Mumbai: A well-oiled campaign is working overtime to boost controversial television anchor Arnab Goswami’s popularity on Facebook.
A network of pages and groups with millions of followers appear to be working in concert, pushing Goswami, 47, as a national leader, stoking Islamophobia, praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and taking political swipes at opposition parties.
The result of the campaign is, often, the creation of a zealous, cult-like following around Goswami, with followers calling him a Hindu God and a “living martyr,” likening his arrest to Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts to dislodge colonial British rule.
Goswami is the founder of the English-language Republic World and the Hindi Republic Bharat television news channels, both of which have been frequently accused (here, here and here) of spreading misinformation and disinformation, stoking religious biases and taking partisan position that support India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
From calling protesting migrant workers “paid actors” to insinuating that “Italy waali” Congress chief Sonia Gandhi was “happy” after two sadhus, or Hindu holy men, and their driver were lynched in a tribal village in Palghar, outside Mumbai in April, the network’s reporting has often been fuelled by rumour.
After actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide in June 2020, Goswami repeatedly promoted conspiracy theories alleging that Rajput had been “murdered”. The Bombay High Court and the Delhi High Court are currently hearing petitions against the channel’s coverage of Rajput’s death.
The ongoing campaign cultivates a larger-than-life persona for Goswami, using each of these events to cement his image and attack critics of the government.
Article 14 found 100 Facebook Pages and 58 Groups run in Goswami’s name, each with a following of anywhere between a few hundred to half a million, which routinely shared political propaganda in favour of Modi while attacking his critics. While not all pages display information on who controls them, some of the largest pages and groups are run by those who also run other pro-BJP pages including pages dedicated to Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh (UP) Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
At least four such pages and groups with hundreds of thousands of followers were launched in a span of two days, on 23 and 24 April this year, just days after the Palghar lynchings.
Article 14 sought comment from Goswami, but he did not respond to text messages and emails. We similarly sought comment from administrators of all the groups named in this piece, but there was no response. We will update this story if there are any responses.
Goswami does not have any official social media presence, apart from the official handles of Republic TV and Republic Bharat. The reach of these pro-Goswami pages and groups exceeds the online presence of the verified pages of the two channels.
On Facebook, while both the official TV channel handles have a combined reach of over 4.6 million users, a back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that the total reach of the 100 pages and 58 groups is over 5.5 million users.
Such a massive following can often be flogged in dangerous ways.
Recently, for instance, when Goswami’s legal troubles mounted after he was arrested on 4 November by the Maharashtra Police, these pages and groups buzzed with rumours and misinformation. Goswami was charged under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code (abetment to suicide) in a case related the suicide of an interior designer allegedly after “non-payment” of dues by Goswami’s Republic TV and two others and spent a week in jail before he secured bail from the Supreme Court.
Some posts claimed Goswami was being tortured, others alleged that he would be killed in an ‘encounter’ by the police. One post even asked people to rush to the prison he was being kept in, so as to pressurise authorities to release him.
According to Joyojeet Pal, an academic and researcher, whose research interests include political communications and tracking social media usage in Indian politics, this reflected a “real moment of radicalisation” in the country’s history.
“There is now a level of radicalisation among people where people are willing to believe any kind of conspiracies about those who are seen to be on their side,” said Pal.
Targeting Common Enemies
Goswami’s channels often broadcast content with blatantly communal overtones.
On 3 November, he conducted a prime-time debate where he said those who doubt the occurrence of “Love Jihad”—an unsubstantiated Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory, according to which Muslim men are converting Hindu women en masse—were “frauds” and “fools”.
“There is no debate over whether ‘Love Jihad’ exists or not. We know that it exists but this is India and we will not let it happen here,” he said.
Later in the show, Goswami said that he would ensure there was a public agitation against ‘Love Jihad’. After the Palghar lynching, Goswami said it had become a “crime to be a Hindu” and alleged that “if a maulvi was killed, instead, would people stay silent?”
The Facebook pages and groups project and magnify this Islamophobia.
On 23 October, just days before the first phase of the Bihar polls, on ‘We Support Arnab Goswami’, a group with 190,000 followers, a post by the administrator, bearing Goswami’s photo, warned that “Hindus were only left with 20 states”.
“Agar ab bhi casteism and secularism ka bhut nahi uttara toh aane wale din bahut kasht daayak ho sakte hain,” the post said. (If Hindus don’t put casteism and secularism aside, the coming days will be laden with difficulties). The post fetched over 1,600 likes along with nearly 500 shares and comments.
On the same group, a few days later, another post by the administrator referred to Muslims as “Jihadis” and asked all Hindu men to take responsibility and be alert to any “Jihadi found loitering in their neighbourhoods, villages and cities,” since it could be an attempt to “target” Hindu women. This garnered over 1,000 likes and over 300 comments and shares.
Goswami’s channels often take openly partisan political positions. He is known for hosting television debates that target the opposition, especially the Congress party’s top leaders, Gandhi—whom he frequently refers to as “Antonia Maino”—and her son Rahul.
