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Online Political trolling as part of agonistic public sphere or

a political strategy to win mandates ? A case study of Delhi

assembly elections 2015


During the 2015 Delhi assembly election campaign, an explosion of photo-shopped images of
various political leaders representing different political parties like AAP, BJP and INC circulated
widely in networked social sphere. The muffler, Gandhi Topi, anti-establishment image,
Modis crusading personality, Bhagoda (Runner) rhetoric serve as case studies for
understanding the role of political trolling in the public sphere and internet politics in modern
networked society. This work tries to find out how trolls and memes can reinvigorate the politics
in the age of internet by taking the case study of Delhi assembly elections 2015.

Here the endeavour is to find out the concept of trolls and its importance in the contemporary
cyber world of national capital. The political trolls provide a public space for open criticism and
satire. People engage in rational critical discourses in the cyber space through trolls. This
somehow theoretically relates online trolls with the Habermasian notion of Public sphere.
Etymological exploration of the word troll reaches in the early 1980s or before.

"I am a very small person. I have no aukaat. I am one of you. I didn't come here for power or for
the chair. And that is why our government hereby resigns." Arvind Kejriwal addressed the
citizens of Delhi just after resigning from the office on 14 th December, 2014 after ruling Delhi
for 49 days. What followed after this is history!
Critics of Kejriwal and AAP began trolling him in Internet. Twitter was full of trolls, memes
criticising for the irresponsible act of resigning. The larger rhetoric which came out was
Bhagoda remark. People started trolling him as Bhaag Kejri Bhaag, Mujhe Lokpal Nahi,
Lok Sabha chahiye. These posts became viral soon and in no time #BhagodaKejri started
trending on twitter.
Troll is defined as a person who sows discord on the internet by starting arguments or upsetting
people by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off topic messages in an online community with
the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting
normal on topic discussion often for their own amusement. After all, modern democracys
specificity lies in the recognition and legitimation of conflict and the refusal to suppress it by
imposing an authoritarian order.
But, these trolls have got a lot of political significance in participatory democracy. Maximum of
participatory content (in forms of weblogs, trolls, videos, and memes) available in web 2.0 is
conflictual rather than consensual (Cammaerts, 2008). We should also agree that too much
emphasis on consensus and the refusal of confrontation lead to apathy and dissatisfaction with
political participation.
To understand broader aspect of internet political trolling and its place in public discourse, we
need to reflect upon contemporary political cultures that engender individually- directed
comments on both complementary and destructive quality.

Whereas in one hand, trolls and memes are powerful tools of political parties to counter the
dissenting voices and frame oppositions in tactical manners, it also gives opportunity to
agonistic publics (Mouffe, 2000) to develop their own deliberative spaces that draw upon and
strengthen marginalized discourses. Also, it gives opportunity for agonistic publics to link up
with other excluded voices in developing representative. Agonistic conflict is the core of a
counter public model of mediated public discourse (Dahlberg, 2011).
But, at the same time, there is great strength of web 2.0 platforms such as You Tube and Twitter
in countering the impression management tactics of the political apparatchiks (Coleman,
Within agonistic setting, multiple and shifting subject positions available in web 2.0 can be used
tactically towards politically beneficial outcomes. Discussion of fake political accounts (users
taking on the identities of politicians, usually for the purpose of satire), there is great scope for
articulating play and performance with political engagement in Twitter (Wilson, 2011).
Under these theoretical back groundings, in this paper, I would try to bring in focus whether
internet political trolls are part of agonistic public sphere and catering to larger interest of
participatory democracy or the big political parties are using trolls as a tool tactically to cater to
their own interests.

