Online trolls are fast and furious, especially in India. They use coordinated attacks and false virality to influence how people view politics, entertainment, and society.
New research from Joyojeet Pal, associate professor at the U-M School of Information, shows that social media trolls in India are not only skilled at creating negative virality. They are also nimble: When topics and targets change, the online attackers move fast, seemingly en masse.
"The most interesting thing I've observed is to see how quickly trolls will move from one topic to another online," Pal said. "They will be trolling someone relentlessly and, suddenly, switch to a completely different topic, and the whole group flips and starts attacking new people."
Pal studies the role of technology in democracy and labor. He specializes in politicians' use of social media and misinformation, with a focus on India. He maintains a historical archive of tweets from 19,000 Indian influencers, including film stars, journalists, and 44,000 politicians.
Indian social media is rife with misinformation, he says. More troubling is the widespread use of "astroturfing"—when political interests fabricate engagement across social media to give the false impression of an independent grassroots movement.
"The astroturfing in India is potentially more insidious than a single group or organization running the show; it has evolved into a mix of free agents and radicalized citizens who aggressively put forth messaging to support their political and social agendas. It makes their messages appear much more 'viral' than they actually are," said Pal in a recent interview with the tech publication "Rest of World."
Pal has worked with the University of Michigan on and off for a decade, with a break when he accepted a position at Microsoft. He holds a degree in commerce from the University of Mumbai and a Ph.D. in urban planning from the University of California Berkeley. His research has been published more than 200 times.
Pal's recent study with research intern Sheyril Agarwal, of Université Lumière Lyon 2, is titled "#BoycottBollywood: A Study of Twitter Networks Calling for Canceling the Hindi Film Industry." The authors systematically researched #BoycottBollywood activity on social media with attention to drivers and network characteristics.
They found 1,438,221 tweets from 167,989 accounts, posted between Aug. 1 and Sept. 12, 2022, that used the hashtag. Three hundred and thirty-six accounts had more than 1,000 tweets on Bollywood in this period, suggesting organized behavior in a subset of accounts. The researchers mapped when activity peaked, which tended to be just before a film release. They also identified ghost accounts created in the past two years and several cases of misinformation. However, based on the visualization of the overall network, no clear pattern emerged. The researchers concluded there is a mix of organized trolling and genuine interest in #BoycottBollywood, and a good number of people online likely see Bollywood negatively.
The influencer effect
While scholars often research social media, few have explored how individuals and influencers play a role in online discourse. Pal's research includes work on the relationship between trolling and political outreach during elections and on misinformation in India. Experts cite his work on targeting Muslims during COVID-19, and his research on online conspiracy theories about Sushant Rajput's suicide.
"Social media influencers have changed politics; in part, politicians themselves have become influencers," Pal said. "But likewise, culture—things like food, travel, body image—are all changing due to how they are depicted and appropriated on social media."
In addition, in the spring of 2022, Pal and Omolade Adunbi, professor and chair of the U-M Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, co-hosted a symposium on social media influencers' effect on society, politics, and economy in South Asia and Africa.
Speakers included social media influencers from various platforms: film stars, politicians, lawyers, journalists, artists, dissidents, comedians, and scholars. The symposium drew a large crowd, with about 600 attending the online and in-person conference.
"We focused on South Asia and Africa because they are the two regions with the fastest growth in internet usage and social media adoption in the last five years," Pal said. "And, although we concentrated on these regions, the topics had international ramifications. We find social and political upheaval patterns are remarkably similar across the globe."
Hindi film actor and activist Swara Bhasker delivered the keynote speech. She shared her trajectory toward stardom and, inadvertently, toward Bollywood activism.
"I am often recognizable not just to Bollywood audiences, but to politicians and political activists, people who don't necessarily follow Bollywood," Bhasker said. "These are some of the cause-and-effect dynamics of social media at play. These dynamics complicate our understanding of celebrity identity and what makes a celebrity relevant. I don't need to play the 'trying-hard-to-stay-relevant-somehow-game' anymore."
View the lectures and discussions at the "Social Media Influencers and the New Political Economy in South Asia and Africa" symposium on YouTube.