The channels’ partisan positions have reaped rewards—over the last two years, Modi has delivered keynote addresses in two summits held by Goswami's network in December 2018 and November 2019. When he was arrested, senior BJP leaders, including Union Home Minister Amit Shah, issued a tweet supporting him, saying his arrest, on charges of abetting suicide, was “an attack on free press and WILL BE OPPOSED”.
A YouTube channel Kroordarshan, which analyses media reporting using data and memes, found that of the 50 debates that Goswami conducted between 20 April to 29 May, 24 targeted the Congress and other opposition parties. None questioned the ruling BJP or the Modi government.
Goswami’s jibes at the BJP’s political rivals—he refers to the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) as “Sonia Sena”, calls the Jammu & Kashmir’s People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration the “Anti-national Gang”—are mirrored on these pages.
The “official” group of the channel, called “Arnab Goswami Republic TV Official”, on Dussehra wished its users by posting a political cartoon, with a ten-headed Ravana, whose faces included Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Sonia Gandhi, Mumbai police chief Parambir Singh and Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut.
These groups frequently abuse BJP’s political rivals, such as Rahul Gandhi and Thackeray’s son and Maharashtra Environment minister Aaditya. Administrators often spread misinformation about Rahul, quote him inaccurately and poke fun at him.
Pal said such posts ensure that users know who “the enemy” is. “This is a reinforcement of political enemies,” he said. “Such groups are just new ways of reminding people that the ‘enemy’ is very much around.”
Almost simultaneously, most of these groups issue posts that praise and promote leaders from the ruling BJP. During the recent Bihar polls, many webcast live the speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
One post, on ‘We Support Arnab Goswami’ compared Goswami’s arrest to the arrest of Home Minister Amit Shah in 2010 in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake-encounter case, adding that “some arrests can change history,” and garnered over 3,500 engagements. One of the largest groups, ‘I Support Arnab Goswami’, with over 436,000 followers, disparaged Rahul as ‘Pappu’ and Aaditya as ‘baby penguins,’ language commonly used by members and sympathisers of the BJP on social media.
Such propaganda is often employed to shift the narrative in favour of the BJP, especially during times when citizens are expressing dissatisfaction with the government.
On 30 September, a day after the victim of the gang rape in Hathras died, another post on ‘We Support Arnab Goswami’, which has over 340,000 followers, posted an edited video, allegedly of the victim, claiming that she was not raped. The post saw nearly 6,000 engagements and was released at a time when political pressure was mounting against the Uttar Pradesh government, after it had hurriedly cremated the victim’s body without informing her family members.
Similarly, there were posts to counter criticism against the Modi government for pushing through Parliament a clutch of new farm-related laws which, among other things, allow farmers to sell their produce to private traders and bypass the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC).
Many of these groups defended the bills and, instead, attacked the Congress and other opposition parties for opposing them. On ‘I Support Arnab Goswami,’ the administrator compared these protests to those against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (2019) and alleged that a “gang” was “inflicting fear” in people’s minds.
Cultivating A Cult
Even as these groups peddle various narratives and agendas, one strand remains constant—the creation of a cult around Goswami.
In these groups, Goswami is painted as a “Hindu Saviour”, the “only journalist who stands for Hindus”, comparisons that appear to have increased after his channels’ coverage of the Palghar lynching. In his shows, Goswami alleged a conspiracy that aimed to cover-up the killings of the two Hindu sadhus and their driver and insinuated a communal angle to the killings.
On 21 April, Goswami asked his panelists if “a certain community has concluded that the Hindu community is the weakest of them all,” and instead, said that “it was time to speak up.”
The Palghar police found that the mob that lynched the three people in the Gadakchinchale village was driven by social media rumours about child kidnappers. Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh had also dismissed speculation that the killings were a result of communal hatred, even adding that none of the arrested persons were Muslim.
So, when Goswami was arrested on 4 November, ‘We Support Arnab Goswami’, a group with nearly 200,000 followers, posted that “if Arnab stands up for Hindus, can’t Hindus stand up for Arnab?” Five days later, on 9 November, ‘Arnab Goswami Republic TV Official’ likened Goswami to the Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was captured by Pakistani forces after his plane was downed during a dogfight between Indian and Pakistani pilots in February 2019.
“If Modiji can free Abhinandan from Pakistan, then they should also free rashtrabhakt Arnabji right away,” one post read. Another post painted Goswami as “only journalist to fight the Bollywood Jihad, the Dawood Gang, the Drugs Mafia and the one to expose the truth in the Sushant Singh Rajput case”.
Such projections of the Republic TV editor-in-chief, according to Shakuntala Banaji, a professor of media, culture and social media in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics, are only taking off from Goswami’s own carefully-cultivated image.
