Technology is often used to attack and abuse activists, journalists, dissenters and political opponents of governments or far-right groups, particularly in authoritarian regimes or democracies with weak systems of checks and balances.
Disruption Network Lab, a platform focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society, held a conference in Berlin in March 2023 titled “Smart Prisons: Tracking, Monitoring and Control.” During the panel “Are Algorithms and Borders the New Jailers?” Indian independent journalist Srishti Jaswal drew attention to the potential for technology to act as a prison, particularly for those who are targeted by online trolls and subjected to harassment. She could not attend the conference in person because she has been unable to renew her passport for six months. Her application has been subjected to arbitrary issues ever since she reported on Hindu far-right troll farms.
This award-winning journalist covers a wide range of topics such as rural connectivity, human rights, politics, tech, and governance and contributes to both local and international media outlets. She was a journalist for Hindustan Times and wrote about sensitive political issues such as the impact of the abrogation of Article 370 and removal of the special status to the contested state of Jammu and Kashmir.
One of Jaswal's tweets from 2020 that referenced a movie character with the same name as the Hindu god Krishna was flagged by right-wing groups and led to her losing her job. She became the target of online harassment from right-wing trolls, receiving thousands of rape and murder threats. Complaints were registered against her with the police, and she had to hide for three months to avoid arrest.
Despite the challenges she faced, Jaswal continued her work and began investigating the tactics of Hindu far-right trolls and troll farms online. She managed to infiltrate a group of men who ran the Twitter account “the Hindu IT Cell,” that aims to defend their religion in the digital sphere. The group typically targets anyone whom they perceive as being against their religion. They collaborate with “cyber volunteers” and a team of lawyers to file legal complaints against their targets and pressure the police to take action against them. Jaswal's investigations shed light on how trolls are recruited and trained to engage in abusive behavior towards potential targets.
At present, Jaswal is working on her debut book titled “Post at Your Own Risk” (Pan Macmillan, 2024), which focuses on political trolling in India.
Global Voices interviewed Srishti Jaswal over the telephone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Global Voices (GV): The ordeals you went through were truly harrowing, and unfortunately, many other victims of online harassment suffer in silence. What led you to describe this experience as a “digital prison?”
Srishti Jaswal (SJ): I think one of the reasons I described trolling as a digital prison is because this experience is very isolating and it isolates you from society at large, just like a prison. The real prison walls isolate prisoners to such an extent that they are not allowed to interact with society. And that is what happens when you are being trolled. The trolling ensures that you are isolated and your voice doesn't reach society at large. It's not like there are walls around you, but when you are trolled you remain confined within your own house, within your own premises. You can't speak with people amid threats and intimidation. You can't go out because it's very unsafe. People are threatening to rape you, kill you, amid public shaming.
Public shaming is something which is done with criminals, in a form of vigilante justice. In my case as well, I was publicly shamed. What was my crime?
These thoughts led me to describe trolling as a digital prison.
GV: How do online platforms’ algorithms come into play in the operations of troll farms, and how do these groups leverage them to locate and target their victims, or manipulate the community reporting feature to suppress dissenting voices on the internet?
SJ: I think, over time on social media, especially on Twitter, it has become even easier to target and troll. So what I know from my reporting into troll farms so far: There is an army of far-right volunteers on the Indian internet who are exploring, surveilling, targeting and looking for people who are critical of far-right ideology of Hindutva — the supremacy of Hindus and their party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
While on the hunt, the Hindu far right volunteers look for comments on Hindu religion, Indian army, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi or any other jingoistic Hindu symbols which are ideologically important to the far right. They manipulate and twist the comments of critics and dissenters to make it appear sensational and as if insulting the nationalistic symbols in order to invoke anger in the masses. In this process often they use Photoshop, artificial intelligence or other such technologies.
Their idea is to establish an agenda that Hindus are in danger which is why Hindu culture, symbols and leaders are being targeted by Modi's critics. Hinduphobia or “Hindus are in danger” is a pet political project by the BJP to justify extra-judicial acts domestically.
The far-right trolls invoke anger in the public at large and ensure that misconstrued comments are made viral. Often the valence of conversation is very violent and includes rape and murder threats along with sexualised abuse directed at the critic of Hindu far right. In the process of making it viral there is immense artificial trolling as well, which includes not just anonymous accounts, but disposable accounts, and blue tick influencer accounts with wide followings.
Artificial trolling ensures that a small group of people make a loud noise on social media, which in turn gives the illusion that a lot of people are angry. This illusion is then used to pressure employers to terminate the person who was critical of the far right. In fact, in many cases the pressure is so much that police are also forced to register a criminal complaint against the person, even if the basic requirements of law are not met.
GV: At Global Voices Advox, we are conducting a research project on digital authoritarianism that examines how the freedom of expression and the free press are assaulted both online and offline. Our findings indicate that there is a direct relationship between online attacks on journalists and political oppression. What is your perspective on this issue?
SJ: I think the online attacks are very political in nature. I don't think there's any other way to describe it except for calling it what it is. It is political trolling. It's done to strengthen the political agenda against the people who are critical of India's far right. People are terminated and jailed for something they say against India's prime minister. Such a harsh reaction to a criticism is very much telling in itself that there is a direct relationship between the political masters and the process of trolling.
Just answer this question: who benefits if a professor is removed from his job for criticizing India's prime minister?
This answer will reveal the intention.
GV: Can you provide us with some information about your upcoming book? What can readers expect to find in it?
SJ: My upcoming book is a very deeply told story of victims of trolling, and not just ordinary trolling, but political trolling in India.
They are ordinary people. They are not high profile individuals. They do not have social support when a troll attack is unleashed on them. They don't even know what trolling is. These are real stories of ordinary people such as a pilot or a teacher who faced extreme violence — online and offline — for comments against India's far right on social media. This violence is taking place at a time when the freedom of expression has been severely compromised in India.
The phenomenon of political trolling is so severe that, over the years, fewer and fewer people are speaking their mind because they know the cost to pay when they post something critical. So the book is about such posts. It's called “Post at Your Own Risk.”
I am writing the book because I myself have also faced this online onslaught. I have also braved severe political trolling. It was the middle of this tornado of trolling I decided that these stories must come out in public.
Here is a video of the panel organized by Disruption Network Lab, in which Jaswal recounts her experiences of online harassment and how it can affect individuals, particularly those from marginalized or minority communities.