Saloni Dash, Joyojeet Pal
Fast bowler Mohammed Shami was in the news for being trolled online in the hours and days following India’s unqualified trouncing from Pakistan in the t20 world cup game between the two teams. While the team more or less uniformly underperformed, Shami’s figures were worse than those of his teammates, and more importantly, he bowled the fateful last over.
A troll aimed at Shami, not directly calling out his faith, came from a major right-wing influencer account @gabbarsingh right as he bowled the eighteenth over, in which Pakistan won the game. The message triggered a series of abuse tweets aimed at both Kohli and Shami, within thirty minutes of which Uzair Rizvi, a factchecker posted screenshots of trolling aimed at Shami’s official Instagram account. This was followed by other influential accounts confirming the same or sending out similar screenshots.
We found that the evidence of abuse was legitimate in that a lot of it came from accounts seemingly of real people, but that there was no conclusive evidence of organized top-down trolling by the right-wing. While a number of the accounts that engaged in hateful speech directed at Shami were either taken down or removed the specific offensive material, the messaging did in fact happen, and at least half of those were what appeared to be legitimate accounts, with apparent origins in India. One pattern we saw was that many such accounts seemed to belong to teenaged males.
Two elements of the trolling were politicized. First, a statement from Asad Owaisi criticizing the trolling went viral, reported by the news as emblematic of the state of affairs of Muslims in the country. Others, including politicians such as Rahul Gandhi, chimed in, in support of Shami, also furthering the narrative that the opposition politicians stood by the bowler while the ruling party enabled the trolling. Rahul Gandhi’s message went viral, in addition to which, a number of social media accounts that generally lean Congress including those of Bhavika Kapoor and Vasundhara Chauhan chimed by amplifying messages that were critical of the current political dispensation.
The narrative of organized messaging from Pakistan was put forth the following day, including from influential commentators such as Rajat Sharma. We found no conclusive evidence that there was a top-down attempt to engage in systematic trolling (such as the same or similar messages being amplified by a set of users acting on behest of known leaders. The first tweet we sampled that went viral in Pakistan was from Fatima Bhutto, from the Bhutto family, who tweeted about the reports of abuse.
The Pakistan angle was fueled by Pakistani commentator Mubasher Lucman’s insinuation that Shami was given the over to scapegoat him over the likely loss.
In such cases, showing a managed social media campaign is difficult since it requires showing both intentionality and traceability, and while a number of news reports stated that Pakistan was behind the issue, none were able to show any reasonable evidence beyond some engagement by social media accounts attributable to Pakistan, that the trolling itself was driven by Pakistan.
Demanding the Knee
The hours following the game had some negative messaging, but these were vastly overtaken on scale by the outrage related to the attacks. The majority of trolling on Twitter was in replies to messages, there were much fewer cases of open trolling.
The first few hours were largely a mix of criticism of the trolling, discussions around the political environment for Muslims in India, and demands for Indian cricketers to “Stand With” Shami. Within the hour of the first Instagram messages, there were calls to match the ‘knee’ gesture by Indian cricketers in support of the Black Lives Matter movement to also include a gesture in support of their teammate. English football captain Harry Kane was also invoked, for having supported his Black teammates against a racist backlash following their Euro loss. Overall, on the day of the game, social media was largely pro-Shami, critical of Instagram attacks, as we see with the trend around the hashtag #StandWithShami
The cricketer to support Shami against the trolling was Virender Sehwag, whose message read “The online attack on Mohammad Shami is shocking and we stand by him. He is a champion and Anyone who wears the India cap has India in their hearts far more than any online mob. With you Shami. Agle match mein dikado jalwa.” His message was followed by one from Irfan Pathan, whose message had a stronger tone of outrage when he tweeted “Even I was part of #IndvsPak battles on the field where we have lost but never been told to go to Pakistan! I’m talking about 🇮🇳 of few years back. THIS CRAP NEEDS TO STOP. #Shami”
The messages that followed in coming hours were from VVS Laxman, Harbhajan Singh, Mohammed Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Yuzi Chahal, and Anil Kumble, and a number of cricket commentators. However, none of his current teammates tweeted about the issue, even though several of them are active online and engage regularly on commercial messaging. The official response did come from Kohli himself, through a video message he put out in which he unequivocally condemned the trolls. Overall, the messages from other cricketers were by far the most engaged.
The Farzi Turn
While the first day of social media action was dominated by discussions about the trolling and subsequently support for Shami, the second day of tweeting was attacks at those who called out the trolling, either as overreacting, or through a form of whataboutery. A look at the change in the tweeting over the next day shows how the narrative turned to Pakistan, as well as a critique of those who bought into the trolling narrative. First, we see that the hashtag #ShamiKiFarziTrolling, which went viral on the 26th, actually got more engagement with #StandWithShami. But both hashtags had a short shelf-life, more or less vanishing online within about 48 hours of their starting.
The Influencer Networks
This brings us to the most important part of this story. The influencer networks in this story are intricate and effective. From among the media, Republic was the channel that covered the story the most on Twitter, followed by News18 and Scroll. However, the networks of spread from influencers had a much larger role in the story’s trajectory online. While the most retweeted and liked message were those of cricketers and commentators, the drivers of traffic both on the side of presenting Shami as a victim of bullying and trolling, and presenting the story as fabricated were influential public commentators who have the ability to trend a story quickly and effectively.
We see that right wing influencers Rahul Roushan and Sunanda Vashisht, were both the most vocal (messaging sixteen and seventeen times repectively on Shami in the period studied), but that other like-minded influencers Neelam Singh, Ankit Jain and Shubendu Anand were major drivers of traffic. On the other hand, journalists Rana Ayyub, Barkha Dutt, and Gurpreet Walia, typically ideologically opposed to the right, were major drivers of traffic on the side that called out trolls, while commentators while Uppsala Univ Professor Ashok Swain, activist Gurmehar Kaur also drove in excess of 10,000 “likes” to their messaging on the issue.
|Account ID||Engagements||Total Like Impressions|
A second layer of traffic is driven by over 20 accounts with over 50k followers on Twitter, each of which had more than 12 messages on the subject. What we see is a near perfect echo chamber, with one side of influencers engaging almost exclusively with issues of religion-based trolling, while another side of influencers argues alternately that there was no trolling, and that the trolling was driven from abroad.
On the whole, the situation was also defused by Kohli’s definitive message on the issue, as well as the support messages from several key players including Sachin Tendulkar, which seemed to calm the outrage on the side that felt Indian players were not doing enough to support their teammate.
Finally, it is important that Shami didn’t exactly lose the game, for all practical purposes the game was lost well before Shami’s final over. But someday soon, a Muslim player on the team will have a big part in losing a game, and that game may be lost to Pakistan, with even higher stakes than this one. The stage is weaponized and waiting.