Research Objective:
In contemporary networked sphere, trolls are flooded in internet. Every day, now and then we
observe some politicians, actors or other famous personalities getting trolled. We often see the
trolling of dissenting voices. This is happening in India too. This cause motivated me to study
about trolls in depth.
The endeavour of this paper is to mark the distinction between political trolls as a tactical
weapon of political parties and trolls catering to agonistic public sphere to strengthen
marginalised discourses. In the quest to find this large issue, I will address short questions like,
why memes become so popular and viral in Web 2.0 in no time? What are the implications of
trolls and memes in networked society? Whether these trolls and memes are tactics to get
representation for political goals? What is meant by Internet as a space of discursive struggle,
particularly in relation to democracy?
I assume from my initial understanding that these trolls are operated to overcome the dissenting
voices by political parties. But, at the same time, internet being open platform, there is army of
troll makers who constantly involves themselves in confrontation by making memes. There must
be some vested political interests

For this study, the election campaign was monitored for almost a fortnight from the 19th January
2015 (the day Bedi was declared CM candidate by the BJP) to the polling date. I have however
whittled down the analysis to certain incidents or events, which had a palpable influence on the
discourse during the peak of the campaign.
The method of study involves discourse analysis of social networking sites like facebook and
twitter and look into memes published. Official websites of political parties like AAP, BJP and
Congress has also been analysed. Interpretative analysis of various trolls and memes is also
involved. I will involve interpreting the meaning of various newspaper articles published in that
period and try to connect it with my paper. I will also review some secondary literature to
understand the issue theoretically.
The paper will probe whether technology can be used for running low cost but effective political
campaigns in the face of a resource crunch faced by many upstarts and insurgent parties like

Theoretical Framework:
Characteristics of Memes
Dawkins (1976)1 identified three key characteristics of successful memes: fidelity, fecundity, and
longevity. Fidelity refers to qualities of the meme that enable it to be readily copied and passed
from mind to mind relatively intact. Fidelity has very little to do with truth per se, and memes
are often successful because they are memorable, rather than because they are important or
useful (Blackmore, 1999)2.
Fecundity refers to the rate at which an idea or pattern is copied and spread. The more quickly a
meme spreads the more likely it is to capture robust and sustained attention and be replicated and
distributed (Brodie, 1996)3.
Longevity is the third key characteristic of a successful meme. The longer a meme survives the
more it can be copied and passed on to fresh minds, thereby ensuring its ongoing transmission.
Longevity assumes optimal conditions for a memes replication and innovation.

Review of literature:
The web was invented so physicists could share research papers. Web 2.0 was invented
so we could share cute pictures of our cats. The tools of web 2.0, while designed for
mundane uses, can be extremely powerful in the hands of digital activists, especially
those in environments where free speech is limited.

Ethan Zuckerman, The cute theory of Digital Activism

Author focuses on a new amalgamation of cute cats and hard-core politics: Political Memes.
Author, through this article tries to explore memes as forms of political participation, looking
into both democratic and non-democratic settings. For him, political memes are about making a



point- participating in a normative debate about how the world should look and the best way to
get there.
Contemporary participation is all about commenting on political blogs, posting jokes about
politicians and creating trolls and memes. The netizens has freedom to comment on almost
everything against the establishment. Internet provides them the tool to express their dissent in
more creative form. This drive is good for democratic setup as younger citizens who always
remained away from political participation is now actively participating and voicing their
opinions in political discourses.
The use of memes, social media campaigns started in the year 2008 with US Presidential
elections. Every political actor including Obama used internet tools for political campaigns.
Massive amount of user generated content for political motives surfaced in the networked
Author understands that internet based political memes primarily fulfil three interwoven
1. Memes as form of persuasion or political advocacy
2. Memes as grass root actions
3. Memes as models of expression and public discussion

Although, author has taken case studies of 2008 elections, occupy Wall Street incident to
substantiate his arguments, I will try to contextualise all above three functionalities in Indian
context and sort of see if it caters to the larger aspect of my paper.

1. Memes as form of persuasion or political advocacy

If we look at the General elections, 2014 in India, we can observe that internet and social media
played a very significant role. Politicians like Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal effectively
utilised Facebook and Twitter to reach the publics. Memes, Internet trolls and slogans shared in
online sphere made remarkable significance. Acche din rhetoric actually worked. Har Har
Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi became so popular that distant villages in remote corners of the nation
actually came to know about a personality named Narendra Modi. Long ago, Elihu Katz and
Lazarsfeld (1950) proved that people listen to what their neighbours, family and community

members have to say about politics. These memes and trolls got imbibed in the society. The
promises made through internet persuaded the citizens. Many posts became viral and could
actually mobilise people to participate in rallies. This remarkably shows how viral rhetoric in the
context of persuasion and political campaigns tends to highlight the ways power comes into play
in egalitarian sphere.

