Columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta described newly-anointed Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath as the “mascot of militant Hindu sectarianism, reactionary ideas, routinised conflict and thuggery in political discourse”. Mehta’s essay in the Indian Express is everything that incenses the Right-inclined alternative media – it’s blunt, uncompromising and angry. “India’s enemies will be exulting that at a moment in world history, when all India had to do was to have a sensible policy, we have chosen to empower the worst of ourselves,” writes Mehta. Mehta’s article is also distinctly unrepresentative of mainstream media. In fact, it stands out for its dissent. The day after it was published, The Hindustan Times told us of Adityanath’s strict, vegetarian diet and his love for animals. Newspapers, including the Financial Express, ran stories projecting Adityanath’s Gorakhnath mathh as a harmonious utopia where a Muslim volunteer tended to his beloved cows. We were fed news item after news item extolling Yogi’s incredible administrative efficiency. India Today‘s Rahul Kanwal exhorted us to not judge Yogi on his previous transgressions, but to “give him a chance”. To top it off, we witnessed heartrending scenes on Gaurav Sawant’s show on India Today as Yogi fed gur (jaggery) to calves at the gaushala (cow shelter) in Gorakhnath mathh.
Yet if you look at the Right-wing news websites, you would imagine that India’s mainstream media is constantly shaking its fist at the Centre. The influence of such websites must not be underestimated as fringe lunacy. Not only are they among the preferred sources of news for a significant portion of the populace, they have either by chance or design bypassed standard systems of distribution and been able to cultivate a loyal and growing leadership. They’ve earned a reputation of credibility among those who believe the mainstream is virulently opposed to pro-Hindutva politics, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). How far that’s true is, as the above paragraph shows, up for debate, but it’s a belief that’s been nurtured over the years that BJP has been in the opposition and the media was seen as a mouthpiece of Congress-led governments. While there are innumerable Right-wing websites that have sprung up in recent times, Newslaundry counted at least 10 such sites which are among the top 10,000 sites in India based on Alexa rankings. It wasn’t possible to contact owners of all 10 websites and out of those that we were able to reach, three were willing to speak openly about their respective ventures.
Offering a “pro-Narendra Modi” and “nationalist” narrative to counter the mainstream’s perceived antipathy is the inspiration behind Postcard.news, said the website’s Bengaluru-based founder Mahesh Vikram Hegde. The declaration of bias is done with pride and carries the aura of being a truth-teller, rather than peddler of press releases (which is how mainstream media is seen). Postcard.news is just six months old and already has 166,000 likes on its Facebook page and is among the top 2,000 websites in India according to Alexa rankings. The site went into overdrive soon after the formal announcement of Adityanath’s appointment, publishing articles with headlines like these:
These three articles are a curious mix of hearsay, misinformation and fabrications. The first, apart from providing details of Adityanath’s parliamentary record, also provides unverified information such as, “Yogiji is running hospital wherein concessional/free medical treatments are given” and “Every day free food is given to thousands of poor people in Gorakhpur”. The second article hinges on the testimony of one Maulana Suhaib Qasmi from Bijnor, a BJP supporter, talking about Muslims voting for BJP. Apart from a misleading headline — while Qasmi may be a BJP supporter, there’s no reason to assume his opinion is representative of all Muslims of UP — the article also claims (without any references) that “Muslims were seen in the streets in Gorakhpur bursting crackers, chanting slogans, raising banners with pictures of Yogi on them, in celebration (sic)”. As for the third one, it’s hard to wag a finger at Postcard.news when a day before them, The Hindustan Times brought out Yogi’s “softer side” and told us of his love for animals.
Despite the obvious flaws in these articles, together, they were shared some 46,000 times on Facebook. Not only does this showcase the tremendous reach of Postcard.news, but also a market for factually dubious information as long as it conforms to one’s political affiliations. Hegde, however, feels the website is performing an important duty. “The media and Congress have destroyed our history. We have to amend that as it is our responsibility to future generations,” he told Newslaundry.
It’s this sense of victimisation that runs like a connecting vein between the Right-inclined news websites and media critiques. When asked what prompted the birth of the website Satyavijayi.com, Sumit Aggarwal, an author for the website, came up with a simple (and succinct) response: “Media lies.”
Referring to the website as his “passion” rather than profession, the 26-year-old from Raipur, Chhattisgarh, said he supports himself with the help of other “businesses”. For a passion project, the website’s performance is quite impressive: Satyavijayi.com has garnered more than a quarter of a million likes on Facebook since it began three years ago and has an Alexa ranking of 1,301. Aggarwal feels that Right-wing websites, including his own, have contributed to countering mainstream media thanks to their influence on social media. “If people voted along the lines of the narrative of the mainstream media, then BJP wouldn’t have come to power in 2014,” he said. “And this year, we’ve seen a landslide in UP.” However, Aggarwal seems to forget that exit polls run in mainstream media had predicted BJP’s victory, both in Lok Sabha elections and UP (some had even gone as far as predicting a BJP win in Bihar in 2016, where the party lost). Moreover, there was widespread exultation in the mainstream about the Modi ‘wave’ decimating the opposition in 2014 as well as in 2017.
