In this series, The Lede dives into how narratives are built on social media & the strategies used to push new truths
How certain are you that what you are reading on social media feeds is the reality?
How do you separate fact from half-truths or fiction?
Who do you trust? And how do you determine whom to trust?
Social media – Twitter and Facebook – is a sea of content. Opinion is mixed with fact, emotional appeals lend credibility to blatant lies and most information, by the design of the medium, provokes and incites vicious reactions.
Social media platforms attempt to pass themselves off as a simple ground for legitimate public opinion to be expressed.
This is far from the truth.
The design of these social media platforms cater to silos of similar opinions and the loudest ones tend to be heard in a resonant fashion – cropping up on timelines of strangers in the respective silos everywhere.
And this design allows social media platforms to be manipulated easily and thereby allows the peddling of alternative realities to unsuspecting regular consumers.
We will explain the strategies that are most commonly used on Twitter by various interest groups to push their cause.
We zoom in on three strategies that are successfully deployed whether by design or not, on the micro-blogging site Twitter by various stakeholders – including bot accounts masquerading as humans, genuine users, peddlers of a particular agenda or partisan influencers.
Through examples, we will illustrate how social media platforms like Twitter are not in fact, democratic, and can be easily hijacked.
Here is the first strategy.
The best example of this strategy is the case of the campaign being undertaken by supporters of Asumal Sirumalani Harpalani, also known as Asaram Bapu, the “godman” convicted and jailed in connection with the rape of a devotee.
Born in Shaheed Benazirabad, Pakistan, 78-year-old Asaram Bapu was known as much for his political connections as for the Rs 10,000 crore empire he had built, before he got embroiled in rape charges.
Asaram was found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl in his Jodhpur ashram in 2013 and was sentenced to life in prison in 2018. Then 77-year-old Asaram was convicted under Section 376 of the IPC, the Protection of Children under Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act.
Later, his son, Narayan Sai too was convicted by a Surat court for raping a woman.
Now his vast empire is fighting back. And the war is being waged on Twitter.
What appear to be his supporters, are running social media campaigns to build a case for his release.
While successful campaigns take the internet by storm, Asaram’s campaign seems to be a dud. But whether it has worked or not, the campaign is illuminative.
Although the people working behind the scenes are unknown, and have not responded inspite of efforts to get in touch, the case provides a study of how interest groups have come to use social media to further their narrative and gain support.
So how does the Asaram campaign work?
The campaign itself is broken down into multiple campaigns pushing specific messages.
The campaign tries to push the message that POCSO laws have come to be systematically used as a tool to target and trap innocents.
Posts under this hashtag speak of the conspiracy which targets people like Asaram Bapu in “fake” rape cases.
Strangely enough, the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and the sexual harassment charge against him is dragged into the picture although the main angst is against the POCSO Act.
Factually incorrect arguments are offered – for instance, that POCSO – which is a law to protect minors – is a “tool that is being misused by women.”
This narrative then, is popularised by posting the same content from multiple accounts.
This part of the Asaram Bapu campaign tries to push home the message that he is a victim of POCSO, as many other men are.
The tweets that use this hashtag appear to largely target the English reader on Twitter, rather than the devotees themselves.
The idea seems to be to ensure that the mainstream media takes note of the issue – which means that the campaigners need to make the hashtag trend.
A generic hashtag – of male victimhood by women and children – is created in order to find support even outside of the purview of Asaram campaigners.
To begin with it seems to have been an attempt at hijacking a campaign already being run by the NGO Insaaf. While the Insaaf Movement is against the gender imbalance in sexual abuse laws, Asaram Bapu supporters have focussed on the POCSO part alone.
And the difference in qualitative content is distinctive. To be noted is how often multiple accounts push the same material.
While the earlier campaigns focussed on the legal side of POCSO and its flaws, depicting women complainants as liars and vamps, other campaigns such as #UntoldHistoryToDestroyHinduism seem to be directed at gaining sympathy from the larger Hindu community using religion as an emotional focal point.
On the one hand it paints the media as responsible for the alleged injustices on Hindu “Saints”. On the other, the message is that this is an attempt to destroy Hinduism either by paid anti-Hindu media or Christian missionaries.
On offer by those pushing these campaigns, are fantastic claims that cannot be proven right or wrong and a sense of victimisation is thrown in for an emotional appeal.
If a user or a journalist questions these claims, a barrage of whataboutery and tangential questioning ensues – as to whether the questioner doesn’t support Hindus or whether he/she has an agenda.
And it in turn will bring attention to the issue which will gain by the exchange. The original query of whether the facts claimed in these posts are correct or not, will never be answered.
Apart from the tirade of tweets against POCSO, under which Asaram was convicted and a parallel tirade against women filing fake rape cases, in support of Asaram’s son Narayan Sai, #augmentationoffalserapecases campaign supports a broader narrative without referring to religion.
News articles in reputed publications like The Guardian and the BBC are also cited but twisted out of context – with imaginary data or conclusions thrown in by the supporter.
This is a repeat of much of the same things that the other campaigns have been pushing.
