Social media trolling against Indian public figures including journalists and actors has been directly co-ordinated from inside the country’s ruling party, a new book has claimed.
An Indian former troll has alleged the 2014 prime ministerial campaign ofNarendra Modi used social media volunteers to push critical messages about public figures perceived to be opposed to the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).
Whether intended by the BJP or not, the social media campaigns would often spill over into religious and sexual trolling of the target, especially if it was a woman, said Sadhavi Khosla, the 37-year-old former party volunteer.
The trolls’ “hit list” included political opponents, such as the Congress party vice president, Rahul Gandhi, and screenshots provided by Khosla also show that Bollywood star Aamir Khan, was among those singled out.
She says the social media unit responsible for directing her and hundreds of other volunteers continues to operate.
The BJP did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment but the former head of the party’s social media unit, Arvind Gupta, told the Indian Express that Khosla’s claims were unsubstantiated and that she was a supporter of the opposition Congress party.
He said the BJP had published social media guidelines on its website and never “encouraged trolling”.
Khosla’s account is contained in a new book by the journalist Swati Chaturvedi, published in India on Tuesday, I Am a Troll, which investigates the ties between abusive social media accounts and the BJP.
Prominent Indian women, particularly journalists, have been raising concerns for more than three years about the scale and tone of the abuse they face online, with much of it anonymous, sexually charged and fiercely nationalist.
Khosla claims in the book that starting late in 2013, and for nearly two years after, she was one of hundreds of BJP supporters receiving direct instructions on messages to push online from senior members of the party’s social media unit.
She received the orders through WhatsApp but also met with senior members of the digital unit, she claims.
A fervent Modi supporter at the time, Khosla said she enthusiastically participated, using her Twitter account to criticise Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, both senior members of the Congress party which has ruled India for much of the 70 years since independence.
But she claims she grew uncomfortable when ordered to tweet criticisms of prominent Indian journalists, such as Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt, which sometimes featured “slanderous claims”.
“It was a never-ending drip feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, the Gandhi family, journalists on the hit list, liberals, anyone perceived as anti-Modi,” she is quoted in the book as saying.
The targets of the social media unit would end up being swarmed by critical messages that occasionally veered into criminal threats, Khosla said.
“I simply could not follow [the] directions anymore when I saw rape threats made against female journalists like Barkha Dutt,” she said.
“Every day some new person was a target and they would attack like a swarm of bees with vile sexual innuendoes, slander, rape and death threats … It made me feel suffocated as a woman.”
Khosla left the unit after she was asked to spread a petition calling for SnapDeal, a shopping website, to cut its ties with Bollywood actor Aamir Khan.
Khan, a Muslim, had attracted the ire of Hindu nationalists in November 2015 after remarking on the “growing intolerance” he felt was taking root in India.
SnapDeal released a statement at the time distancing itself from the 51-year-old’s comments and did not renew his contract in February this year. Another Khan endorsement contract, for the Incredible India! tourism campaign, was also allowed to lapse – though the government has denied this was linked to the actor’s remarks.
“I realised that my hero had become a ‘Muslim’,” Khosla said. “For me he had just been an Indian actor. I felt like my country was changing.”
Modi, 66, is a pioneer of social media among Indian politicians, posting regular updates to his 25 million followers.
The BJP was among the first major Indian parties to establish a website, and the head of its technology unit, Arvind Gupta, has rhapsodised about the potential for social media to bypass mainstream TV news and press.
In July 2015 Modi drew criticism for inviting 150 social media supporters to his residence for a meet-and-greet, among them Twitter users who had used sexual slurs and levelled other abuse at women online.
Chaturvedi, the author of the new book, has herself been the target of social media trolling, filing a police complaint last year against an anonymous Twitter account that had deluged her with malicious posts.
Prof K Jaishankar, the executive director of the Tamil Nadu-based Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, said India’s corrosive online culture was partly due to the freedom the internet granted women in a conservative society.
“The problem is that India is typically patriarchal, and women in public space are not easily accepted,” he said. “When it comes to cyberspace it becomes very easy for them [to participate]
“But the patriarchy pervades in cyber space too … Naturally, [trolls] don’t like the presence of women, they don’t like that women comment on issues or are very vocal and articulate,” he said.
“Many of the women who are coming online are elites, like the editor of a magazine or an actor. Whereas the trollers are typically men from a rural or rural-urban continuum, and the internet is the only way they can access these women.
“So that is one of the reasons why probably they gain a kind of pleasure from targeting high profile women,” he said.