Tek Fog is an app reportedly used by political operatives affiliated with Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Information Technology Cell (IT Cell). As per reports from The Wire, BJP employees allegedly used the app to manipulate the media in favor of the ruling party.
According to a source, the app was used to artificially inflate the party’s popularity, harass its critics, and influence public perceptions across major social media platforms. The Wire has independently confirmed the app’s existence and the validity of the source’s information.
The information first came to light after a disgruntled employee, Aarthi Sharma of the IT cell, tweeted about the app’s existence. The secret app “Tek Fog” can bypass reCaptcha codes, allowing employees to auto-upload texts and hashtag Trends.
The source claims their daily tasks included hijacking Twitter’s ‘trending’ section with targeted hashtags. They were also responsible for creating/managing multiple WhatsApp groups affiliated with the BJP and directed the online harassment of journalists critical of the BJP. This was all done using the Tek Fog app.
The source revealed that the party promised to give her a government job if BJP could retain power in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, their supposed handler, Devang Dave, former national social media and IT head, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (the youth wing of the BJP), and current election manager for the party in Maharashtra failed to uphold the promise.
Tek Fog’s Concerned Features
The Wire notes that Tek Fog has many concerning features for manipulating social media. Users can only access the app in specific locations and require three OTP verifications to log in. There are many security features just like this to ensure only employees can use the app.
Hijacking the ‘trending’ section
Tek Fog has an automated feature to ‘auto-retweet’ or ‘auto-share’ the tweets and posts of individuals or groups. It can also spam existing hashtags with accounts controlled by app operatives. As per the report, the operators could hijack the ‘trending’ section of Twitter and ‘trend’ on Facebook.
The hashtags were being inauthentically amplified by a range of suspicious accounts all through Tek Fog. The Wire was able to identify two separate occasions where the hashtags were manipulated to reach the trending section. One of these hashtags was #CongressAgainstLabourers.
According to the report, Tek Fog also allowed its users to generate ‘temporary’ email addresses and activate phone numbers. It could also bypass programming limitations and email/OTP verification set by WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram.
Phishing ‘inactive’ WhatsApp accounts
Tek Fog could also hijack inactive WhatsApp accounts. The operators used these accounts to message their ‘frequently contacted’ or ‘all contacts.’ Operators also used this feature to phish users’ personal information and added it to their cloud database. This database was used in future harassment and trolling campaigns.
Database of private citizens
According to the report, Tek Fog also had an extensive cloud database of private citizens. The app categorized citizens based on their occupation, religion, language, age, gender, political inclination, and even physical attributes.
The report indicated the operators could ‘auto-reply’ to individuals or groups in an abusive or derogatory manner (troll campaign).
Tek Fog leaves no evidence
As per the report, Tek Fog allows operatives to delete or remap all existing accounts. This feature helped them leave no trace behind that could incriminate them.
The Companies Behind Tek Fog
The source claimed that Persistent Systems (IT services company) and Mohalla Tech Pvt. Ltd. were closely involved with the whole operation. Mohalla Tech is the company behind Sharechat, a popular Indian regional language social media platform funded by Twitter.
The source claimed that operators used Sharechat to test and curate fake news, political propaganda, and hate speech. The social media app has come into trouble in the past due to fake news, hate speech, and privacy issues.
The Wire also identified a list of websites and services accessing the app. The list included Sharechat suggesting direct involvement. Other websites had news platforms such as Republic World, OpIndia, ABP News, and Dainik Jagran. However, it isn’t clear whether they were involved or not.
Another source currently employed at Persistent Systems confirmed Tek Fog’s existence in their database. All parties, including Devang Dave of BJYM, have denied involvement with any such app.
For those who are still waking up to Tek Fog, the app is said to work through social media. Using sophisticated algorithms, operators can deftly sift through the user database and categorise them based on attributes like occupation, age, gender, and political inclination. Attacks come in the form of derogatory keywords and phrases, and the main targets of Tek Fog once again have been journalists who speak out against the government as well as members of the Opposition. The app can also take over dormant, private WhatsApp accounts of citizens, giving it access to their personal details as well as allowing the operator of the app access to the individual’s user groups.
As per the whistle-blower in the investigation, groups affiliated to the BJP employ outfits and a number of apps to run these operations, of which a key task includes dominating Twitter trends. Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien has been one of the first to demand action, terming the Tek Fog app as a ‘defilement of the country’s democracy and security’, and has urged the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Home Affairs to take up the case. There is no doubt that Tek Fog once again brings to fore a number of very serious issues including the breach of privacy of individuals, manoeuvring of popular opinion and the extent to which political parties can manipulate free speech that is central to a healthy democracy. It will be interesting to see how the Centre wriggles out of this situation, especially after the recent Pegasus controversy where details emerged in the media about the alleged illegal use of the spyware, developed and sold by Israel’s NSO Group. Then too, findings revealed that mobile phones around the world – used by politicians, journalists, representative of NGOs and others – were targeted for tapping. The Supreme Court’s decision to constitute a committee to independently probe the allegations of unauthorised surveillance by Pegasus was a reassuring move.
One of the reports concluded while investigating suggested that the app was used to bully Indian women journalists over a span of 5 months from January 1, 2021 to May 31, 2021. The list of female journalists receiving abusive tweets via Tek Fog was shared by the Founding Editor of The Wire M K Venu earlier today.
The list featured Rana Ayyub, Indian journalist and columnist at The Washington Post with the most abusive tweets followed by other journalists like Barkha Dutt, Nidhi Razdan, Rohini Singh, Swati Chaturvedi, Sagarika Ghose, Manisha Pande, Faye Dsouza, Arfa Khanum Sherwani and Smita Prakash.
Most people who are active on social media would have spotted a pattern in trending hashtags and attacks a long time ago. But what needs to be questioned is why there are no safeguards against the misuse of these privately-held operating platforms. Are we to believe that the same minds that have developed these highly sophisticated social media apps and platforms that can virtually peer into their users’ souls are completely unaware that their platforms are being hijacked and manipulated?
This is something that needs to be questioned, especially in the face of damning evidence that the companies who have links to these apps are funded by the same social media platforms that are being manipulated.
Meanwgile, the Editors Guild has demanded that the Supreme Court should take cognisance of the matter and order a probe.
The Guild also urged the government to take steps to dismantle this “misogynistic and abusive digital ecosystem.”
In a statement in New Delhi, the Guild said there should be a thorough investigation to identify and punish all the people working for the app. It was disturbing to note, the statement said, that most of the attacks were targeted at journalists who had been outspokenly critical of the current government and the ruling party.
“This is a travesty of all democratic norms, and in violation of law,” the statement added.
The purpose of the app, the Guild said, was to “instil fear” and prevent journalists from doing their job.
In a separate incident, instances of online auction of Muslim women by at least two open-source apps on the GitHub platform were also reported.
The Maharashtra police have made a few arrests in the case, but the Guild asked for further investigation “in order to ensure that all those behind such despicable acts, even beyond those arrested, are brought to justice.”
It’s time for us to wake up to the extent to which we have allowed the reins of our democracy to be handed over to the private players who run these platforms. If the day’s news depends on Twitter trends and a hashtag can orchestrate the narrative of national issues, then maybe we deserve to be played. So for all those who are crying out against the subversion of public discourse in the world’s largest democracy on the very same social media platforms – well, this could just be the greatest irony of the entire situation.
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