“Is it true…” Those kick-off words are something of a raging trope on Twitter—and cut to the heart of the matter. How do we know which piece of information on social media is factual? Last Saturday, Hindutva ideologue and Thuglak editor S. Gurumurthy had tweeted, teasingly: “Is it true that Justice Muralidhar who decided the Karthi petition today was a junior under PC?” On Tuesday, the Delhi High Court took serious exception to the “innuendo-driven…mischievous poser”. It even wondered if such words, put out in a public realm by a public figure, could invite legal action. Gurumurthy deleted his tweet, but the drama framed a debate playing out globally.
The theme: fake news. Which, of course, has a strong Indian edition. The realisation is growing that, in the bruising online battles these days over politics, policies and personalities, with trench warriors raining poison arrows at each other, fake news has become a key weapon of the online arsenal. On March 8, Science published a paper by MIT researchers that proves fake news travels faster on Twitter, though many suspect it is more pervasive and travels fast enough on Facebook too.
News without authentication falls in a tantalising grey zone. Weeks before the Gurumurthy episode, right-wing academic Madhu Kishwar earned some infamy by putting out a whole series of “Is it true…” tweets—some patently absurd WhatsApp forwards. In the episode involving Gurumurthy, a knowing participant in the legal drama that surrounds the former FM’s son Karti Chidambaram, things become less jocular. Quite a few of his 2.59 lakh followers would have seen it on Twitter, and a figure like him speculating about the judge would suffice for it to be turned into a ‘news item’. And before you could say Palaniappan Chidambaram, the ‘news’ would have become the delight of a new online creature: the troll.
Last Saturday, a video went viral. A common occurrence these days, you’d say—like the flu or dengue. It was not a collage of smart memes or bawdy stand-up jokes, and longer than the usual wink-’n-nudge videos that achieve virality. It was an interview that ran over half-hour on YouTube, fairly epic by today’s standards. Dhruv Rathee, a 23-year-old political activist, was questioning another young man, Mahavir, who said he comes from a family of farmers. His bio wasn’t the interesting part, though. Rather, it was what he does for a living. Mahavir was a troll.
An Indian Rip Van Winkle, who had only known forms of life that existed a decade ago, would be surprised at this new Darwinian turn. What indeed is a troll? It’s a class of secretive living beings, ordinarily resident in online spaces, and seldom seen by the light of day. Distinguishable from inanimate things like malware and bots only by the fact of them being human—and, functionally, occupying the same disruptive space. Many of them are lone wolves.
For some of them, it’s a day job. Mahavir, for instance, had been with the BJP’s IT cell. He was being paid to troll, he said. Rathee tells Outlook he was apprehensive of revealing Mahavir’s identity initially, but didn’t want critics to ask why his source was anonymous. Mahavir, who says he was given 10 mobile phones with 10 SIM cards, is also seen working on three laptops at a time in a picture Rathee shared with Outlook. “How did the guy get three laptops and why does he need them?” asks Rathee.
In November 2017, Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha shared a fake image of Home Minister Rajnath Singh after party supporter Aman Arora had posted it on Facebook. The image allegedly showing the Gujarat DGP at Singh’s feet was actually the morphed version of a still from a Hindi movie, Kya Yahi Sach Hai. When Outlook contacted Arora, he said he would “get back shortly”; Congress spokespersons hadn’t responded at the time of going to press. More recently, after Lenin’s statue was demolished in Tripura, Organiser editor Prafulla Ketkar tweeted an image of Rajiv Gandhi’s statue being brought down allegedly by “commies” in 2008 in the state. The image turned out to be from Andhra Pradesh, and had been carried by a national daily in 2013.
Observers have warned of an increasing trend in fake news from the Left as well. When one party gains electoral dividends by misinformation, no one holds back. So there is also a lot of fake news targeting the BJP. Trolls, with their vicious verbal artillery, contribute to the constantly humming channel noise on social media. They spam debates such that they produce more heat than light. Create and copy dubious info-capsules and cluster-bomb online spaces with them. Fake news is a key ingredient here. For Mahavir, it brought in almost Rs 1,000 a day, which no cash-crop can fetch.
Mahavir’s admission is not earth-shattering. It only confirms what many have been crying hoarse about all along. Trolling, often propelled by fake news, is organised, sharp and growing on Facebook, Twitter and other social media spaces in India, acquiring the proportions of a giant industry.
It’s a phenomenon known since the nascent Usenet of the early 1990s. But it’s the rise of social media that coaxed the evil genie fully out of the bottle. And the multiple email addresses for accounts, which allowed anonymity, ensured its epidemic growth. Right now, trolls are more dangerous than Professor Moriarty or, for the younger readers, Voldemort.
