Inside the right-wing online hate groups polarising rural Telangana

Right-wing hate speech using social media has made inroads into the rural areas of the state and could help the BJP in communal polarisation ahead of elections.
Inside the right-wing online hate groups polarising rural Telangana
Inside the right-wing online hate groups polarising rural Telangana

N Srikumar gets riled up whenever he sees bigoted posts by right-wing Facebook pages, prompting him to immediately respond to them in the language that both agitates them and evokes laughter. The tech-savvy 23-year-old is the former editor and administrator of Planet Sarcasm — a Telugu troll page that counters right wing propaganda. Srikumar, who was formerly associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — a Hindu nationalistic organisation — however says it’s getting more and more difficult to match the propaganda level of the right-wing troll pages in Telangana, and soon the situation in the state might begin to reflect Karnataka, which is witnessing communal violence on a regular basis.

Srikumar was introduced to the RSS by his karate master. But the murder of Pranay in 2018, a Dalit man hacked to death in broad daylight for marrying a woman from the upper caste Vysya community, made him rethink his affiliation. “The right-wing used to say that there shouldn’t be caste discrimination and that we all belong to one identity: Hindus. But the murder was justified by casteists openly and it shattered my beliefs. Slowly, I drifted away from them. And now that I realise that all they do is manufacture hate using ridiculous arguments, I have the urge to counter them.” 

The power and influence of some of these pages which cultivate hatred against minority communities and dub the TRS-government as ‘Hinduphobic’, was witnessed in March this year.  On March 20, tensions prevailed in Bodhan of Nizamabad district over the installation of a Chatrapati Shivaji statue. A clash broke out when BJP activists forcefully attempted to install the statue which did not have the requisite permission from authorities. TRS and AIMIM supporters objected to the BJP demand. Stone pelting ensued and the district administration had to impose Section 144 of Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) to contain the violence which turned communal in character. While on ground the situation was tense, a popular right wing Facebook page, which has over 50,000 followers – Dharmadwajam-Hindu Chaitanya Vedika – shared photos of police dispersing the crowd using non-lethal federal riot guns, and Hindutva supporters wearing saffron shawls being injured. The page did not give any description except portraying Hindutva supporters as victims of police action.

However, sharing the same photos, a person identified as Dharmadwajam Prasad, stoked controversy by claiming that Muslims had stopped the installation of Shivaji statue. The post also stated that Muslims had claimed they would agree to the demand only if Tipu Sultan’s statue was also erected. 

The following day too, right wing pages like Dharmadwajam-Hindu Chaitanya Vedika and Controversy Kurradu fanned hatred against Muslims on social media. These accounts alleged that the TRS government was resorting to appeasement politics by giving in to the demands of the AIMIM against installing a ‘Hindu’ king’s statue. 

TNM went through Troll Hypocrites, Controversy Kurradu, Dharmadwajam-Hindu Chaitanya Vedika, which are some of the popular right wing Facebook pages in Telugu. While Troll Hypocrites has 40,000 followers, Controversy Kurradu has close to 3,000 followers. These pages typically celebrate state harassment of Muslims, promote hate films like Kashmir Files, and attack Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao when he speaks out against the vicious hateful atmosphere created by the BJP. The Christian community is also not immune to their hate campaign.

The post above reads: Nazis killed six million jews, and Islamic invaders killed 400 million Hindus. While Israel and several countries have laws punishing people who deny the Holocaust or show any sympathy to Nazis, in India such a horrible genocide is not mentioned in History books or school books, and instead we rever Jihadis like Akbar, Tippu Sultan and Aurangzeb.  

The post above reads: Before the arrival of Christians and after their arrival

The above post reads: During Hindu festivals, please buy Pooja items only from Hindus

The post above reads: Christians are not peace ambassadors, because there is no other way they are preaching peace. They are no less than ISIS terrorists. They had attacked Hinuds in Goa, Mizoram, Tripura and Nagaland in the 15th century  

The post above reads: Say no to Halal; Jhatka is our right

There are many such Facebook pages which constantly dog-whistle against Muslims. “Unfortunately these posts and hate memes are now propagated even in rural areas,” says Srikumar. 

Srikumar, who hails from a rural district in Telangana, observes that more than the presence of right wing Facebook pages, the effective usage of WhatsApp groups is becoming a huge influence on the rural population. “They have WhatsApp broadcast groups. Even if they appear to be not so active or have a huge number of shares or likes on Facebook, one should not be fooled by it, because all their propaganda is getting shared covertly on WhatsApp.”   

For instance, the Dharmadwajam page collects phone numbers from its followers, asking them to share their number to get regular updates from them. All of its memes carry a message asking readers to type Jai Sreeram and send to a WhatsApp number to get Dharmadwajam posts personally. Collecting these numbers, they constantly share propaganda and keep them perpetually anxious and with a feeling of insecurity, Srikumar says. 

He explains that by shifting their focus to WhatsApp, which enables people to easily update their status with propaganda content, the right-wing groups have captured the rural audience. “It is easy to use the content as your status, and everyone watching it will also be influenced by it, because they seem reasonable. Who is interested in looking up facts or why will they? They assume whatever comes on WhatsApp is legit, so they share it. Apart from that, these posts instil a constant fear of persecution of Hindus, which provokes the subscribers.” 

Bala Sai, another meme-creator, and administrator of BangSters, which mostly promotes rational and scientific thought and also engages in criticising right wing propaganda, says making fun of their ideas and ideology is very easy since all they do is spread hate with ridiculous logic. “It used to get a good reception. However, since 2019 the scene has changed. They have adapted since then,” says Sai.

