The arrest of Arnab Goswami, founder of Republic TV channel, has predictably triggered a highly polarised reaction, in the media as well as the political establishment. There are many things wrong with the arrest, starting with the fact that he has been singled out, when there were three names in the suicide note, and all the facts and financial details have not been investigated before initiating such drastic action. Ironically, Mr Goswami himself had aggressively demanded the arrest of a young actress on even flimsier evidence and she ended up spending a month in jail.
The issues are a toxic combination of multiple factors and go much beyond the arrest of Mr Goswami. One, rigging of television rating points (TRPs) to falsely claim high viewership and send wrong signals about public thinking. Two, highly partisan, manipulative and even abusive propaganda broadcast to discredit individuals and politicians to favour specific political parties —this cuts across channels and is not limited to Republic TV. Three, hate factories flourishing on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that target people at will with their automated and weaponised posts of vilification and slander. While individuals and even private institutions have no recourse against such abuse, the police and the government can, indeed, take action. And they have—leading to an all-out war. Just consider the facts in the run up to Mr Goswami’s arrest.
Targeting the Police
The Mumbai police, its commissioner and specific political leaders have been the target of systematic vilification for some time now. The facts, as claimed by the police in a note, are astonishing. According to a note by the Mumbai police on 3rd November, its investigation into tweets and posts after the suicide by actor Sushant Singh Rajput (on 14 June 2020) came up with some astonishing evidence. The police investigated ‘lakhs’ of tweets that began to trend negative comments about the Mumbai police, the police commissioner and the Maharashtra government with specific hashtags. The police cyber and forensic team investigated hashtags and tweets directed at the accounts in the image below between June and October 2020.
The findings are shocking. The cyber team found tweets from over 150,000 twitter accounts, of which 80%, it says, were ‘suspicious’ and sending out a fusillade of negative tweets. Further investigation revealed that these were ‘bots’ or fake accounts created or operated from proxy servers in different countries such as China, Panama, Nepal and Hong Kong.
A fake twitter account in the name of actress Raveena Tandon that was posting defamatory comments was also found to be a bot. These are software tools deployed to send out hundreds and thousands of tweets masquerading as real persons. They can be programmed to tweet, re-tweet and follow other accounts and are sent out from proxy servers, to ensure anonymity.
When the police tracked a few IP addresses from India, these too were discovered to be bots. Basically, even the cyber and forensic experts of the police have failed to zero in on individuals or entities in India who are responsible for the malicious twitter propaganda unleashed against them, as yet. But they have established that the trending #hashtags were, indeed, part of a targeted action to spread slander and create suspicion about targets; these are not the genuine opinion of millions of social media users. The nature of hashtags also made it clear that this was politically motivated.
While the investigation continues, it has flagged many suspicious accounts to Twitter and called for details. It will be interesting to see if Twitter cooperates with the Mumbai police or stonewalls it by citing global policies, like it does with most victims of such targeting. According to the police, thousands of these virulent accounts and bots are being deleted to wipe clean the trail. It is important to remember that the police are an interested party here and its findings must stand scrutiny in a court.
If the police cyber crime department has drawn a blank identifying the root of the hate and defamation, imagine how much harder it is for individuals to force Twitter, Facebook or YouTube to be made accountable.
The Mumbai police have also been under pressure from its own rank and file, as well as retired police officers, to respond to the calumny which was gleefully amplified and broadcast by certain television channels. Five top police officers (all retired) filed a public interest litigation (PIL) accusing the media of “indulging in biased coverage of the incident and trying to influence the probe by creating false propaganda.” The PIL says that the media has “created an air of suspicion in the minds of general public as to the facts of the case under investigation and also about the Mumbai Police, health services and other support services of the state.”
The irony is that political parties adept at deploying bots have also managed to discredit journalists, academic institutions, social organisations and large swathes of the Bollywood too. Those used as propaganda tools are probably participating in their own disgrace for a price.
Possibly, the original idea may have been to target specific individuals; but orchestrated mischief can often boomerang and go out of control when followers fail to understand the design. The coordinated hysteria and falsehoods surrounding the death of Sushant Singh Rajput now appears to be a social media experiment gone horribly wrong. Sections of the media transgressed all ethical boundaries and journalistic norms in fomenting trouble and some are paying the price.
All this probably led to police deploying regular policing methods to open several parallel investigations against those who were foolish enough to post defamatory material without hiding identities. The allegation about rigging of TRPs by certain channels like Republic TV and the two-year-old suicide note were also handy tools. It is, however, both perplexing and disingenuous for any political party to attack the police to settle scores with a ruling government and, probably, the first time it has happened on such a scale.
Unfortunately, the retaliatory action by the police is equally chilling. It has the potential to become a highly misused template across India; anyone could be a target of trumped up charges and worse. Consider this.
Delhi-based lawyer Vibhor Anand, with a history of virulent trolling, got bail on 2nd November after over 15 days in custody, only after tendering an abject apology, expressing repentance in court and promising not to repeat the offence. He also pleaded mental instability and alcohol abuse. He was accused of posting vile, slanderous, virulent and defamatory messages with respect to the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput. He also said he was influenced by television channels and named Republic Bharat among them.
Nagpur resident Sameet Thakkar was not only arrested twice for posting ‘objectionable’ comments but also paraded like a hardened criminal with hands tied and face covered, despite clear court orders that prohibit it. He remains in custody.
On 5th November, The Times of India reported that a 38-year-old lawyer was arrested for a ‘derogatory’ post and morphed images of the ruling coalition leaders, on a complaint filed by a political worker.
Diabolical targeting and slander cannot go unpunished. But indiscriminate arrests could lead to bigger problems. It is important to recollect that ‘encounters’ by the police were initially welcomed by people and businessmen hounded by extortion and killings by the underworld, until they went out of hand.
Broadcast media also needs urgent introspection and self-regulation. As the primary source of news and information today, it has played an active role in obliterating the distinction between serious, legitimate, investigative reportage and brazenly partisan opinions, propaganda and aggressive invasion of privacy that passes off as ‘breaking news’. This has to end.
As a society, we also need to demand greater transparency, regulation and accountability for social media giants like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter that thrive on engagement created by hate factories and actively protect the anonymity of those profiting from automated and targeted slander as a business. With over 100 million active users everyday sending out 500 million tweets, this uncontrolled machine has the potential to rip us apart as a society.