What do a professor of political science, a doctor, a businessman and a brand manager have in common? They all run highly successful parody accounts on Twitter that have thousands of followers.
With 336 million active users, Twitter is probably one of the biggest platforms for peddling information and opinion. But how to stand out amid 336 million others who are posting about 500 million tweets a day?
Professor Rohit Chopra, the proprietor of the popular handle India Explained (@IndiaExplained), said it's all about catching on to the pulse of the people and tweeting about things that people either implicitly relate to or don't.
"It's not a job"
When he is not tweeting about politics or asking 'anti-national' questions, Mr Chopra teaches New Media and Communications and its intersections with politics and culture at Santa Clara University where he works as an Associate Professor. When asked how he found the time, Mr Chopra chuckled.
"It's not like a job and I do it out of my own personal interest. The internet is where I consume most news today and social media is also related to my work and research," Mr Chopra said. "I have my phone with me all the time."
Twitter users may remember the previously viral handle @RushdieExplained, the name the professor initially started tweeting with.
Mr Chopra said that though there were accounts which had a lot more followers than his 'meager' 67,000, he felt a lot of 'quality' people followed him including policymakers, politicians, media persons and others who were equipped to have informed discussions. "That is the most gratifying part of it," Chopra said.
But things weren't as smooth throughout. "As soon as my account started getting some attention, all these people who called themselves 'nationalists' started trolling me. They started threatening me online. On two instances, I had to file a police complaint," Mr Chopra explained. After that, the hate-reacts became more subdued and none of the threats have ever actually materialized.
"But I had to change the name of the handle"
Incidentally, @RushdieExplained's tweets spawned so much vitriol that even the writer Salman Rushdie was not spared.
"He started getting hate mail. People were tweeting out to him, demanding he file charges against me for 'sullying' his name. That kind of thing," Chopra said. "He was very sweet about it but I think at some point, it got too much."
He spoke of a particular couple who would write to Rushdie every day, complaining about him and asking him to file libel charges.
Rushdie finally had to reach out to Chopra and request him to review the name and Chopra maintained he was sincerely gracious about it. That was how the parody account got a makeover to become the socio-political commentary page it is today.
"I still mix it up a bit and add fun polls, interactive questions, and satire. But you can't be a parody account if you have no one to parody," the new media professor said.
But though he had the social capital and privilege to be able to fight the trolling, Chopra admitted that many may not choose to take that route.
Polarisation and hate
Karan, (name changed) the man behind 'Punster' (@Pun_starr), another virally popular parody account that tweets on politics, politicians and social issues/current affairs, said social media is a place for polarisations and it is impossible to avoid a bit of hate.
"People on social media like or hate you because of your views. They will attack you anyway if they don't agree with you, given you are influential enough. However, they can only get personal to a limit if you are an anonymous handle."
Indeed, many such accounts maintain total or at least some levels of anonymity.
"Attacking you and inflicting damage are two different things. When you are anonymous only the former happens. Which I am not bothered about much, I will just close the tab. Storm in a teacup," said Abhishek, a brand manager at a 'popular FMCG company' who also runs the parody account Gabbar (@GabbbarSingh) on the side. "But if you give out your identity outright, they can bring in your family/employers. And it can get ugly."
In the case of @Rushdie Explained which came out in 2014 just after the great Modi-wave had swept through the nation, right-wing trolls wrote to Santa Clara, asking for action against the 'rogue' Professor. Indians based in the US sent death threats to Chopra and his family. Fearing an incident of gun violence at the university, Chopra went to the police even as Twitter refrained from any action.
Digital dissent and the 'charm' of anonymity
The internet has become an important part of political discourse today and parties have not slept on the fact. Five years ago, the BJP became the first party to start making inroads in social media.
By 2019, all parties including the Congress have wizened up and taken to social media platforms, taking politics and news to new, constantly changing and varied demographic segments. What role do these parody accounts play in the current digital-political scenario?
