Backstory: The Virality of Hate in India’s New Media Landscape and The Forces Behind it

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Edward Bernays, whose book Propaganda came out in 1928, was one of the early propagandists in the US, working for such ignoble entities as the United Fruit Company. He framed it as the “engineering of consent”, arguing that democracy is “administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses”. 

The propagandists of India today now “engineer” consent and “regiment the masses” using tools very different from those Bernays had envisaged, yet the modus operandi adopted to re-create, replicate, and pervade the public sphere with material that can potentially control the public mind, has remained remarkably similar.

India’s contemporary media landscape has yielded two wizards in creating what the Russians termed as agitacija or ‘agitation’ of the popular mind through propaganda. Both have flourished in the Modi decade and have emerged as the twin pillars of the present government’s information model. Some gentle hints as to who they may be…both have first names beginning with ‘A’. One is a studio czar, whose unmodulated and highly partisan verbosity has spawned the dominant Indian model of television anchoring. The other has emerged as the universal source of slanted media content.

Together, they have not just influenced the flow of information in the country but have come to define what passes for political truth in Modi’s India.

Arnab Goswami and Amit Malviya: one may be a decade and some, older than the other, but they are a match made in heaven for the present regime and if Sholay were to ever be remade, I would vote them as great replacements to picturise the original Amitabh-Dharmendra song, ‘Yeh Dosti Hum Nahi Todenge’. But for purposes of this modest exposition, let’s set Arnab aside and focus on the other, who is far less visible not being bathed in studio lights every night. 

Now this is an individual who works rather like a queen bee in the reclusive confines of a specially designed cell that is buzzing with the activity of the worker bees ranging from party karyakartas and digital volunteers to paid staff. Having been an investment banker, Malviya knows the importance of furthering the interests of his one big institutional client (in 2009 he officially enlisted himself in Friends of bjp.org). He also knows the many benefits of capitalising on mergers (half truths plus half lies) and acquisitions (of followers and media clients).

But the BJP’s Information Technology and Media Cell has a back story that precedes his arrival by over half a decade. There was, for instance, Arvind Gupta who had once come in to help then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the 2012 Gujarat election which was really a dry run for his prime ministerial campaign of 2014. At a public lecture Gupta recalled his contribution: “I offered my services full time. That was how a small team we set up began its baby steps. A big part of it was evangelisation. We tested our platform from 2010 to 2012. What you saw in 2014 was a platform tested before.” In fact, by 2014, it was a well-oiled machine. As Gupta put it, “We did three key things: we built a great tech platform that was sustainable; created believers through social media; created volunteers, again through social media, while unifying them on the ‘Slogan 272 Plus’. It was a 360-degree campaign, from online professionals and brand ambassadors to some 22 lakh on-the-ground volunteers speaking different languages and spread over 400 constituencies working out of their own aspiration, using their own tools and creating free media content for us.”

Who were these “evangelists”? Some, like the NaMo volunteers were strictly self-driven, others were techies cutting their teeth on new media technologies; there were party workers too, as also free ranging volunteers whose loyalty was to Modi personally. This was the first evidence of the BJP’s notorious army of trolls. In her book, I am A Troll, based on a two-year investigation into this outfit, Swati Chaturvedi pointed to the influence of the RSS in training these cadres – in fact, according to Ram Madhav, one-time RSS pracharak, his organisation had been running programmes on the use of social media for its karyakartas since the early 2000s. 

In 2016, two years after Modi became prime minister, the IT team switched gears. From electioneering it got down to running the ruling party’s social media cell from BJP’s old headquarters at 11, Ashoka Road, New Delhi. As Chaturvedi points out, the party had the “foresight to create a bank of thousands of dormant Twitter accounts when the verification process was less stringent.” These were used for synchronised tweeting.  

