THE rapid (though short) bloom of the Arab Spring was enabled by social media. In its research on this phenomenon, the University of Washington writes: “...social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organised political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom”.
A lot has changed since then. Today, an estimated 3.8 billion people the world over use social media and for a great deal of people this is their primary source of information and news. What we see on social media shapes our opinions — too many people in effect end up crowdsourcing their very thinking processes and opinions and so, when we see certain messages, ideologies or themes being parroted by multiple users it creates the illusion that these are popular stances worth adopting. And this is being used against you.
That’s the thing with tools: once invented, they can be used by anyone at all. In the aftermath of the Spring, social media across the Arab world began to be co-opted by state actors who set up their own social media armies and troll farms to deflect and drown out opposing views and shout down dissent. It’s a phenomenon by no means limited to the Arab world as across the board, state and non-state actors use and often hijack social media to promote their own narratives and dilute opposing viewpoints. In this battlefield, creating a fog of war is a victory in and of itself.
Tools tend to evolve and become more effective over time, and the latest arsenal in this ever-expanding armoury comes from India in the form of a ‘secret’ malicious app known as Tek Fog. Created by the notorious BJP IT cell, this internal app was exposed by The Wire in an investigation which started with a series of tweets from a man claiming to be a disgruntled member of the BJP IT cell angry that a job he was promised did not come through. In a series of tweets he mentioned Tek Fog and another more advanced app that he claims was used by the cell.
BJP created Tek Fog to promote its hateful ideology.
This began a two-year investigation that is now being serially released by The Wire. It reveals that this app was used in many underhanded ways to promote the hateful Hindutva ideology, and in particular to abuse and cow activists, journalists and opposition politicians. It created the illusion of the popularity of right-wing narratives by ‘hijacking’ the trending section of Twitter and Facebook by allowing app users to auto-retweet and auto-share posts thus creating a virtual storm of right-wing views and hate speech to drown out any other views.
The app was also used for consistent and malicious targeted harassment of targets approved by the BJP leadership, and for this purpose an “extensive and dynamic” database of private citizens was created in which they were “categorised according to their occupation, religion, language, age, gender, political inclination and even physical attributes like skin tone and breast size”.
The last categories came into play in particular when targeting female journalists like Rana Ayyub, an outspoken critic of the Modi regime and the author of a landmark book on the 2002 Gujrat riots already the subject of constant harassment from the Modi regime. Ayyub was targeted by 22,505 abusive tweets between Jan 1, 2021, and May 31, 2021. Others targeted in similar ways were Barkha Dutt, Nidhi Razdan and Rohini Singh, among many others. To make it easier for the users of this made-for-harassment app, an “auto reply to female users” feature was added in which choice gender-based abuses and rape threats were auto-generated so as to send out the maximum number of vile tweets from the maximum number of accounts, all the while maintaining the illusion that this was a spontaneous outburst.
The app also allows users to remotely access inactive WhatsApp accounts, effectively hijacking them, and then using them to send hateful messages and propaganda to their entire contact lists. Active WhatsApp users, especially those considered critical of the government, were sent spyware which allowed the BJP operators to access the target’s phone and gain access to their contact lists. Thus the range of targets would constantly expand.
This is of course par for the course when it comes to the BJP and its allies, whose go-to strategy is terror and intimidation and who have done more to weaken the bonds that hold a diverse state like India together than any set of external enemies ever could. But how long will it take before such malign strategies are adopted by other players? And when that happens will it be time to realise that this medium isn’t social as much as it is anti-society itself?
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2022