Mind Your Language
By Kunal Pradhan
With political discourse on social media reduced to taunts and abuse, BJP’s new guidelines aim to elevate the level of debate
On March 17, Amaresh Misra, a member of the Congress party who describes himself as an author, historian, film writer and politician, went on one of his usual Twitter rampages.
Lashing out at supporters of BJP in 140-character insults peppered with expletives, he tweeted at 12.50 a.m.: “@shilpitewari We know where you live Shilpi. Zyada pro-BJP banee to tere saath vahee karenge jo Sanghi har*** ke saath karte hain (If you act too pro-BJP, we will do with you what should be done to right-wing b****s).”
The woman he threatened is an active Twitter user from New Delhi. As the Internet bubbled in her support, there was a moment when Shilpi Tewari was terrified her Web world would impinge on the real world.
Misra’s conduct is an extreme example of what Twitter exchange between supporters of India’s two leading political parties often gets reduced to-some BJP supporters describe pro-Congress tweeters as ‘Congis’, journalists as ‘dalal media’, anti-Modi voices as ‘sickular’, and refer to Sonia Gandhi as mythical demoness ‘Tadaka’.
The general lowering of standards has created a hyper-sensitive and highly charged Internet universe where meaningful dialogue has been overtaken by the rush for one-upmanship, often ending in personal abuse.
Trolls on both sides of the fence, “volunteers” who are either encouraged or on payrolls of the parties, hunt in packs, attempting to tear down the opponent’s propaganda.
These mobs usually get out of control, and debate is reduced to a level that threatens to render social media useless as a platform for serious political discourse.
Worried about this emerging trend, BJP’s Information Technology Cell, which had a free run until Congress responded in April with its own Twitter campaign, is taking the high moral ground by attempting to rein in its online activists.
On May 11, the cell’s national head, Arvind Gupta, uploaded draft social media guidelines meant for party leaders, workers and supporters. In a first-of-its-kind attempt at crowd-sourcing, he asked BJP’s online brigade to suggest changes, omissions, and additions to the document. The final, refined version will be uploaded by May-end after taking these suggestions from the general public on board.
The guidelines document is unique because in it, BJP takes responsibility not just for its leaders and officials but also for legions of supporters who may not be directly associated with the party. “BJP broadly recognises three levels of affiliation with the party,” the document says, “A. BJP office bearers; B. BJP party members; C. BJP supporters.”
The document acknowledges that while it is not possible to verify each individual member and supporter, it encourages them to adhere to the “Dos and Don’ts” listed in the guidelines.
“Those who wish to claim affiliation with the party must be mindful that their social media conduct reflects on the party’s image, hence their conduct in social media must exemplify the values the party stands for,” the document says.
“A healthy debate on various issues is encouraged as it promotes understanding of various nuances and complexities of issues. However, debate should ideally not become a ruse to unnecessarily tag people and/or result in behaviour which can be construed as cyber bullying. The party cannot condone behaviour on social media that is abusive and behaviour that is in violation of the law,” it adds.
BJP is hoping that the Congress will acknowledge this peace offering and respond with similar instructions to its own support base. But Sanjay Jha, a member of the party’s new social media committee and one of the architects of the #Feku campaign aimed at Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in response to the BJP’s #Pappu campaign targeting Rahul Gandhi, says that BJP is merely trying to control a monster it has itself created.
“When it comes to political dialogue, social media has become a one-sided platform where there is a constant bombardment by BJP trolls whose only job is to attack Congress supporters,” says Jha.
“It has made young people, whose political affiliations are fluid, look only at extreme positions. It’s given rise to secular fundamentalists, transforming people who were otherwise liberal and open-minded into hardliners.”
Speaking to India Today, Gupta, 42, a University of Illinois alumnus credited with organising the BJP’s online following into a cohesive network, says it is high time political parties take the lead in making social media debates cleaner and healthier: “The new draft guidelines will help us better engage with people on policy matters. When you’re leading the online political discourse ten to one in terms of number of supporters, it is your responsibility to ensure that discussions remain healthy and the platform remains relevant. The issue is only not about abuse, it’s about raising the standards of the debate.”
The guidelines are BJP’s way of showing that there is no official sanction to the kind of language social media discussions often degenerate to, and one of measures being considered is banning anyone who does not follow the guidelines from using the party logo in their display/profile pictures on Twitter and Facebook. “There isn’t too much we can do in terms of disciplinary action but we’re asking our supporters a very simple question: By being combative, or by not following the guidelines, are they actually helping the party?”
A part of the problem, says Gupta, is that a large number of supporters are not comfortable with writing in English, which is evidenced by bad spelling and poor grammar that is Twitter verse’s bugbear in India.”When people can’t think of anything clever to say, they often resort to abusing,” he says, “just like in the real world.”
Such behaviour lends support to advocates of social media regulation, and threatens to introduce moderators into what is otherwise an open platform. “It’s easy for abuse to lead to censorship,” Gupta says, “which would make the entire medium meaningless.”
Congress, on the other hand, believes the new BJP guidelines are its acceptance that the ruling party too can play the game, driven home by how successfully the ‘Feku’ tag stuck to Modi after a day-long operation on April 8, when he was delivering two speeches in New Delhi.
“Modi used the term ‘Feku industry’ in his talk to the Gujarati diaspora on May 13. It goes to show that BJP has recognised that you can’t win simply by harassing others,” says Jha. “It will be a positive move if they actually get people to follow their guidelines. All the problems will be solved if one can get the abuse out. But it may be too little, too late given how the right-wing parties have already radicalised the social media space.” Asked directly about Amaresh Misra’s tweets, Jha replies: “One swallow does not make a summer. We condemned what he had said. It is implicit that anyone who abuses cannot be in our system. We don’t need guidelines to keep our supporters on the right path.”
Misra himself is unrepentant. “What I said was a fitting response to the kind of things BJP supporters say all the time, threatening our leaders and supporters. They started it. It was my way of showing that I can give them a taste of their own medicine,” he says. But it’s futile to argue who cast the first stone in a new social media world where no side is without sin.