“They have formed multiple groups on WhatsApp and target us together when we make fun of them. Earlier, our followers also would condemn them and their ideology but by launching a coordinated attack on anyone and everyone who tries to reason with them, they have been stifling voices,” says Sai. He adds: “We used to explain our position earlier, but we no longer do that.” 

Facebook being overlooked 

While the TRS counters most of the propaganda and misinformation spread against the TRS government on Twitter, they have overlooked Facebook and WhatsApp, which is a worry say meme creators who have been monitoring the trend on social media.

“Because Minister KT Rama is active on Twitter, the TRS IT cell promptly counters the propaganda which they see floating on the platform before the Minister catches wind of it, but the TRS party has failed to counter right wing propaganda on Facebook,” says a TRS volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous.

One of the incidents which went viral on Twitter in October 2020 was an allegation that the TRS government was aiding attacks against Hindus. A BJP member gave a communal spin to an incident in which a Hindu woman in Hyderabad was attacked by her neighbour who belonged to a different community. The allegation was that she was creating a nuisance using loudspeakers to perform pooja at the temple she constructed outside her house. The police had however denied the communal angle, saying that all neighbours belonging to different faiths were equally irritated with the loudspeaker and that the victim had been using the loudspeaker despite numerous complaints.  

The volunteer who wishes to stay anonymous says, “The TRS could have emulated the BJP by using proxy accounts to further their agenda and grab power, but they hardly pay attention to any of this.” This volunteer monitors social media and regularly debunks BJP propaganda. The volunteer has handled social media accounts of several TRS leaders previously. He is of the view that Facebook has a huge influence over tier-II cities like Mancherial, Nirmal, Kamareddy, Sangareddy, Bodhan and others. 

“The supporters of TRS in each district could engage in this conversation and counter hate, but they mostly spend their time hanging out with leaders hoping to win their loyalty,” the volunteer fumes. 

Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, who is now confronting the BJP after a series of setbacks and realising their growth, has however acknowledged this phenomenon recently.

In February this year, the CM distributed the book ‘I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of BJP’s Digital Army’ written by journalist Swati Chaturvedi to journalists, and shared how the BJP has been manufacturing propaganda against political rivals. “On this topic there was a serious discussion even in Harvard University. India’s image is being tainted outside. This is the way things are happening in India,” he lashed out.

Besides Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups, there are YouTube channels like String Telugu, Right Voice, Nationalist Hub, and websites like Sai Viswateja, Shivashakthi which promote right wing propaganda in Telangana. 

Recently, the TRS government cracked the whip on several YouTube channel owners which were critical of the government. Right wing YouTube channel Right Voice was one among them. 

Manne Krishank, social media convenor of TRS alleges, “The major problem we face in countering BJP propaganda is that YouTube and Facebook do not listen to us. They are under the control of the Government of India. We have been writing to YouTube and Facebook to remove pages which create defamatory posts and spread misinformation, but these social media platforms ask us to get court orders, which are highly impossible to acquire.”

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have completely yielded to the Government of India, after they brought in legislation to appoint an ombudsman, alleges Krishank. 

Last year, the Government of India introduced the controversial Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules 2021 under the Information Technology Act 2001. Under the new rules, social media companies have to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal person of contact, for “24x7 coordination” with law enforcement agencies; and a resident grievance officer. These rules were seen as an intimidation tactic by the companies. 

Besides this, Facebook has been accused of colluding with the BJP in promoting their propaganda, and also undercutting political competition in favour of the BJP.  “We have flagged verified handles who have been spreading misinformation deliberately to Facebook and Twitter, but they do not act upon it. Instead our accounts are removed,” Krishank alleges.

Growth of right wing social media in Telangana

According to Srikumar, who was disillusioned with the RSS ideology and left them in 2018, it was around 2012 that right wing pages started mushrooming. Srikumar was introduced to several of the Facebook administrators when he associated with the RSS between 2012 and 2018. “A Facebook page called Hindu Hindutvam, which is now inactive, was the first to spread right wing propaganda. However, over financial disputes, people who were operating the page disbanded and founded their own pages.” Srikumar says. 

Srikumar further notes that the people behind these pages mostly belong to Backward Classes (BC) communities. The BJP’s wooing of the BCs in Telangana by offering them political power is well established. In fact, among four of its MPs from the state, two of them — D Arvind and Bandi Sanjay — belong to the Munnuru Kapu caste, a BC community. The mobilisation of the BCs by the BJP has paid rich dividends to the party which aims to overthrow the ruling TRS party and capture political power in the state.   

Krishank says that during their investigation against the hate-spreading Facebook pages, they found that many of them were operating from states like Delhi, Madhya Pradesh etc, making it difficult to take any action. He also says that they have a limitation. “A party like the BJP has a huge network with an army of social media employees influencing trends, it is hard to catch up with them.”

A recent investigation conducted by The Wire revealed that the BJP uses an application called Tech Fog which allegedly has the potential to manipulate Twitter trends, and automate hate against their critics and rivals. 

The BJP was previously considered as an urban-based party with little or no presence in the rural areas. The party is now making inroads into these areas and the wins it recorded in bye-polls in Dubbak and Huzurabad are testimony to it. In the coming Assembly election, the propaganda spread online will have a huge impact, these meme-creators say. The state will be going to polls in 2023. 

Facebook's response

The News Minute reached out to Facebook for not taking action against pages which have been openly making hate speech against Muslims and Christians. Responding to it, the company representative in a statement said: “Our community standards define what is and isn't allowed on Facebook. We don’t allow content that violates our community standards and we remove it when we find it or are made aware of it. We are committed to be a platform where people feel empowered to communicate safely and we take our role seriously in keeping abuse off the platform.” 

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