Social Media: Anatomy of the Trolling World
The public sphere has become vitiated as trolling plumbs new depths with each passing day. Is it planned, is it organic? Hardnews investigates
Mukesh Rawat Delhi
They have their pug marks in every nook and crany of the dark limitless jungle called the internet. They closely follow your every step. Their metaphorical guns are always loaded. Their numbers are unknown. Devoid of morality and civility, everything is fair for them.
On June 12, 50 people were killed in a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. While the world was mourning the dead, a Twitter account named Westboro Baptist Church
(@WBCSaysRepent) was vigorously tweeting homophobic content. This account posted around 80 tweets over June 12 and 13. All of them targetted the LGBT community and justified the killings by saying “God Almighty brought low your pride today. Repent of your sin!”
Closer home, Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi received threats of rape and murder on social media. Earlier, Mehdi Hasan, a journalist and talk show host with Al Jazeera TV, was indiscriminately abused on Twitter for his interview of BJP leader Ram Madhav in which he asked some tough questions about the Modi government.
Chaturvedi told Hardnews, “Their [trolls’] intention is to muddy the waters and silence the opposition. These trolls are not interested in any dialogue or debate. They have created the binaries of black and white. They don’t entertain the possibility of a middle ground. When the Prime Minister himself uses such language, others get encouraged. What you see online also happens in the Lok Sabha.”
Journalists like Barkha Dutt, Sagarika Ghose, Ravish Kumar, Rajdeep Sardesai, Rana Ayyub, Rahul Kanwal and others face online abuse every day. After a series of indiscriminate online attacks on his family and baseless allegations of professional misconduct, Kumar no longer uses social media platforms. Sardesai was reportedly “forced” to close his Twitter account after it was hacked and hate messages tweeted from it.
Dutt and Ghose, and many other female journalists, receive sexist slang every day from an organised army of internet trolls. The Amazon.in page of Ayyub’s self-published book on the 2002 Gujarat riots was flooded with hate comments – disguised as reviews – on the day of its launch. Most were by people who had not even purchased the book in the first place. Activist Kavita Krishnan was relentlessly abused on Facebook for her views on ‘free sex’. It is not that only people who criticise the Modi government are trolled. Shefali Vaidya a columnist and a self-claimed supporter of the BJP-claims to have received abusive attacks on Twitter and Facebook. In a Facebook post she writes, “sexual abuse, threats and slander is NOT an exclusive domain of the ‘right wing’ as our media would like you to believe. I have been subjected to threats, sexual abuses, assaults on my family and slander by frustrated Congress supporters for months now, just because I am a vocal supporter of the BJP...Some guy using a fake ID even threatened to hurt my child! This is how low they stoop.”
Politicians from political parties across the spectrum, on some occasion or the other, have been victims or part of internet trolling. In 2015, former Union Minister Arun Shourie was attacked for criticising the Modi government. In an interview to NDTV he said, “If you gave me an opportunity to read the kind of abuse that has been hurled at me and my handicapped son, your viewers will be horrified.... They wrote, ‘Jiska mental son hai, woh aur bhi mental banega.’ These damned fools are followed by the PM on the social media.”
Recently, when Congress leader Digvijaya Singh’s daughter died fighting cancer, there was a flood of insensitive and sadistic comments on social media. On several occasions, leaders like Smriti Irani, Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Shashi Tharoor, Mamata Banerjee and others have been trolled.
Pratik Sinha, who runs www.truthofgujarat.com – a website on the 2002 Gujarat riots – says, “It would be wrong to say that trolling is limited to just one political party. All of them do it at different levels. However, the BJP undoubtedly has the biggest factory of trolls.”
