Last week, digital activist Saket Gokhale started to get frantic calls from volunteers working to organize online Covid-19 relief. As death rates peaked to over 3,000 a day, hundreds of volunteers across the country created online resources for coronavirus patients looking for supplies like oxygen or ICU beds. But the volunteers calling Gokhale were calling about something else: they were getting threatening calls from the Delhi police.
On the calls, volunteers were told to stop posting SOS messages and unverified leads on supplies for fear their messages could lead to charges of black market trading or spreading false information. Gokhale did some research and traced some of the numbers of the callers threatening volunteers back to the digital wing of India’s ruling party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “I realized a lot of these were people from a certain political party going after any narrative that would make the government look bad,” said the Mumbai-based activist. “They are on overdrive with perception management.”
During India’s worst pandemic surge, activists and organizers say right-wing trolls and some members of the police force are working to counter the narrative of a country in crisis. Last week, over 100 Twitter and Facebook posts that were critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the second wave of Covid-19 were blocked. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, after one man was arrested for tweeting a request for oxygen, a leading BJP politician banned taking photos of crematoriums and sharing SOS messages online. Although the Indian Supreme Court stepped in to condemn the ban, it has had a chilling effect on volunteer groups that have been organizing primarily through social media platforms.
On April 28, a Twitter user in Uttar Pradesh state was arrested for tweeting a desperate plea for oxygen for his dying grandfather. The police arrested him “with intent to cause … fear or alarm.” News of the arrest spread quickly. An organizer working with a youth-led volunteer organization called Citizens’ Aid Collective told Rest of World that they know of as many as nine groups that removed their online resources in the wake of the arrest. The organizer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear or reprisal from the police.
As coronavirus cases in India reached new peaks, Citizens’ Aid Collective was forced to shut down their online resource-sharing group for coronavirus-related emergencies. Organizers noticed their public WhatsApp was infiltrated by members of the Uttar Pradesh police. “There was nothing being discussed which would be illegal or anything,” said the Citizens’ Aid organizer, “but we were scared.”
After the Supreme Court’s April 30 order — the court said state police or government-enforced actions against relief groups would be in contempt of court — some groups have resumed their online organizing. But fear of being surveilled or doxxed has made some limit their organizing groups to people they know or trust, according to the anonymous organizer.
Before Citizens’ Aid Collective suspended its operations, the organizer told Rest of World that members had received calls from police in Delhi. “It was not threatening, but it was a passive-aggressive call,” said the volunteer organizer. “They were saying, you have to take permission, you have to ensure that everything you post is not breaking the law, and if you break any law, you will be in trouble.”
On Twitter, police in Delhi have denied intimidating or preventing volunteer groups from sharing resources. “It doesnt [sic] prevent good Samaritan work while opposed to those benefiting at the cost of public good,” read the tweet. But Gokhale, who received calls from volunteer organizers from around the country, said he was able to trace some of the calls to landline numbers for police cybercrimes units. Gokhale also found instances of female volunteers being harrassed by someone claiming to be a police officer.
Gokhale said he’s been receiving fewer calls after the Supreme Court’s announcement but that online trolls are quickly proliferating their campaigns against volunteer groups. A source told Gokhale that right-wing Hindu nationalist accounts were threatening to dox accounts amplifying resources online. “That online intimidation campaign is happening,” he said. The organizer working with Citizens’ Aid Collective said some of his volunteers are facing attacks online too. “A lot of our volunteers are young Muslim women,” said the organizer. “They have received attacks, apart from the sexist and abusive threats.”
Gokhale believes accounts like this are part of the BJP party’s extended network of social media trolls, which have been particularly active during a spring election season. On Sunday, five Indian states announced their election results; the BJP lost in three. During the current spike in cases, critics say the party’s digital teams have alternated between downplaying the scale of the pandemic and scapegoating the country’s Muslim minority as the cause for the crisis.
“The sad part is that they’re not panicky about the medical condition in the country right now,” Gokhale added. “They are panicking about how people are going to see us.”