The Washington Post ran an opinion piece headlined ‘President Trump is now a troll’ soon after he took office. It may have sounded a bit over-the-top then, but his high-profile ascendancy allowed everyone at a distance a closer look. And what did they see? That political discourse in that country had dipped to levels we are familiar with, with trolls on a delirious high. Our netas now match that tweet for tweet. Outlook spoke with politicians and social media lurkers and managers to try and get an idea of their secret nuptial agreements.
It’s been a lived reality for a while. Anonymous accounts, even people with real names, swarm in on a target and rain a torrent of abuse that can last from a few hours up to a week. Often, the malicious baiting has forced people to leave social media altogether. Even if canny in ways, the baiters are typically intellectual lowlife— “abusive idiots who want to interrupt a thought process or a conversation,” as Tathagata Satpathy, BJD MP from Dhenkanal, tells Outlook. “The poor guys are quite idiotic.” Satpathy is not on Facebook, but he’s seen plenty on Twitter. He says a few people tried to abuse him, but it didn’t work. “Pro-Modi guys tried it a bit initially, but I wasn’t worried,” he says.
All agree the BJP shone the torch for other parties on how to troll effectively. However, Vijay Chauthaiwale, in-charge of the party’s foreign affairs department, says someone who counters the other’s position with a reasonable argument is not a troll. “Fun is okay once in a while, but if someone does it only for the sake of insults or making a mockery, then he or she is a troll,” he says. Ankit Lal, who heads a team of volunteers handling social media for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), chuckles while showing a tweet of his that he admits may be considered ‘trolling’. “What I say, however, is based on fact, not fiction and it comes from questioning,” he explains. “The ultimate purpose of a troll is to derail a conversation. When we talk about EVMs, they ask ‘What about Malda?’”
On February 27, actor and BJP MP Paresh Rawal accidentally shared a tweet that was later quickly deleted. Why? He had witlessly tweeted a document meant for internal consumption, a small manual of war. Titled ‘Trend Alert: #JhoothiCongress’, it detailed—with pointers—the arguments to be put forth when a party supporter tweets using the hashtag. It confirmed what people had been saying all along—that political parties were spoon-feeding their supporters what was to be tweeted and when. Debates were not organic, but choreographed, stage-managed. And now the battle is, increasingly, between trolls—except one side sees itself as virtuous.
Outlook got in touch with Fake Trend Hunter, who tweets @trollabhakt. Why an anonymous account? People in power can easily zero in on them, says the shadow warrior, “but I’m more worried about minor thugs taking things into their own hands to teach me a lesson”. FTH has been identifying manipulated Twitter trends since September. The account was started with the idea of “trolling right-wing trolls”, but has moved on to mainly “identifying fake Twitter trends and posting them”.
And what did it uncover? “When I started, I found hashtag after hashtag, most of them abusive, being taken to the top of Twitter trends. When I extracted the data from Twitter and examined it, it was clear the vast majority of those tweets had been copy-pasted from a script provided by someone, in many cases with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors intact. This goes against Twitter’s intention behind ‘trends’, which was to organically capture and display what a wider group of Twitterati were discussing,” FTH explains.
The Congress has only recently upped its social media game. The BJP had been unchallenged until 2013, when the AAP community arrived—tailoring its counter-narrative in equally organised, forceful, mediagenic and malicious ways. FTH shared close to 60 such trends in Excel sheets—with details of accounts sharing the same text or slight variations on Twitter, with the URLs of their status updates in tow. The list reads like a competition for cheesy catchphrases and you may have come across some of them on Twitter recently:
Take #CongressKiGandiSoch. The hashtag started trending in India at the fifth spot on October 10 last year. FTH found 63 per cent of the tweets were merely copy-pasted. “#CongressKiGandiSoch as that’s what the ideology of congress has been, women empowerment means short clothes & not employment or ministries,” was (at 13 times) the most repeated tweet, and 92 per cent of all tweets came just from 48 users.
Social media industry insiders confirm parties are hiring influencer agencies that pay people to do the drone’s work. “They get paid per tweet—anywhere between Rs 10 and Rs 100—it depends on how many followers they have and what it is they tweet about. Since it’s influencer marketing, you’re paid based on your social status,” says Akshay Gaur, a social media manager who handles celebrity accounts and has also worked with a political party in the past. Gaur says that while celebrities get paid in lakhs to tweet, your average Joe troll would do it for Rs 100-200. But throw in 2,000 Joes, and the topic starts ‘trending’—till it attains enough critical mass for the mainstream media, especially TV, to pick up. “Mobile reporting has started, they pick on trending stories. Parties and brands have seen it as a shortcut to be on TV,” Gaur adds.
