January 16, 2022

DUJ Denounces use of Apps to Target Journos, Citizens

THE Delhi Union of Journalists(DUJ) in a press note issued on January 11, stated that in the controversy surrounding the prime minister’s visit to Punjab, an investigation into a secret app that spams and trolls thousands has gone ignored by the big media.  Painstaking investigation of the app Tek Fog, by two technical researchers for The Wire, reveals how technology is being used to pursue a political agenda and target people, including journalists.

The statement mentioned the Tek Fog app is designed to “highjack the ‘trending’ section of Twitter and ‘trend’ on Facebook….to ‘auto-retweet’ or ‘auto-share’ the tweets and posts of individuals or groups and spam existing hashtags. This was revealed by  The Wire expose.  Individual operatives can use the app “ to generate ‘temporary’ email addresses, activate phone numbers and bypass programming limitations, and email and OTP verification set by What’s App Facebook, Twitter and Telegram.”

Dangerously, the app enables operatives to hijack inactive WhatsApp numbers, steal data about their contacts and send them messages. It creates a cloud database that categorises people by religion, language, age, gender and political leanings so that they can be messaged suitably. 

Women journalists have been prime targets of the app. The Wire investigation lists women journalists who received up to one million abusive tweets between January and May 2021. They include Rana Ayyub, Barkha Dutt, Nidhi Razdan, Rohini Singh, Swati Chaturvedi, Sagarika Ghose, Manisha Pande, Faye D’Souza, Arfa Khanum Sherwani and Smita Prakash. 

S K Pande and Sujata Madhok, president and general secretary, respectively of DUJ, said “The Wire has identified two private companies, Persistent Systems and Mohalla Tech Pvt Ltd, that are reportedly responsible for developing the app. Mohalla Tech is the company behind Sharechat, a leading regional language social media platform that is funded by Twitter. Sharechat works in 24 languages and claims it has 160 million users.  Persistent Systems is based in Nagpur and allegedly has close links with the Bharatiya Janata Party through its current election manager in Maharashtra. The companies are denying involvement with Tek Fog.” In a detailed response Sharechat claims it systematically takes down hate speech and misinformation, DUJ statement said.

However, DUJ also notes with alarm the inadequate response of social media companies to complaints against hate accounts, fake accounts and fake news. Alt News has traced several such accounts on Facebook and Twitter but little action has been taken by tech companies.

DUJ calls for an urgent inquiry by the Supreme Court of India into the role of social media and tech companies in amplifying the crime of hate speech.