2. Memes as grass root actions

We must remember the horrific incident of Nirbhaya Gang Rape. People actually took to
Internet to voice their opinions and this actually became a grass root action. People could
mobilise through Internet and protest started at grass root levels demanding the entire change in
the security of women in India.

3. Memes as models of expression and public discussion

Meme creation is very cheap, accessible and fun way to voice ones political opinion. This is the
sole reason that we see flooding of memes in online sphere. Memes act as agonistic public
sphere wherein the establishment/state follows coercive methods to suppress the dissenting
I take memes as conflicting elements helping to restore true meaning of democracy. Memes
helps in confrontation and puts a barrier to emphasis on consensus. Political actors always try to
utilise meme for their interests but through memes, agonists voices the marginalized discourses
by providing counter discourse. Such contestations put a break to dominating discourse of
mainstream public sphere.
I position meme conflicts as productive elements of social media spaces by reference to the
political theory of agonistic pluralism4 (Mouffe, 2000).


Delhi assembly elections, 2015: A case study

In Delhi Assembly elections, diverse artifacts were produced, shared, and re appropriated during
mediated conversations on the election campaign. Common phrases were employed; videos were
edited, annotated, and remixed. Image memessmall still-picture and animated GIF fileswere
especially prolific in the public discussion on sites like twitter, Facebook.
The predominant purpose of image memes on these sites is satirical humor for public
commentary. Image memes can be quickly produced and shared, and therefore can agilely
respond to diverse public events. Campaign of assembly elections 2015 was no exception; it
inspired extensive commentary via image memes.

Source: Quora5
5 https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-most-iconic-images-of-the-2015-Delhi-assemblyelections

In this way, image memes are a populist means to express public perspectives, even when those
perspectives are diverse. Populism, Zoonen (2005)6 says, always involves a protest or
policy on account of the people who fall outside the reach of the political system (p. 147). The
vernacular creativity (Burgess, 2007)7 fundamental to participatory media like YouTube
videos, Twitter trending topics, and image memes depends upon creation, circulation, and
transformation outside of traditional media gatekeepers. Even if participating in that vernacular
demands some adherence to technological and cultural limitations, the structure is decidedly
more openmore the realm of the peoplethan narrow one-to-many modes of mediated
communication. Image memes, in their very form, house potential for populist expression and

Internet and Delhi

In terms of population, Delhi is the largest city in the world after Tokyo with population of 25
million according to The United Nations world Urbanization prospect report. 8 Most of Delhi is
highly urbanized with 70% households residing in urban settings.
Delhi has largest internet penetration in India after Mumbai. According to IAMAI-IRMB reports
2014, Delhi has 12.15 million internet users. This roughly makes the internet penetration in
Delhi to be 30-40% of India.9

6 van Zoonen, L. (2005). Entertaining the citizen: When politics and popular culture
converge. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

7 Burgess, J. (2007). Vernacular creativity and new media (Doctoral dissertation,

Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia). Retrieved from

8 Socio Economic and Caste Census, Data Released by Government of India on 3rd
July, 2015, http://www.secc.gov.in/staticReportData?getReportId=S_2, (Last
Accessed 3rd July, 2015)
9 IAMAI Press Release 4th Nov, 2014 http://www.iamai.in/PRelease_detail.aspx?
nid=3487&NMonth=11&NYear=2014(Last Accessed 21st June, 2015)


Elections Case Study

Three key parties were contesting for 70 seats in the assembly elections of Feb 2015. Election
campaign ended on 5th and polling date was 7th of February 2015. Results were declared on 10 th
of February exactly on third day of polls. The Congress named Ajay Maken as its Chief
Ministerial candidate whereas Arvind Kejriwal being the convener and former CM of Delhi for
49 days was the natural choice of AAP. BJP introduced Kiran Bedi as CM candidate. Kiran Bedi
a former colleague of Kejriwal together had made huge appearance in IAC movement of Anna
Hazare earlier. Kiran Bedi fought election from Krishna Nagar constituency.