But opposition to mainstream media – even when there is almost complete agreement – is the website’s defining characteristic, as is putting out half-baked conspiracy theories. Sample the following headline of an article published on March 30:
The article goes on to link an apparently fabricated story of a Kenyan woman who claimed she was pulled out of a cab and thrashed by a group of men in Greater Noida to the media trying “defame” Adityanath. It fails to mention that on the same day The Hindustan Times had carried a detailed story reporting that the woman’s account was false. Furthermore, the article also suggests the attack on African students in Greater Noida on March 27 — which definitely did happen — was a conspiracy to defame Adityanath as a Congress office-bearer named Ajit Daula was allegedly involved. While Daula’s name has figured in one report on the incident (Navbharat Times, Noida edition, dated March 30), a whole host of other reports (DNA, New Indian Express) don’t mention his involvement. Regardless of whether Daula was involved or not, to imagine that the entire incident was concocted by Congress-sympathisers and mainstream media to malign Adityanath provides an insight into the distrust and delusions harboured by contributors of Satyavijayi.com and its readers.
The obvious popularity of both these websites — Postcard.news and Satyavijayi.com — can be considered the result of their clickbait-ish and frivolous articles. For the more serious and mature Right-wing news consumer, there’s Rightlog.in. Run by Atul Mishra of ‘The Frustrated Indian (TFI)’ fame, this website is a rebranded version of Mishra’s now-defunct blog and was launched in January this year. Despite being less than three months old, the site has an Alexa ranking of 4,461 and more crucially, leverages almost one million likes on the TFI Facebook page to spread and popularise its content.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Mishra was keen to point out that his website doesn’t deal with “viral content”. “Five things to know…these things will blow your mind…I don’t get that type of journalism nor do I like it,” he said. “The content writers who write for the site believe in writing serious analyses and op-ed pieces.” Apart from writings on politics, the site features “columns on history and culture,” Mishra added.
One such opinion piece, penned by Mishra himself, explaining the reasons why Adityanath “won the UP CM race” amassed more than 40,000 views. One of the reasons for Adityanath’s appointment as chief minister, Mishra writes, is the fact he is a “Hindu Hriday Samrat (Emperor of Hindu Hearts)”, an epithet previously attached to Narendra Modi and founder of Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray. “Yogi Adityanath has been a strong proponent of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and it seems that his tenure would finally fulfil (sic) the dream of every Hindu in the country,” Mishra writes. He goes on to assert that apart from “Modi’s Vikas (development) agenda”, “the fightback of United Hindu voters” turned the tide in BJP’s favour in the UP elections.
One can obviously agree or disagree with Mishra’s analysis; it is an opinion piece, after all. But it is worth noting how he spins Adityanath’s well-publicised anti-minority rhetoric as a means of unifying the Hindu vote. Whatever one might think of the so-called ‘appeasement policies’ of other parties, shouldn’t Yogi’s hate-mongering be acknowledged at least as a way of stoking fears among the majority community – ‘unifying’ as it may have been?
Like Hegde and Aggarwal, Mishra is quick to brush off any allegations that they receive any financial support from BJP, despite the content heavily favouring the party. But while there may be no formal links between the websites and BJP, the articles they put out are precious fodder for the well-oiled BJP social media machinery. Together, the two share a mutually beneficial relationship – the websites, largely dependent on advertising, get traffic and the party’s IT cell gets to set the agenda on social media.
The agenda, since Adityanath’s elevation to chief minister, is to airbrush and glorify a man who, until two weeks ago, was part of the ‘fringe’. There is an attempt to brush under the carpet any unpleasant bits about Adityanath’s past activities; like the fact that he has two charges of “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc” and two charges related to “injuring or defiling a place of worship” against him. Or that he has publically advocated murder and abduction of Muslims. Ironically, big media, constantly vilified by the likes of Hegde, Aggarwal and Mishra, has joined hands with Right-wing websites in Adityanath’s mainstreaming, as noted in the introductory paragraph. Ultimately, the message that goes out to the public at large is this: that we must accept Adityanath’s criminality and divisiveness, that to question his appointment is unfair and undemocratic.
This collective white-washing brings to light the defining paradox of burgeoning Right-wing media outlets — they spend an inordinate amount of time railing against mainstream media but fail to, or rather choose not to, note its unfailing servility to power — both political and corporate. Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan, feels this contradiction is not an accident but a deliberate attempt to sideline genuine dissent against the government. “What the Right-wing is doing is very clever,” he told Newslaundry. “They control the mainstream narrative and they want to take away the possibility of an alternative narrative by being victims to their own government. It’s absurd.”
Absurd, perhaps but also useful. By piggybacking on the real problems of mainstream media — ownership patterns, reliance on advertisers and the influence of government — such outlets, growing in number and popularity, gain a certain amount of legitimacy and misuse it by peddling dubious information. With the mainstream media willingly toeing the government’s line and the online space dominated by Right-wing websites, the narrative which is spun fuels majoritarian insecurities, marginalises minorities and demonises dissenters. One can only hope that with most media outlets taking a sharp turn Right, left of centre voices can challenge their overwhelming control over shaping public thought.
Note: The article has been updated. In an earlier version of the piece, Satyavijayi.com’s Sumit Aggarwal was listed as a founder of the website.