“It is a misnomer to suggest that Goswami is being used,” said Banaji. “He has decided what will profit him and his reputation and gradually reconstructed and moulded his image in line with that of a fierce defender of the Hindus and Hindutva.”
Such passions are then stoked by comments made on Republic by panelists and staffers, which are then posted on these groups. A Republic staffer, Pradeep Bhandari, in a video posted on one such group, said that Goswami’s legal battles were “the country’s fight,” not his own. “If Arnab wins, the country wins,” he said, in the video, which has over 15,000 likes and more than 2,500 comments. On a prime-time debate hosted by Goswami on November 13, one panelist, M S Bitta, called Goswami “a journalist who can make Pakistan’s ISI shiver,” and whose voice makes “terrorists run away”.
On Facebook groups and pages, followers mouth similar platitudes and want Goswami to become a full-time politician.
In the ‘Arnab Goswami Republic TV’ group that calls itself “official,” the administrator poses as Goswami to ask followers if he is “worthy of being a CM,” eliciting enthusiastic responses from users. On 22 October, on the ‘We Support Arnab Goswami’ page, an administrator posing as Goswami, alleged that “some people in the opposition parties” wanted him to “die by suicide,” but he won’t do that because he knows “the whole nation is with him”.
A follower who claimed to be Rohini from Sri Lanka, compared Goswami’s troubles with the travails faced by Mahatma Gandhi and hailed Goswami’s “greatness displayed for victimized citizens.” Another follower called Goswami a “national hero” and said that she had become “so attached to Arnab” that it keeps her “glued to republic Bharat news channel everyday.”
According to Pal, the researcher, such following is not fake. Instead, he believes these groups and pages might be indulging in a type of ‘astroturfing’—an academic explanation for coordinated campaigns on social-media platforms by deceptively creating the impression that the messages have widespread support.
“So, there would be a small number of very loud people online who might be initially pushing the agenda and making noise initially,” said Pal. “But that is complemented by the large amounts of followers who are radicalised enough to buy into that.”
A Vast Network
Pal’s observations are borne out by the ways in which these Goswami-centred pages and groups expand their reach and influence, by teaming up with other pro-BJP groups.
With almost clockwork precision, posts on most of these groups are, instantly, shared by other groups with overlapping interests, increasing their reach.
It works both ways. Posts on the various Facebook pages and groups named after Goswami are shared by pro-BJP pages. For instance, on 24 October, ‘We Support Arnab Goswami’ posted a ‘live’ video of Goswami speaking from his office where he said there was a “conspiracy” against him because he was the “only person who questioned why Sadhus were being killed in Palghar”.
That video was posted across 398 Facebook Pages which include pages called ‘Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,’ ‘Sambit Patra Fan Clubs’ as well as fan clubs run in the name of PM Modi, Union Minister Giriraj Singh and other BJP leaders. The original group in which the video was posted had just 65,000 followers but thanks to these shares, the post reached over 19 million followers. Article14 used data from ‘CrowdTangle,’ a free Facebook tool, to measure the reach of this and other posts.
So when ‘Arnab Goswami Republic TV Official’, with over 14,000 followers posted the video of Republic staffer Bhandari on 8 November, calling Goswami’s arrest a “Black day for India, after Independence”, the video was shared across 29 groups, including groups like ‘Namo TV Live’, ‘I Support Narendra Modi our PM’ and ‘Modi Fans’ and reached over 2.8 million users.
Experts believe that such content and the easy and large reach it enjoys are ominous signs of what lies ahead.
On 7 October, Article14 reported how Facebook groups and pages had played a crucial role in manufacturing and spreading wild conspiracy theories around Rajput’s death in June and had stoked anger, hatred against other celebrities and the Mumbai Police.
According to Pal, such an operation shows that there is a “kingmaker” quality to the spread of social media content in these groups and pages. “What we have is a social media kingmaker of some kind, where there is an ability to take anything there is and make it worthy to millions of people overnight,” he said.
What, however, is unique about these 158 Facebook groups and pages is that they aim to set a political narrative while not explicitly running a political account. Instead, they use Goswami’s face and his persona to further the political agenda of Hindutva.
According to Banaji, such groups play a critical role in creating misrepresentation, “that the self is righteous and the other is barbaric”.
“These misrepresentations are often apparently benign, pastoral and subtly racist—not necessarily anti-democracy,” she said, adding that the consequences of such misrepresentations, perpetrated by groups like these, are disastrous. “They legitimise more and more forms of injustice and extreme violence against the groups it ‘others’.”
As the content on the group shows, this legitimation is only accentuated by Republic’s brand of journalism.
The posts on the various Facebook groups, targeting various religious minorities and stoking prejudices and religious hate can have real-life consequences. The concept note for an ongoing two-day 13th session of the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues on ‘Hate Speech, Social Media and Minorities,’ said online hate speech against minorities can create “a climate of intolerance and hostility” that can exclude and marginalise them. “Such online expressions of hate can result in or increase the chances of human rights violations and abuses taking place offline against minorities.”
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)