Politics around Muffler Man Poster:

Supporters of the key major political rival, BJP are more than often seen making fun of AAP CM
candidate Arvind Kejriwals health. So it all started with a similar tweet making fun of him who
is a patient of Diabetes and Chronic cough. During winters he is seen wearing a Muffler to
protect himself from chilling winters of Delhi. What happened then is now part of a popular lore
amongst AAP volunteers.
In no time Muffler Man became sensation in social media. He arrived from the industrial town of
Manchester in United Kingdom. He was dressed like the vampire hunting Abraham Lincoln in
the 2012 Hollywood movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And he resuscitated a new life
into AAPs election campaign.

Figure 1.1: AAP poster designed by Mohammed Shadab

Figure 1.2: PosterAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


The above poster of Arvind Kejriwal was designed by AAP supporter Mohammed Shadab (Fig
1.1). The muffler man of Shadab was the new avatar of Kejriwal, waiting in the wings with the
party symbol broom in hand to sweep away corruption from the streets of Delhi. Initially within
AAP there were divergent views on using a poster inspired straight out of a Hollywood cinema.
An AAP social media activist in Mumbai, created a twitter hash tag #MufflerMan corresponding
to the meme conceived by Mohammed Shadab.
The hash tag generated nearly one hundred and eighty thousand tweets within one week. 10 It
became very popular and surpassed the hashtags like #NaMo, #Modi of BJP.
This political re-incarnation of Kejriwal was extensively covered and commented in mainstream
media and international media as well. 11 Many believe that this social media sensation around
muffler man perhaps helped AAP in making ground in Delhi polls.

Social Media Popularity:

I wanted to look at the data through which I have an idea that which party made a concerted
effort to be more inclusive and interactive in its campaign. I could get a table which represents
facebook likes which has been obtained one day before the poll from the official websites of
these three political parties.


Source: Changing Paradigm: Social Media and Political Communication A Situation in Delhi By Sumit Pande

10 4 Parikh, Rakesh,(27thNov, 2014), Why MufflerManis still Trending? An Analysis,

http://drrakeshparikh.com/why-is-mufflerman-still-trending/(Last Accessed 8th November,

11 BBC News, (27th Nov, 2014),MufflerMan Kejriwal creates Twitter

buzzhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world- asia-india-30205289 (Last Accessed 08 th November,


This table clearly states that Congress was unable to gain much attention in Networked Public
Sphere. AAP is on top in terms of gaining popularity in social media followed by BJP.
Lets try to understand what must be the possible reason for this difference in popularity of three
different political parties. We look at the social media features of all three parties.
AAP- AAP social media team consists of 50 people closely monitoring online space. Kumar
Vishwas and Dilip Pandey remained active in monitoring process. Mainly, Ankit Lal and
Charanjeet was heading the entire social media team of AAP.12 Other than that, 5,000 social
media volunteers were always ready to do online campaigns, publicity and promotions. AAP
remained very quick on counter-interventions. This quickness in reaction of every political event
shows that there was huge coordination between the leadership, legacy media and social media
teams in AAP.
BJP- BJP relies on three-tiered communication mechanism. The leaderships handle strategy, but
execution is through continual coordination between legacy and social media unit. 20 permanent
social media members handle the social media of BJP and during elections; BJP mobilizes on
additional task/province specific team. BJP also operates media campaign in an organizational
Enabled network. BJPs dilemma in dealing with AAP is perhaps articulated by party leader
Sanjay Kaul13:
So typically BJP has its strength and the strength is size, its organization and its depth. If
Congress had challenged BJP in this case, BJP would have won hands down. But if you
challenge the BJP on a different turf which the guerrilla tactics of the AAP did, the party cannot
respond to you
Congress- A Congress social media volunteer attributes complete absence of purpose and intent
to the lack of any coordination whatsoever during the campaign which was being managed at
three disparate levels: the All India Congress Committee (national unit), Delhi Pradesh Congress
Committee and Makens own office.