If this was an attempt at gaining sympathy via religion, the response suggests the attempt has been largely unsuccessful.
This extraordinarily worded hashtag tries to put the blame on the Christian missionaries for Asaram’s plight.
And obviously given the fallacious nature of the hashtag, this was a misfire too.
To be noted though is that most of the tweets that used this hashtag, funnily enough, were in Hindi.
In comparison to the Asaram Bapu supporters and their multiple campaigns all of which seem to have failed to gain traction, is the #MenToo campaign, a men’s rights campaign centred around Mumbai which peaked in support of Karan Oberoi who was arrested on 06 May on allegations of rape and remains in judicial custody, after two bail pleas were rejected.
“Social media can also be manipulated just like the traditional media,” said Kiruba Shankar, social media expert based in Chennai. “As a news reader and layman it is for them to be discerning in what they read and it is time they did.”
Rajdeep Sardesai, senior journalist agrees. “Fake campaigns are designed to serve vested interests. Fake campaigns have to be acted against. Twitter and Facebook have to be held responsible for these. They cannot shrug away from their responsibilities,” he said.
This movement is important as, though the cause it supports overlaps with the grievances of the Asaram Bapu supporters, they are contrasting in their methods.
The #MenToo "movement" is reported to have been initially started by actor Pooja Bedi in support of her friend Karan Oberoi, who was arrested for allegedly raping and blackmailing a woman with whom he was previously in a relationship with.
Defending him, Bedi had promoted the hashtag #MenToo, thereby popularising it. The supporters of the #MenToo movement are mostly urban men in contrast to the Asaram “supporters” who often are tweet machines with no following.
According to Deepika Bhardwaj who has been at the forefront of the #MenToo men’s rights movement - “The hashtag and men’s rights activism had started much earlier closer to when #MeToo did the rounds.”
But she stated that it gained traction online only after it got support from a star. “It was only after Pooja Bedi lent her support that it picked momentum. Before that, the efforts to ensure justice for men were scattered, mostly in individual capacities,” she recalls.
The suave name, by its simplicity, catchiness and contextual clarity makes the hashtag memorable. Another standout feature is the use of the press to push forth the idea instead of using dubious sources and websites to act as proof.
Asked about the role of traditional media, Deepika Bhardwaj says - “It is a complementary relationship. Digital content being easily shareable, social media campaigns are much more effective,” she says. “Traditional media doesn’t give an edge in the same sense, but traditional media enjoys a higher attention span. Anything carried on traditional media helps amplify a message much more powerfully,” she added.
Asked about attempts to hijack their cause, Deepika Bhardwaj says - “Asaram Bapu supporters did try to hijack the hashtag #MenToo_Untold but we don’t support such efforts. They push outrageous content.”
The #MenToo movement differs in its supporter base - men’s rights activists who genuinely appear to support this issue.
Communal messages are more easily disseminated on the medium using Twitter. These then find their way into Facebook, WhatsApp, mainstream media and finally in the lexicon of the home and the office.
Take the case of a Sri Lankan government doctor who was arrested for carrying out an unnecessarily high number of caesarean sections and illegal sterilisations.
This story was twisted out of proportion to make it seem like a grand conspiracy by Muslims to change the demography of India.
The case in question is of a doctor who was a candidate in a previous election and the investigations are still underway in Sri Lanka.
The twitter post leads to the Wordpress site Jaago Hindustani which has interesting content classification - Paid Media, Conversion and Sanskriti (Culture).
Jaago Hindustani mostly pushes content published on Azaad Bharat, whose content menus are National, International, Converting, Cow Protection, Oppression on Saints and finally Headlines.
So where did this story originate from? In the aftermath of the Easter bombings and the majoritarian Buddhist-led riots in north western Sri Lanka, this unverified news did the rounds.
It was first published as a front page article in the newspaper Divaina, known for its nationalist stance.
When the news crossed the ocean and reached India, the number of “victims” doubled to 8000 and the women “victims” became Hindu and Buddhist. As of now none of the accusations have been proven to be true and remain unsubstantiated.
The said doctor’s political ambitions and his business dealings have also been pointed out by some as the real reason why he was “maligned” thus.
This strategy of competitive bigotry usually begins with something that makes it into the news cycle.
Wounded religious sentiments are then used to target the reader and lull them into an incessant cycle of ifs and buts and what abouts.
“It is easy to make a tirade and make a group attack on social media,” said Kiruba Shankar, social media expert in Chennai. “For a common man, if he sees a pattern of messages, he believes it to be the truth.”
That media has come to be the accused, when seen in light of the triad theory of communalism, is alarming.
That the state is no longer accused of being biased as they are seen as representing the majority Hindu community by these supporters should be an added responsibility on journalists themselves to maintain neutrality in every situation.
In effect, the success of the online narrative is based on numbers and on how many celebrities you have on your side.
#MenToo gender equality campaigns by being more conventional and fact based, with complementary mainstream media coverage, has been more successful in influencing public opinion and in better articulating their cause.
But had the Asaram Bapu supporters not pushed such bizarre conspiracy stories, the results may have been different.
For now it seems the godmen in trouble could do with some help from the diva.