The six-week-long voting period in India’s national and provincial elections concluded this week, with results expected on Thursday, according to news reports. For journalists, the campaign has brought a familiar deluge of online abuse.
Journalists told CPJ they were particularly likely to be targeted when correcting disinformation, which experts say spiked in advance of the vote. Some journalists said they are themselves the subject of manipulated online posts, a troubling trend in a country where fake news has led to real violence.
Several English-language journalists who report on politics and social issues in India spoke to CPJ in the lead up to the elections. The journalists, all female, described online harassment as endemic to their work; while some said they felt the election had driven an increase in social media messages seeking to threaten, abuse, or discredit them, others said they viewed such negative engagement as routine and inevitable.
The amount of disinformation spread on social media before the election, however, is far from routine, according to research published this month by the Computational Propaganda project at the University of Oxford’s internet institute. The research categorized more than a quarter of content shared on Facebook and WhatsApp by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over a two month period as “junk news,” or deliberately misleading information purporting to be real news reports; more than a fifth of content shared on those platforms by the primary opposition party, Indian National Congress, during the same period also met that definition, the researchers found. The group, which has studied digital manipulation of public opinion in several countries since 2012, said the proportion of polarizing news on social media in India was “worse than all of the other country case studies we have analyzed, except the U.S. Presidential election in 2016.”
“When you try to correct some of the disinformation on Twitter, that’s when a lot of the trolls come after you,” Dhanya Rajendran, editor in chief of The News Minute website told CPJ.
Local media reports citing political activists say thousands of WhatsApp groups and tens of thousands of salaried or volunteer social media workers have been organized to spread messages for different political parties. Investigations published by the Hindustan Times and the BBC World Service, among others, analyze how disinformation spreads in such groups, which are sometimes public, meaning anyone can join through widely publicized links. In January, a journalist said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official mobile app, which allows users to share content with apparently limited moderation, was enabling the spread of user-generated fake news. A BJP spokesperson quoted in the journalist’s report said there is “some scope for misinformation” in the app, and that “multiple posts” had been removed.
Journalists that CPJ spoke with said they believe similar online groups are a breeding ground for trolls. “There is a very concerted attempt by social media teams of all political parties,” Nistula Hebbar, of The Hindu, said. “And they’ve gotten down to very sexist, misogynist, really below-the-belt type trolling.”
Rajendran told CPJ that The News Minute had seen self-described BJP supporters share links or screenshots showing journalists’ online posts or profile pages in a political WhatsApp group. Writing for Al Jazeera in April, filmmaker Mandakini Gahlot described a list of 68 journalists published in “a pro-BJP WhatsApp group” that accused them of being on the Congress party payroll in order to undermine their credibility; investigative journalist Soma Basu separately found pro-BJP groups published messages “targeted against journalists” and published their private contact information without consent to facilitate harassment.
It’s not possible to say how far such activity is condoned by group owners or the parties they claim affiliation with, though one former BJP volunteer has said senior social media coordinators in the party ordered her to harass and discredit journalists online before the last general election in 2014, according to news reports citing her account. A BJP representative denied that account when it was first published in comments to The Indian Express, and said that the party did not encourage trolling. The office of the BJP chairman did not immediately respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment about that allegation or the more recent claims that its supporters have encouraged harassment of journalists.
Once the abuse begins online, journalists said, it escalates. “[Trolls] just jump onto it like … a virtual lynch mob. And it’s very disconcerting,” Madhu Trehan, the founder of Newslaundry, a digital news outlet with a media focus, told CPJ. Neha Dixit, whose independent investigative journalism has made her a target for online critics and a criminal complaint from a BJP representative, told CPJ in April she faces upward of 300 abusive messages per day; journalist and academic Maya Mirchandani told CPJ in January that she had blocked about 10,000 Twitter accounts to avoid seeing the abusive messages they sent her.
“I’m forced to be [on Twitter], but I’m entirely dreading the experience,” said Dhanya Rajendran, who said she received thousands of vicious tweets following an offhand comment about a movie in 2017. “You know the backlash that’s going to come, and you think, is it even worth it? I now rarely voice my opinion on news,” she said.
Fake news has triggered physical violence in India, according to news reports, and journalists say fake posts about them are often accompanied by threats. Rana Ayyub, an independent journalist who has investigated government complicity in deadly riots in Gujarat in 2002 while Modi was chief minister, told the Washington Post in December that she sought medical treatment for anxiety after a pornographic video with her face convincingly superimposed on to one of the participants circulated online, as did threats and messages publishing her address and contact details.
Neha Dixit also told CPJ that images of her had been manipulated to appear sexually explicit and shared online, and fake Twitter accounts created in her name to discredit her. Dixit described frequent threats, and told CPJ that unknown individuals have asked neighbors for her whereabouts when she was not home.
Many journalists told CPJ they are desensitized to threats. “Unless it is particularly violent, if there is a threat, we’ll ignore it,” Nistula Hebbar said.
“We certainly cannot think that we have to play it safe because the Twitter trolls will go after us,” Madhu Trehan said. “We do a story which we consider worth doing regardless of how people react,”
Yet 32 journalists have been murdered with complete impunity for their work in India since 1992, CPJ has found. One of those, Karnataka-based journalist Gauri Lankesh, received death threats online before she was killed in 2017. At the time of her murder, she was appealing a criminal defamation sentence that the BJP’s head of information technology publicized on Twitter in 2016, according to the Scroll news website. Her lawyer told reporters at the time he does not think the case is connected to her death. Several accounts followed by Prime Minister Modi’s official Twitter account celebrated when Lankesh was killed, the BBC reported at the time. The prime minister’s office did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment about his Twitter account.
“In this day and age, what threats do you take seriously?” Maya Mirchandani told CPJ. “And what threats do you write off?”
Sarah Guinee is the CPJ Patti Birch Fellow for Gender and Media Freedom