Rathee says even coordinated troll attacks are often paid-for hit jobs. “If they target you, they come at you 24/7. They are paid to do it,” he says. Rathee’s video with Mahavir revealed a modus operandi that included trolling and reporting people. Mahavir was fairly high up in the hierarchy and made close to Rs 1,000 per day—it’s Rs 300 at the lowest rung.
But that’s method. What about content? Mahavir mentioned three websites that peddle fake news: InsistPost, ViralInIndia and Newstrend.news. Rathee also mentioned a ‘story’ floated by a website, hmpnews.in, which released an alleged audio clip of a conversation between himself and the ‘PA of Kejriwal’. The article, which still exists, says: “Though the authenticity of the audio clip needs to be checked, party leaders’ reactions clearly show they have accepted their fault.” While that line of reasoning is more than interesting, the clip is fake, so is the ‘story’. The aim, it seems, is just to cloud the air-waves a bit and maybe provoke a reaction.
Misinformation used to incite a reaction is a key weapon in the troll’s armoury, a menace due to which few know what to believe anymore. Think of the Science paper about fake news and get a load of Newstrend.news—the Hindi-news website Mahavir mentioned to Rathee. Believe it or not, it’s currently the 10th most visited website in India, beating every news website, including the top three, coming in just below Flipkart and above IRCTC! What brings it such a wide cachet? Take the headline for a bylined article published on March 11 by the website: ‘Sridevi ka naam sunte hi golibari bandh kar dete hain Afghani aatanki, vajah jaanke reh jaayenge dang.’ (The minute they hear Sridevi’s name, Afghan terrorists stop shooting.)
It’s stunning, to say the least. Numerous people Outlook spoke to mentioned websites and WordPress blogs created by youngsters who get Google Ad Sense revenue from the traffic they generate with juicy headlines and lurid copy. For the Science paper, one of the most extensive studies on the medium ever, researchers went through 1,20,000 news stories shared by close to 3 million people between 2006 and 2017. They found “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.” Robots didn’t distinguish between false and true news, and spread both effectively. The conclusion: “False news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.” A fact Trump’s campaign manager seemed to have divined long before this study.
In 2016, The Guardian reported how there were dozens of pro-Trump websites hosted in tiny Veles, Macedonia. Teenagers in this town, with a population of about 50,000, bombarded Americans with pro-Trump fake news and helped contribute enough confusion to an election that also had Russian elements in its dizzying roulette. This is the model being replicated in India, Lal and Gaur believe, and it’s been going on for close to two years now. “Professional companies are now doing hit jobs,” says Lal. Gaur says these websites understand what their Facebook audience wants and bombard users with information that gels with their confirmation bias.
“Most Instagram meme pages that indulge in trolling are run by kids with millions of followers,” says Gaur, “There are also young kids whose job is to make clickbait news. They know how to harness clickbait and begin a media startup with just 10-15 people.” ‘Clickbait’ is stuff that gets people to click on things. Satpathy says, “I think a certain group has hired lots of different people through various departments and ministries. They are doing this mischief.” In October 2016, the official Twitter handle @IndiaPostOffice posted a tweet critical of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal for apparently pandering to the Pakistani press. The same year, the Digital India handle urged the Indian Army to fire on Kashmiris, while the Startup India handle warned the government against #presstitutes. This January, the MoEF handle trolled the Congress and Rahul Gandhi for not condemning the violence unleashed by the Karni Sena in Rajasthan.
One reason why Twitter started verifying accounts was to try restore the credibility of information. On March 1, Twitter co-founder Jark Dorsey acknowledged the problem, posting a thread saying he hoped to quantify the “collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation” on the platform. “We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers,” he tweeted. “We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.”
Most people Outlook spoke with were on Twitter, but also wary of the risks messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram pose. “In the end, responsibility does lie with the person who puts it out,” says Chauthaiwale. “It’s like a market economy. If you do it repeatedly, your credibility goes for a toss. It may bring short-term gains, but we should leave it to people’s judgement at the end of the day.” The two strands are intertwined: the ordinary troll is a misanthrope who fills social media with pathological hate and thrives on conflict—for its own pure sake. And then there’s the advanced edition, like Mahavir, who have turned that into method, into industry, who do it with preordained design.
Fake news has both qualities too. A ‘Sridevi and Afghans’ news is just clickbait. But real fake news, if you pardon the expression, emanates from vested interests and is meant to cause harm, to injure or destroy credibility. And therein lies the problem. In the fog of war, who is to judge who is a troll and what is fake? And how do you tell which Ashwathama died, man or elephant?