On the face of it, both Modi and Amit Shah cautioned their “yodhas” to behave, yet both endorsed their activities in subtle ways. In July 2015, Modi invited 150 of them to his home for tea and they were projected as #Super150. In September 2018, Amit Shah’s pride in this flock bubbled over at a public meeting, “It is through social media that we have to form governments at the state and national levels. Keep making messages go viral. We have already made a WhatsApp group with 32 lakh people in Uttar Pradesh; every morning they are sent a message at 8 am” (‘Real or Fake, We Can Make Any Message Go Viral: Amit Shah to BJP Social Media Volunteers’, The Wire, September 26).

This was the machinery that Amit Malviya inherited and went on to put his own personal impress upon. The earlier model used information technologies in predatory ways – the manner in which Aamir Khan was trolled after he revealed how intolerance in the country was affecting his life, was an example. Snapchat was practically strong-armed into dropping Khan as their poster boy after being inundated with messages from people vowing to uninstall the Snapdeal Online Shopping app unless Khan was removed. 

Under Malviya, the Islamaphobic edge of the machine was sharpened, and a decided hell for leather approach adopted. Nothing was to come in the way of the ultimate objective of taking down the enemy. The use of disinformation climbed to stratospheric heights. Video content was strategically edited to convey totally contrary realities.

Norms that media are required to follow were thrashed. In October 2020, for instance, he tweeted a video of the 19-year-old Dalit woman who had been gangraped, and revealed her identity. It was to claim that she wasn’t a victim of such a heinous offence but only of physical assault (‘BJP IT Cell’s Amit Malviya Tweets Video of Hathras Victim to Claim She Was Not Raped’, October 4).

Over time, blantantly fake videos and information emerged from the mill. In December 2020, Twitter flagged for the first time images on the farmers’ agitation, put out by the BJP’s IT Cell, as “Manipulated Media”. There was unmistakable evidence of this, but far from being checked, Malviya was rewarded by the party leadership. Not only was he given another term as head of its IT Cell, he was appointed “co-mentor” to oversee party affairs in Bengal, as it was going into election mode.

Today, he has emerged as a party leader in his own right as this December 2021 post, dripping with gratitude, from Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh, would indicate: “I was called on by Shri. Amit Malviya Ji, BJP National IT In-charge at my official residence today. We had a very interesting discussion on the role of IT and social media in politics.”

The Congress party in Karnataka has now filed a case against Malviya for an animated video on Rahul Gandhi that the BJP’s IT Cell recently put out which suggested that he has been working to break up India. How this case will play out is anybody’s guess but of one thing you can be certain: in this crucial period before five state elections and a general election, Malviya is, and will continue to be, an unassailable asset for the party.


A press conference’s long trail

First, a salute to Sabrina Siddiqui of The Wall Street Journal for her relevant question to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

She asked: “India has long prided itself as the world’s largest democracy, but there are many human rights groups who say that your government has discriminated against religious minorities and sought to silence its critics. What steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?” (‘Modi’s White Lie in the White House’, The Wire, June 25).

After all, if you had only one question for the man presiding over the world’s largest democracy that is witnessing the most vicious attacks on its Muslim citizens, surely this would have been it. The prime minister’s response was entirely predictable, a swarm of blustery words (“democracy is in our DNA”), that did not answer the question. 

While the encounter between the reporter and a prime minister who despises press conferences is the main story, there was a bitter sub-text which is equally illuminating. It wasn’t long before the hate brigade descended like a swarm of bees on Sabrina Siddiqui. Her Indo-Pakistani descent was soon being cited as evidence of her perfidy in raising an uncomfortable question. Dark innuendoes and conspiracy theories made the rounds, with trollers even putting out pictures of Ajmal Kasab, the Mumbai attacker, to underline their point. 

Sabrina Siddiqui’s response was remarkably level-headed: “Since some have chosen to make a point of my personal background, it feels only right to provide a fuller pictures. Sometimes identities are more complex than they seem,” she tweeted, with an images that indicated that she was a fan of the Indian cricket team, wore its colours and watched India win the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

None of this of course dissuaded the troll brigade from keeping up with its toxic tweeting and posting. Among them was Aaj Tak news anchor Sudhir Chaudhary, who in an interview with Arjun Meghwal (June 24), newly installed minister of law, suggested that Sabrina Siddiqui – an Indo-American Muslim – was planted (“uss patrakaar ko chuna jata hai”) to ask that question. He goes on to suggest that this, somehow or the other, points to the “success of a toolkit”. Sudhir Chaudhary is known to be an assiduous borrower of toxic phrases.

