When SARS-Cov-2 hit Wuhan in December 2019, China scrambled to do two things: fight the virus and hide the bodies. Leaked photos and videos breached its iron-curtained internet and showed hospital chaos and mass graves. Despite massive propaganda, no one believed the death toll China presented.
The good thing for the Chinese people was that though its social media trolls spun out fake news like blaming the US for creating the virus, their government did not believe its own propaganda. Even as they lied about deaths outside, inside, the Chinese Communist Party did everything to get COVID19 under control and haven’t let up a year and a half since. This ensured China became one of the least affected nations both in terms of deaths and economic impact.
Every nation in the world – in some way – copied the Chinese playbook; be it the lockdown bit, hiding data, or propaganda bit. Those nations that copied the whole manual, were more successful than those like India who did it piecemeal.
In the first wave, the notorious IT Cell of BJP used their SOP to blame Muslims. It worked because no matter how badly, the central government did manage to keep infections at a manageable level.
However, the BJP government forgot to copy the Chinese playbook in its entirety, abandoned science, leading to a devastating second wave. IT cell spinning more yarns from the Tejasvi Surya stunt in Bangalore to the Congress Toolkit has only led to a dirty spat with global IT giants including the center sending Delhi police to Twitter’s office on May 24th. Though these did manage to distract but not enough to hide the government's failure entirely.
The BJPs IT cell is legendary. As per Swati Chaturvedi who was part of it and wrote the book ‘I Am A Troll’, it employs hundreds of people whose sole job is to push fake news through thousands of social media handles on Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp forwards. Within minutes a message they want to promote, reaches millions of phones across the nation where gullible people lap it up as the truth.
The trick is simple: use social media to create a bubble around a topic, the government approves. Once the conversation seems large enough to create an illusion of national debate, traditional media – many of whom are plaint to the ruling party – pick it up and actually make it the dominant narrative.
One can argue that not all is wrong with such a troll army. Indeed, in the hands of a good, fair-to-all government, IT cells can mobilize towards justice and peace. But when their sole intention is to drive lies, fake news , and propaganda and silence critics, it becomes a national problem.
A bigger issue is when the ruling party starts believing its own lies and makes policies based on them. In normal times the harm is invisible. During a pandemic, the bodies are hard to hide.
The central government created the narrative about India winning the war against COVID in January. Sadly, it believed its own lies even when the numbers weren’t accurate and epidemiologists constantly warned about a second wave. The result – overflowing morgues, crematoriums and graveyards – is for all to see in horror.
India needs a way to counter the BJPs troll army, one that works for India’s interests rather than of a party.
So far it has only been a rag-tag group of activists and concerned citizens who come together during causes to mobilise and raise a social media storm on a particular issue. At times they have been effective but not nearly enough.
Unarmed civilians don’t stand a chance against a trained, armed force. The principle is the same in the digital world. The only way to fight a troll army is through another troll army. The opposition and concerned citizens need to get together to create their own troll farms whose only job would be to counter every lie the BJP IT cell spits out. Countering them isn’t that difficult.
BJPs troll army has a set of responses to every issue: blame past governments and rulers – especially Nehru, point fingers at minorities or distract with a new issue or fake news. Thus lack of hospitals during COVID have been blamed on the Congress even when the BJP has been in power for 11 of the 21 years this millennium. Hundreds of floating bodies in Ganga and Jamuna have been called a Hindu tradition.
These are easy to counter and activists have been doing it. However, amidst the war cries of an army, theirs sound like voices in the wilderness. Facts are no longer self-evident and truths - like lies - work best when repeated.
Thus unless the opposition gets together to create a structured and disciplined army of trolls with hundreds of paid staff working dedicatedly in the state and national levels, the truth will have little chance of survival much like the future of many of the regional parties under the BJPs desire to copy another Chinese idea: one-party system.
A leaf can be taken from the activist playbook of Mohandas Gandhi. Before starting any movement, he trained people in the kind of activism needed – truthful, honest, non-violent and steadfast. This playbook was adopted by the Civil Rights movement in the US to tremendous success.
That sort of organising is needed in the digital space.
Activists working on the ground on issues do not stand a chance against BJP’s troll army. Their years of good work is destroyed within seconds by the hurricane of lies and slander let loose by BJPs IT cell. For them to have a fighting chance, the opposition needs to provide them covering fire of their own troll armies.
Sadly, the opposition hasn’t woken up to the digital millennium. Since almost everyone has a Twitter account anyway, let’s look at YouTube presence of opposition leaders. Neither Mamata Banerjee nor CMO West Bengal have a YouTube channel. CMO Maharashtra does but Uddhav Thackeray does not. Neither does Aravind Kejriwal. Most of these opposition leaders think their party channels and occasional videos are enough. Contrast this with the BJP where not just their CMs, but most of their major leaders and some junior ones too, have their own dedicated YouTube channels which they fill regularly.
I wish there was another way, but there isn’t. Today truth does not stand on its own feet and but does so on the foundation of social media receptions: what is repeated is thought to be the truth even if it is the most inconceivable lie.
So far the harm done to the nation by BJPs IT Cell was mostly limited to minorities. But the COVID pandemic has shown that no one is safe under the torrent of lies, propaganda, and abuse unleashed by them and the danger is not just of intimidation and arrest, but of losing one’s own life.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)