected via mobiles and tablets and without any ‘baggage’—is going to change the course of the approaching general election. In fact, another IAMAI report says that 160 constituencies will be impacted by social media.
Naysayers will argue that this digital population will not make a difference to overall voting patterns in a large, poor and non-digital country like India. That may well be true. In elections in the recent past, the impact of mobile phones, of directly reaching the voter thus, has been overblown. There is also a clear distinction between the building of perception, and how exactly that impacts voting patterns, though social media patterns are clearly influencing substantial sections of mainstream media.
Either way, it does appear we are entering new territory with social media in these elections. There is an obvious Indian respect—even reverence—for technology. That is why it is often felt that anything that is on a computer has to be right. It’s the new inscription set in stone. This is the sentiment being used—and abused—by politicians. For proof, read the selected case studies of the IT companies Cobrapost has exposed in Op Blue Virus. Full care has been taken to translate conversations from Hindi to English.
Anything For Netaji
What can be done
And how they do it
Apropos your cover story Tweet Me a Riot...or Two (Dec 9), come elections and the Congress’s dirty tricks department cranks into action. Except that all its efforts seem to have come to nought this time, as the latest assembly poll results show. Rather emphatically at that.
S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
I understand that you may not personally like NaMo or BJP but such blatant anti-Modi and anti-BJP stories put a huge question mark on your credibility (if you had any to begin with). You talk as though it’s the Congress of the 1950s—absolutely clean. I may not have been a BJP-NaMo supporter five years back, but now I feel they would definitely do better than the absolutely corrupt, completely dishonest current ruling party. I think NaMo deserves a chance.
Kunal, on e-mail
Outlook magazine’s Facebook likes have in the last six months increased exponentially—from 15,000 to 1,50,000. The quality of articles, meanwhile, has remained the same, if not deteriorated. What do I make of it? I was confused, but think I know the answer now.
Don Quixote, Rody
This amounts to sophisticated and virtual booth-capturing!
R.V. Subramanian, Gurgaon
Aniruddha Bahal and Ashish Khetan are both graduates of the (now thoroughly exposed) Tehelka school of journalism of which Tarun Tejpal was the principal. Imagining themselves as some kind of ‘secular warriors’, they do not let minor irritants like fairness or journalistic integrity get in the way of their unholy crusade.
Pradip Singh, Stafford, UK
And thus did a secular media house and its high-flying editor collapse under the baleful weight of its own mortality.
Rajiv Chopra, Jammu
It’s a dud story, Outlook. Get over it. That’s it.
Maha, New Jersey
Your tone is: how dare unscrupulous social media usurp mainstream media’s position?
K. Suresh Jois, Bangalore
Social portals are a godsend for our politicians. They have several more platforms now for mud-slinging. Character assassination has become that much easier thanks to technology.
K. Chidanand Kumar, Tiruvannamalai
What about Congress lumpens? The party and its friends are sophisticated propagandists. They are quick to take the moral high ground and profess a social democratic outlook, but underneath it’s all lies. And for all this, they don’t really need IT companies, they have the media. Tarun Tejpal was a case in point now, wasn’t he?
M.K. Saini, Delhi
I want Kishore Das Munshi to join the Outlook team and convert their covert action to an overt one, launching a direct attack and spitting venom at BJP and its supporters. I believe partisan newspapers like Saamna of Sena in Maharashtra and Ganashakti of communists in West Bengal have been more honest in their approach, they do not hide their political affiliations.
Our netas, as a matter of habit, will resort to any new techniques to get votes except working in the interest of the people who vote for them. Because it's hard to figure out any real distinction between our incumbent and opposition politicians but for a few characteristics like Family-pujan or communal politics. But when it comes to corruption there is a seamless unity, BCCI-IPL being one prime example of mil-baant-ke-khao, that being one hydra of corruption less talked about.
It's doubtful though how much of these shady stealth marketing strategies will be effective in winning elections, despite having been effective in spreading panic of one sort or another.
162 Gaanwar brother
KDM >> First they should unequivocally declare their faith in our constitution then they will be allowed to beat their breasts about it!
This Saint Sonia Fanboy does not know history. Which political party in India suspended and abused the constitution for 19 months and denied 600 million Indians the fundamental rights?
Parivar scum are trying desperately to drive the public attention from the workings of fascist state in India(stalkinggate).
1. They gave latched onto the tehelka case and creating all kinds of noises.
2. Fist their dumbo spokesperson lekhi revealed the name of victim, now their latest cheerleader of modi kishwar has revealed the same on twitter. Both are educated and know what the are doing.
3. Last refuge of scoundrels, parivar has opened a new front by harping on 370. vhp says that there cannot be two constitutions. First they should unequivocally declare their faith in our constitution then they will be allowed to beat their breasts about it!
4. The benevolent judiciary has again given respite to the demon by postponing any decision on zakias plea May be the plan is to stretch it past LS2014, so that modi God forbid if he wins, can do an advani to all the cases against him.(advani had last time around cancelled all the cases against himself).
5. Dark hours ahead. a minor phone records case jaitley is treated with so much alacrity and modi misuses whole gamut of spy agencies including ATS to settle his personal issues and nobody lifts a finger. Goa court takes a sou moto notice so quickly while hon'ble judges in guj HC and SC are looking on benevolently! As a nation we should lower our eyes with shame!
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