He adds, “I personally get a lot many abusive messages on social media. Supporters of AAP and Congress also indulge in such things. I have had unpleasant experiences with them too whenever I write something critical about them. But, unlike BJP supporters, Aam Aadmi Party and Congress supporters are generally aggressive but not abusive. At times you are even able to strike up a meaningful conversation with them. It’s not so in the case of the BJP supporters who are not only abusive and aggressive but also communal in their language.” Sinha says there is no doubt that “some of these trolls work on payment basis. But there are many who are lured by the political recognition they get. If prominent political leaders, including the prime minister, follow you, it gives you some recognition. They are invited to local party functions, ministers click photographs with them. All of this acts as an incentive.”
Who are these trolls? What do they look like? What is their strength? Where do they come from? What families do they belong to? Who are their bosses? Where are they trained? Where do they get their content from? What is their aim? Are they real or do they appear to be real?
It is difficult to arrive at a unanimously accepted definition of what a troll is but we can understand them by observing their behaviour online. Jonathan Bishop in his paper on trolls published in the International Journal of Cyber Criminology argues that, despite the subjectivity involved, trolling essentially has two elements—“internet abuse and data misuse”.
In India, both are in abundance.
Close observation of some recent social media trends suggests that these are not necessarily natural expressions of people. There is evidence which suggests that they are well orchestrated political strategies.
On June 9, the hashtag #ChamchonKiBarat was trending on twitter. The background was the controversy involving the Bollywood movie Udta Punjab.The Twitter trend was flooded with allegations about the BJP allegedly “rewarding” people like, among others, Pahlaj Nihalani, Gajendra Chauhan, Kiran Bedi, P.S. Bassi and Najeeb Jung, for their alleged “sycophancy” towards the central government.An interesting aspect of this trend was that many people were tweeting exactly the same text with the same spelling errors.This was tweeted from at least 10 different accounts. A visit to these accounts will tell you that they are full of posts in favour of AAP and against the BJP. Some of them introduce themselves as “volunteers” of AAP.
Some weeks prior to this, hashtags like #HitlerKerjriwal and #SaySorryKejriwal were trending on Twitter. News and current affairs portal www.newslaundry.com investigated this trend and found that the text “#HitlerKerjriwal has worked for his community only.” was tweeted from at least seven Twitter accounts. Along with the text, all of them misspelt Kejriwal as Kerjriwal. Furthermore, the investigation found that the text “Kejriwal has made a mockery of politics. #SaySorryKejriwal” was tweeted by at least 15 Twitter accounts at nearly the same time.
When this reporter visited each of these accounts, there was a similarity. Most of them are active supporters of the current Punjab government (led by a coalition of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the BJP). The upcoming Assembly election in Punjab perhaps explains this.
In some cases, this reporter also found that some Twitter accounts were posting tweets at an abnormally high speed. For example, on June 10, the twitter account Sukh (@sukhdip_gill1) tweeted as many as 54 original text tweets with a hashtag in just five minutes. This means the account was effectively tweeting one tweet every 5.5 seconds continuously for five minutes between 5:13 pm and 5:17 pm. There are 15 tweets that show the time as 5:15 P.M. This means the account was typing one tweet every four seconds in this one minute.
These were not random tweets on any subject. They were in fact well- thought-out political messages. All of them contained texts and were not retweets from other accounts.
Once again, exactly the same text was being tweeted from other accounts too. For example, the text “This is an eye opener, Sameer Nair and Kejriwal share one goal – to defame Punjab. #KejriNairKaUdtaSach” was posted as an original tweet by at least 23 other accounts on the same day at nearly the same time.
Similarly, the text “Nobody has doubts that drug is a big problem. Who says it started with Akalis? It started with the Congress. ….#KejriNairKaUdtaSach” was tweeted from 13 accounts on June 10. Do you notice the full stop after “Congress” and the four dots? All the 13 accounts tweeted it exactly the same. These were all original text tweets and not retweets from other accounts. A coincidence?