"Most world leaders have found Twitter as a de-facto press release medium, news breaks here. So all of us are like on-ground reporters, reporting for the wider public who are not on Twitter," 'Gabbar' said. "Twitter has a limited reach yet disproportionate influence on the discourse. News channels get their fodder from Twitter."
However, baring one's politics along with one's identity brings these accounts under threat not just from trolls but also from authorities.
In December, Manipur-based journalist Kishorechand Wangkhem was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for allegedly posting videos where he was seen criticizing the Modi government on social media.
In October, Orissa government arrested political commentator Abhijit Iyer-Mitra for 'derogatory' comments against the Sun Temple and Jagannath Temples on Twitter and hurting Hindu sentiment. (Ironically, Iyer-Mitra has on several occasions tweeted against the very thing that he was arrested for — practicing the right to free speech.)
In August, a 24-year-old was arrested in Karnataka for posting 'abusive' messages against CM HD Kumaraswamy on Instagram.
As social media gained currency as a medium of communication, political parties and administrative authorities were quick to build the firewalls. All major political parties today have IT cells that routinely keep a check on social media content and trends, keeping a tab on support and dissent expressed in relation to their parties in real time.
According to Professor Chopra of India Explained, this kind of censoring is highly detrimental and can cause a lot of stress to persons on an individual level. The professor, who lived in India till the 90s, working with the then start-up Rediff.com, said he has never made any bones about his criticism of the BJP and the extreme Hindu-right and that has laid him bare to a lot of 'organised' trolling.
On one occasion, he was trolled by a BJP spokesperson known for his aggressive tweeting. "He brought on an army of trolls to my account. They tagged my university. They were tagging my associates. This was one of the instances in which I had to file a complaint in the US," he said.
In comparison, remaining anonymous may appear much easier. It doesn't give out your caste, creed, religion, LinkedIn profile for someone to claim bias, said 'Gabbar'. The brand manager also added that anonymity added a degree of 'intrigue' to the transaction.
"My neighbor from 3 years finally found out my online identity so he texted me with amusement. So the thrill of discovery works both ways," he asserted.
Fake News and Parody
But how do these accounts maintain the distinction between fake news and parody, especially in the eyes of the short-sighted Indian Twitterati?
According to Sudipto Chakraverty, a doctor by profession and the man behind RoflIndian (@Roflindian), everything boiled down to credibility and accountability and the best way to steer clear of misinforming was by tweeting responsibly.
"I never share tweets or information that is less than credible or which isn't independently verifiable as true. I have no intention of adding, willingly or otherwise, to the vortices of fake news and unsubstantiated information circulating on the internet," Chakraverty said.
Gearing toward a WhatsApp election?
In any case, the new arena for fake news is not Twitter but WhatsApp. By 2020, the number of Indians using WhatsApp is expected to grow to 450 million. In the last year itself, WhatsApp messages caused at least 31 deaths and fueled violence during during communal tensions including the 2013 riots in Muzzaffarnagar.
Now with another election looming, social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp are reportedly set to ramp up security measures. WhatsApp already put in place several safeguards such as labeling forwarded messages, limiting the number of people a user can send a message to at one go and launching public awareness campaign against fake news.
However, Santa Clara' Professor Chopra feared it may not be enough. Chopra, who has researched the proliferation of Indian nationalism on social media and the internet, felt that the next election was set to be a 'dangerous' WhatsApp election.
"Now, the main tool for organising political dissent or capital has shifted to WhatsApp which is largely invisible. On Twitter, you can all out fake news and misinformation," Chopra said. But in private WhatsApp groups or forwards, that becomes impossible.
And as far as the credibility of parody accounts was concerned, Gabbar had a few truth kernels to shed.
"See, I don't see myself as a "source". Imagine a guy sitting in a metro, reading a newspaper. I am not the newspaper (source) I am the guy sitting next to you, looking over your shoulder, reading the newspaper with you, and sharing a joke/observation about what you are reading," the eponymous villain said. "And on some days I bring the newspaper to read out to you."