BARC ex-chief wanted to hire a troll army to go after journalists

Partho Dasgupta sought to get journalists such as Rahul Kanwal trolled for criticising the agency’s TV ratings.

BARC ex-chief wanted to hire a troll army to go after journalists
Shambhavi Thakur
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The multi-volume data dump from the Mumbai police, full of revealing chats purportedly between Partho Dasgupta, the former CEO of the TRP measurement agency BARC, and several influential people is exposing some dirty secrets.

While the focus has been on Dasgupta’s conversations with Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami, there are other bits and pieces of information in the data dump which show that Dasgupta was using online trolling as a weapon to deal with the critics of BARC, especially journalists.

‘Can you ask someone to troll him?’

The first such instance is found in his chats with Goswami in December 2018.

Dasgupta asks Goswami if he can get someone trolled “on this”. The “on this” possibly refers to a tweet. He tells Goswami to question “why then his sister channel is trusting on the same ratings from the same system?”

Goswami responds, “Working on it.”

To which, Dasgupta asks, “Can you ask someone like Minhaaz Merchant to troll him? Ask why for Hindi ratings you are with the same system then?”

He also suggests one Aditya Raj for this job. Arnab just says, “Working.”

This is a clear conflict of interest: the CEO of BARC is supposed to run an agency that measures TRPs for TV channels, instead he is requesting the head of one channel to troll others.

As far as the timing of this request, it was after the exit polls of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election had been released and the counting of votes was about to commence.

‘Ask Vikas to get him trolled’

The second instance is found in Dasgupta’s chat with Romil Ramgarhia, the former chief operating officer of BARC, in May 2019. In this chat, two tweets of India Today editor Rahul Kanwal are shared with a very specific request: “Ask Vikas to get him trolled.”

Here are the two tweets:

We looked at some other chats recovered from Ramgarhia’s phone which are also a part of the Mumbai police’s data dump. In a set of conversations between him and one Vikas K Aidem, we see the same tweet being diligently shared and a request being made to get on a call, almost immediately after the chat was initiated.

The conversation after this seems to have happened over a call.

But the question is, who is Vikas K Aidem?

One Vikas whom Dasgupta and Ramgarhia seem to be in constant touch with is Vikas Khanchandani, the CEO of Republic Media Network, who has been arrested in the TRP scam, along with Dasgupta and Ramgarhia.

We dug into his background and found that he worked as a director with Aidem Ventures Pvt Ltd and then as the chief business officer at Reliance Broadcast Network before joining the Republic Media Network.

Another instance of BARC executives seeking to troll journalists is found in a conversation between Ramgarhia and Vikas dating back to May 2017. Ramgarhia tells Vikas that a story about “high ratings of Chennai for Republic as anamolies [sic]” is likely to come out. “Once it comes you should keep your troll army ready to talk about kolkata numbers of times now,” he advises.

The data dump also contains chats between Dasgupta and Khanchandani, aka Vikas Aidem. They are shown to be in constant touch.

Aside from spamming Dasgupta with stories done by Republic TV, Vikas shares with him detailed plans of how his network intends to increase their ratings.

It’s clear that Khanchandani is keeping the then BARC CEO abreast of how the Republic Media Network intends to boost their TRPs. For the uninitiated, here he’s talking about positioning Republic’s channels next to top-rated channels such as Aaj Tak to “improve neighborhood”. This means a person browsing TV news channels will immediately come across Republic TV or Republic Bharat after Aaj Tak, giving them viewing minutes and thereby increasing their ratings. Khanchandani’s plans approximately target 40 million homes.

To understand the game being played here, watch this explainer.

To say that Ramgarhia and Khanchandani had a close relationship would be an understatement.

‘Need a verified troll army’

After Dasgupta has resigned from BARC and is working as an independent consultant, he remains in touch with Ramgarhia. And on June 3, 2020, he has a special request, “If you remember, we had a proposal for a troll army of verified handles,” Dasgupta says. “Do you have it? Need one for a client.”

“I had him in my phone,” Ramgarhia responds. “Let me check and revert.”

Ramgarhia then shares a contact for “Saheb Agency 09”, saying, “You can try them.”

We later find out that it’s a “social media agency” that works for BARC as well. “They also do this,” Ramgarhia says, meaning offering the services of a troll army of verified handles. “They are our social media agency currently.”

Right. So Agency 09. What is this and who is Saheb?

Before we get into that, we checked whether Dasgupta saved the number shared by Ramgarhia on his phone. Thanks to the Mumbai police, we found Dasgupta’s contacts list in the data dump. In there, we see this fascinating entry that kinda makes it obvious why he did save the number.

Coming to Agency 09. When we googled the phone number, we got this visiting card of a person named Saheb Singh.

On it we found the agency’s website, www.agency09.in, which has a list of clients, and bingo!

We spoke to Saheb Singh on the number saved by Dasgupta. He said they “do not do such kind of work and are a purely creative agency”. He did reveal, however, that six months before BARC hired his agency, which he said was in December 2019, the ratings body had approached them enquiring about how to deal with critics.

“The word ‘troll army’ came from their side and we explained how it works,” said Singh. “Our agency does not do such things and we clearly told them that it’s better if they grow their reach organically. I believe that is why they hired us.”

Asked whether Dasgupta or any other person contacted him after that chat took place, Singh said, “Nobody has called me asking for a Twitter army and I have not personally spoken to Partho or Romil.”

We also sent questions to BARC about the contents of these chats, the hiring of Agency 09, and the plans for creating a troll army. We got this response: “As the matter is a subject of an ongoing investigation by the various law enforcement agencies, we are constrained to respond to your enquiries.”

As we are diving deeper into the data dump involving Dasgupta and Co, we are seeing a murky operation being run by a group of powerful people who seemingly want to control the news space. That the BARC executives would look to Khanchandani for their trolling needs also raises questions about the Republic Media Network and its social media operation, which apparently wasn’t restricted to pushing their content but also getting rival anchors and news channels trolled.

Political parties using Twitter trolls to go after opponents is one thing, but the CEO of a supposedly neutral agency such as BARC seeking to do so is a whole different ball game. BARC must explain how many such attempts its executives made to troll those who questioned its ratings system.

This is the third report in a series on the Whatsapp chats that purportedly show former BARC chief Partho Dasgupta's collusion with Republic TV head Arnab Goswami to manipulate TRPs, political lobbying and influence peddling, and more. Read the other reports in this series.

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