In a recent article in the Daily O, Ankit Lal, the IT head of AAP, alleged that most of the Twitter accounts that actively tweeted about the Prime Minister’s recent foreign trips were from Thailand and not India. He says, based on analysis using “heatmaps” (a digital media technique to locate the top sources of a trend) he found that “many of the tweets were coming from Thailand”. Reportedly, Suphan Buri and Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, two states in central Thailand, regularly emerged as top sources for these tweets.
With screenshots of the heatmaps as evidence, he alleged that the “BJP has hired some marketing agency in Thailand to do their dirty work. This includes creating fake users, abusing leaders of other parties and creating a negative perception against leaders like Arvind Kejriwal”.
While clear patterns are visible in cases of political trolling, it is difficult to locate them amidst the cacophony that thrives on slang, abuse and vulgar objectification. This can be for the simple reason that one needs some amount of critical thinking and basic political awareness to engage in measured arguments, while it takes nothing to hurl random abuse and vitriol.
Trolls primarily thrive on the concept of mass circulation of content on the internet. Speed is also an important factor. For people to notice any content on the social media it is important that it is trending. Alternatively, its volume should be large enough to swamp the existing narrative.
Careful observation of social media trends and troll behaviour suggests three possible methods through which mass circulation can be achieved.
The first method can be termed ‘The Control Room Mechanism’. In this, one or more control rooms are set up. Multiple social media accounts are created by a small team. The team strength may vary from two to 10. Each member operates a large number of social media accounts. Once these accounts are created they are flooded with the desired content. In this manner, even a team of five is operating around 30 different social media accounts. Apart from posting content, these accounts also share/retweet and comment on each other’s posts. This is done to make it appear like a natural conversation. To draw attention, a public figure (politician, journalist, activist or actor) is deliberately mentioned in the post either through a hashtag or otherwise. Within a short time this starts reflecting on the barometer of public opinion. When this content from ‘inorganic’ trolls is received by the ‘organic’ and ‘dormant’ trolls, amplification and mass circulation starts at an abnormal speed.
In 2015 journalist Adrian Chen carried out an investigation for The New York Times on one such control room located in St. Petersburg, Russia. He reported that an organisation called Internet Research Agency (IRA) was involved in a “highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours together, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention”. The IRA reportedly engineered many hoax emergency situations in the US. Two were about the leak of toxic fumes in Louisiana in September 2014 (using the hashtag #ColumbiaChemicals) and the ebola outburst in Atlanta (using #EbolaInAtlanta ) in December.
The IRA reportedly has around 400 employees and a monthly budget of roughly $400,000 (`2.71 crore approximately). It also has separate departments to create dedicated content for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and the comment sections of the websites of newspapers and TV channels. Different departments handle different types of content— rants, abuse, propaganda material and so on. The management even organises grammar and political orientation classes to reduce grammatical, contextual and logical errors.
During the Bihar elections of 2015 this modus operandi was in vogue. Swati Gupta (name changed), a public relations professional in Delhi, says, “There was always pressure to deliver. Though we tried to convince our clients to use genuine methods, they wanted immediate results. To meet this demand, we created many false accounts. These were used to amplify the content from the main account through retweets and comments. In this way we were able to increase followers and improve the overall social media profile of our clients.”
The possibility of similar methods being used during the 2014 general election cannot be overruled either.
The second method is the ‘Supply Chain Mechanism’. In this method the social media cell of a political party or organisation feeds the members/volunteers the content that is to be vigorously posted online. This content can be supplied in the form of Whatsapp messages, email, screenshots and so on. The volunteers then have to simply copy the text and post it on their social media accounts—both genuine and fake ones.
Sometimes this work can also be outsourced to ordinary people on a payment basis. An easy way to earn some quick money, isn’t it?
This method explains how different Twitter accounts were posting exactly the same text with the same spelling errors on Twitter. On June 8 the text “AAP can go any extent for cheap publicity #UdtaKejriFundsUdtaPunjab” was tweeted verbatim by 51 accounts in roughly three hours.
