On 6th January 2022, “The Wire”, an independent online news outlet published an article on their website, which was the first one of a three-part story, describing various aspects of an app called “Tech Fog”, which was being used by BJP and their IT cell employees, mostly to manipulate social media in unlawful manners.
You can read the three-part series using the below links:
The story was made possible by the investigation done by the Wire team collecting information and evidence from a source who claimed to have been working for the BJP IT cell and have been using the Tech Fog app to do many unlawful activities. They shed light on various aspects of using this application to manipulate social media trends artificially, amplify fake news by hijacking inactive social media accounts, and creating fake new articles which looks like the real deal using various techniques like XSS(Cross Site Scripting)
The publishers also provided various evidences they could collect during their investigation in the form of app screenshots and sometimes screen recordings to support their findings.
By reading those articles, and corroborating the information I got with several experiences I had while spending my time in social media websites and noticing the general “trends” in the news and social media space, here is what I understood so far:
In the previous few years, I have noticed many times that the trending section of Twitter has some weird problems. I have noticed that the trends listed there were too extreme to be made a hash-tag and tweeted by so many people that it became trending, but I also noticed that there were trends/hash-tags which were associated with certain brands or new product launches, which again were not that popular to be number one in trending.
So naturally I assumed that BJP or any other political organization must have bought that slot, just like any other company bought the trending section. Maybe there was a way similar to advertising by which I can buy a slot in the trending section.
By reading those articles above I realized that its not really advertising, but its manipulation of media by creating noise using sophisticated (and sometimes not-so-sophisticated) techniques.
Ignore the rule of law because why not?
As much as I wanted to delve into the technological details of how they did all those things, I think it is much more important to consider why they did it. What basically happened is that BJP, the ruling party has been “gaming the system” or worse, ignoring the system altogether to push their agenda bypassing all the checks and balances that exist in the democratic process of this country. There have been many examples of this behavior in the past, some can be read here and here.
You can imagine then what will happen when a party with such a low regard to law and due process gets a group of highly motivated, technologically literate people to work for them. They used a bunch of people initially to spew hate all across the internet, and as a logical next step, they automated that process of spewing hate so that even the technologically illiterate employees can spew hate and that too at a much larger scale. Its frightening what people can do with the tools they have if you assure them that whatever they do they will get all kinds of protection from the government.
Its frightening what people can do with the tools they have if you assure them that whatever they do they will get all kinds of protection from the government.
In a blog post and a series of tweets, Devesh Kumar, a member of the team who published this report, have explained in length the process they went through to prepare this story. He says:
Yes we are not traditional journalists. Yes we don’t have a journalism degree. But we were invested in the story, we collected that much data without any end-result in sight. We presented precisely what we found and what we couldn’t (rather than sharing an opinion).— Devesh Kumar (@onosmosis) January 15, 2022
Using the information gathered from an unknown (to us) source, they show us how the BJP IT cell created massive amount of tweets and social media posts from a large number of accounts to manipulate the trending section, how large scale attacks were performed on journalists, activists and other personalities whom the government didn’t like for some reason, how they created fake news links that looks like originals from credible sources, and the ease of doing all these things from an app called Tech Fog.
There have been many people who criticize the Wire Story about Tech Fog. I came across one such post here: https://www.samarthbansal.com/the-wires-tek-fog-investigation-futile-search-for-evidence/
In which the author says:
The author thinks that since the evidences shared by the people behind the Wire story are not complete with all the details, the story itself is a result of confirmational bias.
I agree to the fact that all the evidences for the points made in the story are not there (like how exactly the “fake” accounts were created, or how exactly the inactive WhatsApp accounts were hijacked), But the author conveniently forgets the fact that it is not the point at all.
Instead of criticizing and nit-picking, this story should be starting a discussion on what exactly the party called BJP and their IT cell is doing and how much of it is illegal, and how much of it will destroy democracy in India, because I think those details are far more important than the technical details of how a WhatsApp account is hijacked (which is not a new thing to happen and has been done already by actual, criminal hackers who has no affiliation to a government )
The Decline of Journalism in India
Another point this article brings light to is the pathetic state of journalism in India. The author of the criticism post thinks that:
What I would say is that the fact that no mainstream media has reported anything related to this and the massive attacks on individuals by political parties and their minions, despite many evidences of them attacking even journalists and manipulating media, point to a critical, underlying problem with Indian journalism today.
The fact that no mainstream media has reported anything like Tech Fog or attacks on individuals by political parties and their minions, despite many evidences of IT cell attacking individuals (even journalists) and manipulating media, point to a critical, underlying problem with Indian journalism today.
In a democratic, developing country like India, a large part of journalism should be about criticizing the Government and their policies, not in a negative way, but with an intention to make the Government and the whole country better. But unfortunately, it seems like all the media houses in this country are either afraid of the Government, or worse, working with them to do all the manipulations pointed out by the Wire story.
I hope this story about Tech Fog by the Wire make at least a few more people think critically of the government and the party that controls it, and pay attention to the steady decline of the Democratic values in India, because in a Democratic country, the first step of solving a problem is that a large enough number of people are realized that there is a problem.