A French security expert reveals how trolls backing the BJP and Congress fuelled #BoycottSurfExcel

Who is trying to boycott this?
Who is trying to boycott this?
Image: YouTube Screenshot/Surf Excel
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A Twitter trend trolling consumer goods giant Hindustan Unilever (HUL) over the past few days seems to have been fuelled by a handful of supporters of both India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and rival Congress.

Over two days, a French cybersecurity expert tracked the hashtags #SurfExcel, #BoycottSurfExcel and #BoycottHindustanUnilever on Twitter and found that these two groups were responsible for almost one in five tweets sent out during the social media campaign to boycott Surf Excel, a leading HUL detergent brand. Four out of the six most active accounts tweeting these belonged to the “BJP troll community,” the researcher said.

These trolls were using hashtags as a “disinformation weapon” to lead the attack against HUL, the Indian arm of the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, said the expert, who tweets under the pseudonym Elliot Alderson (@fs0c131y).

The recent attack on HUL was apparently in response to a television commercial that was deemed to be promoting “love jihad”, believed among Hindu nationalist circles to be a conspiracy by Muslim men to court Hindu women and convert them to Islam.

The Surf Excel ad in question shows a little girl, purportedly a Hindu, helping her friend—a Muslim—avoid getting doused in colours during the celebration of the Hindu festival Holi. Dressed in pristine white and sporting a skull-cap, the young boy rides pillion on her bicycle and gets dropped at the neighbourhood mosque to offer prayers.

But can just a handful of trolls influence a trend? Yes, says Alderson who last year found a host of security loopholes in the mobile app for India’s biometric programme, Aadhaar. He has also busted the prime minister’s NaMo app and the Congress app for failing to protect users’ personal data.

Of the 47,373 unique Twitter accounts that tweeted against Surf, 2,629 Twitter accounts were BJP trolls, as per Alderson’s analysis. And though these were just 5% of the accounts involved, they generated more than 10% of the tweets under these hashtags, he found. This showed the disproportionate amount of activity rising from these inauthentic profiles.

Reports have suggested that the BJP has a massive nexus of volunteers and paid workers scattered across the country who are instructed by the ruling party to further certain agendas.

The Twitter game of Congress trolls is not as strong as the BJP’s but they, too, reared their heads. “At their maximum, they are able to generate only 7% of the overall tweet volume,” Alderson noted.

Some of the troll activity even misfired, with Microsoft Excel facing the misguided wrath instead of Surf Excel. Irate Indians have been giving the spreadsheet app 1-star ratings on the Google Play Store and even uninstalling it.

This isn’t the first time the wrong company got caught in the crossfire as Indians outraged. In April 2017, when Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel claimed disinterest in expanding to “poor countries” like India, citizens started bombarding e-commerce player Snapdeal with negative app reviews and called on people to delete it just because the names sounded similar.

Meanwhile, Surf’s controversial ad has found supporters among another section of social media users who have applauded it. Since it was released on Feb. 27, the promo has garnered nearly 10 million views on YouTube.