Third is the ‘Purchase Mechanism’. A simple Google search on “How to earn Twitter followers?” will pop up scores of websites with claims to provide paid followers on social media. Everything from Twitter followers and retweets, Facebook likes, YouTube subscribers and Instagram followers is available for sale on these websites. Some of these go a step further and offer region- or country-specific followers and subscribers on social media. This method alone cannot be used very effectively for amplification and mass circulation of content on social media. However, when one combines it with the first two methods, it becomes a powerful tool for trolls.
For example, if in the first method where one or more than one person is handling scores of fake Twitter accounts to spread a particular content, one buys a package of 3,000 retweets from any of these websites, the amplification of the content is boosted tremendously. When 3,000 accounts (fake or real) retweet your post, it spreads to a much larger audience. Apart from amplification and mass circulation, the ‘Purchase Mechanism’ also has the potential to boost the social media image of a person, political party or corporate organisation.
Social media trends work largely on the herd mentality. Once it starts, it has a snowballing effect. In this scenario a product can easily be made to trend on social media by investing a relatively small amount on purchasing followers, retweets and likes from such websites.
Twitter rules categorically prohibit buying and selling of followers and retweets. Yet, the business of buying followers and retweets
While abuse is an important aspect of trolling, disinformation is another. Photo editing is one tool that has been creatively used to achieve this. Though the technology itself is not at fault, its sinister employment serves ulterior motives. “People pick a random photo of any person, write anything next to it and it gets circulated as if the person has said it themselves. It then gets shared vigorously on social media and people believe it blindly. This is dangerous,” says Sinha. Commenting on this, senior journalist Kanwal tweeted that the “big problem with social media is that a lie told aggressively 100 times is made to pass off as the truth”.
Another widely used method to spread disinformation is creating parody accounts of politicians and celebrities. At present, there are at least 41 accounts on Twitter with the name Arvind Kejriwal and using the same photograph as Kejriwal’s genuine account. Similarly, there are scores of accounts pretending to be Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Digvijaya Singh, Barkha Dutt. Twitter has two sets of guidelines in this regard. It distinguishes between impersonation and parody accounts. With regard to impersonation the guidelines clearly state that “impersonation is a violation of Twitter Rules. Twitter accounts portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner may be permanently suspended”.
Twitter however allows its users to create parody and fan accounts. This is subject to the condition that the bio of the account “should indicate that the user is not affiliated with the account subject by stating a word such as ‘parody’, ‘fake’, ‘fan’ or ‘commentary’ and be done in a way that will be understood by the intended audience”. While some of these accounts do follow the Twitter guideline for parody accounts, many don’t. An ordinary person may not be aware of the distinction between fake and genuine accounts. Tweets and screenshots from these fake (but original-sounding) accounts can be used to influence people in a country like ours where digital literacy is at a nascent stage. The lay person scarcely has the time to verify each and every post they view. On many occasions it may happen that the person does not even know that they are following a fake account.
The traditional structures of media (radio, print and broadcast) did not provide any meaningful space to the general public to voice their views on public matters. It largely operated in a one-to-many communication mode. Under these structures the people were made to act as passive receivers of information. Scope for any active engagement with the media was limited to ‘letters to the editor’ and phone-in facilities at selected radio stations. As a result the media became an authoritative source of information without any meaningful mechanism of feedback and counter-narrative.
Against this background, the internet emerged as a democratic alternative. It had the potential to facilitate a live many-to-many mode of communication. Social media has given the people a vibrant space which was historically denied to them by the media.
However, with this unrestricted freedom also comes responsibility. The proliferation of trolls and the rapid contamination of the social discourse suggests that society needs to think of ways in which the internet as a public sphere can be safeguarded from such sinister propaganda.
Ignoring the trolls or closing down accounts may provide temporary relief. But will it solve the problem? That seems unlikely. Trolling is a hydra-headed monster which may not die anytime soon.
(Disclaimer: The images used are the snapshots of the fake accounts which are being used to spread disinformation and hatred on the social media.)