12 Interview of Ankit Lal with Sumit Pande

13 Sanjay Kaul in interview with Sumit Pande

These various comaprisons leads us to a very interesting point of observation: that within the
connective action frame in a hybrid media environment, networks are Organizationally Enabled
or Brokered in relative terms.

At one pole, we had Congress, which has been reluctant to explore new media opportunities and
tune itself to the fast changing communication paradigm. The second serious contender- the
BJP- faced a stiff challenge from an insurgent outfit AAP that experimented with innovative
affordances in the digital media space for political mobilization and resource generation. When
the results were announced AAP won almost 95% percent seats up for grab in the provincial
assembly. Statistics speak for themselves. Robust and well-planned campaigns knit around
strong narratives are critical in electoral contests and this is proved in 2013 Delhi Provincial
elections where almost six out of ten voters decided their voting preference during the course of
the campaign.14

14 Semetko, Holli A, Neyazi Taberez A and Kumar Anup, Framing of Campaign: the 2013
Delhi Assembly campaign and perceptions of 2014 Lok Sabha Elections in India Elections
2014: First Reflections by Thorsen E and Sreedharan C, Page 67-69


Congress lagged behind BJP and AAP is obvious. But, BJP lost the election primarily due to
negative campaigning circled around AAP. Whereas, AAP in their assessment laid a lot of
emphasis on the leadership of Kejriwal and emerged as the positive campaign party.15
In Delhi, AAP announced its leader and candidates well in advance and so had enough time to
plan a meticulous campaign. Adopting a bottom-up approach to thrash out its manifesto, the
party launched a new initiative called the Delhi Dialogue almost two months before elections.16
AAP had something very tangible to offer to the people of Delhi based on the inputs gathered
through an elaborate dialogue process. When AAP was promising cheap power and water to the
electorate, BJP in comparison could only re-iterate its agenda of good governance made at the
time of general elections, and that too in the national context. Kiran Bedi further added to the
welter of confusion by tweeting her own vision for Delhi.
AAP also utilized its army of volunteers to reach out to the electorate for a well-planned door-todoor campaign.

Trolls embody antagonism rather than more productive agonistic forms of discussion.
Furthermore, political parties prefer to distance themselves from belligerents. While an explicitly
public act, Internet aggression is positionable, both rhetorically and legally, as an individual
deed. Whoever they support, political expediency routinely casts trolls as alien to political
legitimacy and good conduct. Taking the Indian context as an example, established parties such
as the governing BJP publish social media policies to distance themselves from the activities
of those misusing Web 2.0 on their behalf (Firstpost 2013; Kohni 2013).17
15 Narrative is in conformity with Professor Vinay Kumars analysis attributing AAPs victory
to leadership, issues and a ground campaign which he says matter more than anything,
including mass publicity and media coverageKumar Anup, (11th February, 2015), The
media and elections, http://www.thehoot.org/web/The-media-and- elections/8083-1-1-10true.html, (Last Accessed 08th November, 2016)

16 The Hindu, (12th Nov, 2014), AAP to launch Delhi Dialogue,

http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/aap- to-launch-delhi-dialogue
%20campaign/article6590889.ece (Last Accessed 1st June, 2015)

17 Firstpost2013WhyBJPsSmartSocialMediaPolicyCantStemTrolling,


With reference to Dawkins characteristics of memes, Internet defy the logic of longetivity of
memes, since in terms of serious meme time the internet has not been around long enough for
any kind of evolutionary longevity to have been established. But, having looked at scenario of
Muffler man poster and the same going viral somehow contradicts the above statement. Indeed,
memes can be sustainable for long period of time.
The case study of Delhi assembly elections and in particular the strategies of AAP in networked
sphere focuses on the prominent use of memesthe always-active amateur media artifactsto
facilitate political debate across participatory media networks. We saw how #MufflerMan story
is a classic example of situation as is said in Hindi. A hashtag used to make fun
of illness of ones political rival, bouncing back with blockbuster twitter trend that refuses to bow
down. So, using trolls in campaign somehow is often a strategy of political party to win
mandates. Though sometimes it back fires but helps some other.

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