The “toolkit” term seemed to have come straight from Amit Malviya, who had, a day earlier, tweeted: “Prime Minister Modi completely destroyed the motivated question on steps being taken to ‘protect’ rights of Muslims and other minorities. In his response he didn’t mention Muslims or any other denomination, spoke about Constitution, access to Govt resources based on eligibility and no discrimination based on caste, creed, religion or geography… After President Biden’s cold response to a similar question, this was another blow to the toolkit gang.”

What all this does seem to indicate is that the Indian media, apart from being sworn choristers of the prime minister, appears to be evolving into being his praetorian guard. How else would one explain this obsessive desire in an ambitious anchor to attack fellow journalist Siddiqui?

The irony is that all this only tarnished the prime minister’s carefully constructed image of being a true votary of democracy (the word occurred 14 times in his hour long address to the US Congress).  The political establishment in the US, despite its anxiety to woo India, lost no time in condemning the unwarranted attack.  “It’s unacceptable, and we absolutely condemn any harassment of journalists anywhere under any circumstances…(it was) antithetical to the very principles of democracy that were on display last week during the state visit,” a senior US official said at a press briefing.


Where is the reader/viewer in our journalism?

Alerted by a journalist friend based in Pune, I came across a series of tweets put out by Prasanna Kumar Keskar about the newsroom in today’s India, which I believe makes important reading.

  • Newsrooms are supposed to be sacrosanct places where the journalists worship the only deity they should know – The Reader! It is the duty of every journalist to maintain the sanctity of the high temple of journalism. 
  • But the challenge is so mammoth that reader-centric ethical journalism appears almost impossible. Every year many starry-eyed young men and women step into newsrooms as interns and trainees cherishing big dreams to make a change. 
  • Almost all of these cub journalists come from the middle class families and possess a sound value base. But what are they exposed to? Very few see attempts at furthering the public good. What most of them see is the naked dance of greed. 
  • While on one hard they see journalists slogging for inhuman hours for paltry salaries, there are always a few seniors who compromise and enjoy influence, getting drunk on the powers that in fact the journalists do not have. 
  • These lads and lasses are the first victims of toxic newsrooms. The infighting seniors virtually rip them off. I have seen many cubs having potential of being good journalists losing their faith and turning away from journalism. 
  • What they hear in the newsroom are lines like “This story must be carried because the management wants it” or “This story cannot be carried because it would offend some advertiser/ politician/ high and mighty”. 
  • What they rarely hear is, “This story must be carried because The Reader would want to know.” Indeed, The Reader is the only element that is missing in the newsrooms of many media houses. But who is The Reader?
  • The Reader is the faceless common person struggling for survival as corruption – social, political, ethical, moral, financial and of every other type — decays the system, making access to even basic infrastructure unavailable for them. 
  • Managements of most media houses look at The Reader as “Target Audience” (sic) and the editorial as a non-productive department that yields no revenue. But is that really the case? In my opinion, no! 
  • Indeed, the editorial department does not yield revenue. That is not the purpose of its existence. Its basic function is to gain trust of The Reader by reporting the stories that are relevant to the life of the common person.


Readers write in…

Two problems with the website

Chanchal K. Mitra has some valuable suggestions:

“There are two problems (about your website), which I have highlighted here. Please have a look into.

  1. When I try to login using the same email account I have registered, I get an error. It says “Unable to sign in. Please verify your email.” There is no new message in my email. If I try to register again, it says the email address is in use. That my email and phone number are on record because I recently received a call from The Wire. And that brings me to the second problem. 
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 Larger font, please!

Jayaram from Bengaluru has a request:

“Over the past few weeks I find – and this might or not be local to my laptop or connection – that the font size of your excellent articles has greatly decreased, rendering them difficult to read. Might you kindly look into this?”

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