January 23, 2022

Weaponising Hate Apps: Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai

Prabir Purkayastha

THE recent Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai cases targeting Muslim women show the deep anti-women and communal mindset combined with the use of tech tools and social media platforms. Perhaps not so surprising is that the police authorities appear to have been very casual in their investigations when the Sulli Deals had emerged last year targeting about 100 Muslim women. It only reacted after Sulli Deals reappeared as Bulli Bai in early January this year. After widespread criticism and adverse international coverage, the police finally woke up to their responsibilities. It has nabbed four persons involved with the Bulli Bai app and one who has confessed to having developed the original Sulli Deals app. All of them are members of a hate group called TradMahasabha, who proclaim Hindu supremacy, savarna dominance and justified the use of violence to achieve these ends.

The mode of operations of these Trads (traditional’s) was to develop what appeared to be an auction app, in reality, an app that simply recycled some pictures of targets with a so-called “auction price”. The objective was to simply demean Muslim women in public space. The members of the group collected from social media or other image sources and fed into the application or app. This app was stored on GitHub servers, which allows people to store and share any software or data. It was then tagged with various derogatory comments on the women targeted as the Sulli (a derogatory term for Muslim Women) or Bulli Bai of the day and shared by the TradMahasabha members through Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Given the toxic digital environment today, these images and comments were picked up and shared widely by the right-wing Hindutva handles that glorify Godse, want Hindu supremacy even using violence and a return to savarna dominance. The targets, as it always happens when supremacist groups get into action, were women, particularly articulate, young Muslim women, in public space.

When Sulli Deals appeared in July last year, GitHub pulled the app immediately and suspended the account that uploaded the app. However, according to Delhi Police, in whose jurisdiction the initial complaints were filed do not seem to have conducted any further investigations. According to the police, GitHub failed to respond to notices for information about the app creators filed under CrPC section 354 (sexual harassment) in July last year. They then decided in January this year to use the MLAT (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty) for securing the necessary information. Why the police took six months—from July last year to January this year—has not been explained by the authorities. Or why only Section 354 for sexual harassment was used when it was clearly a case of an attack on religion or a religious minority? Nor what steps they took to find out the handles on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp through which the TradMahasbha members shared the pictures in social media.

As about 30 handles appear to have been the originators in spreading these demeaning pictures, this would have been an easy route to take. Contrast this with the zeal with which the police follow up various WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter posts that criticise the Modi or Adityanath governments. Such lethargy can only be understood as law enforcement agencies becoming tacitly complicit through their inaction in such criminal activities.

It was only after the Sulli Deals morphing after six months into Bulli Bai in January this year and the resulting public anger that the police swung into action. Within a few days, some of the group members involved in the TradMahasbha were traced through their social media handles—no MLAT was required—and their interrogation revealed more names. Currently, four persons have been arrested in the Bulli Bai app case and one for the original Sulli Deals case. The youngest is 18 years and the oldest 25. By all accounts, the perpetrators of this crime are not some super hackers but software developers with fairly rudimentary skills. If the police had been equally diligent when the original Sulli Deals had appeared, the women concerned would not have faced a repeat of such a horrifying public attack.

There are two other aspects to the Sulli Deals/Bulli Bai case. One is the internationalisation of right-wing ideologies, using Facebook earlier and now other platforms as well. Facebook promotes hate groups as its algorithms use engagement as their primary driver: hate posts have greater “engagement” than reasoned arguments. Motifs like ‘white supremacy’ seem to transfer easily via labels like “trads” to Hindu or Muslim supremacy. Even though each of such supremacies excludes others, they are all “trads”! The Hindu supremacists, of course, believe they are Aryans, like Europeans, who have also populated other settler-colonial states: the US, Canada, Australia.

Misogyny, believing the superiority of men over humans and driving women out of the public sphere is the other element that unites all trads. This is the other uniting factor in cyberspace, where misogynists can give free reign to their hatred of women, particularly those in public spaces. The surprise is there was one 18-year-old woman in the five who has been arrested in this case by the police. The hatred of Muslims for her appears to have trumped the anti-women nature of the group.

The other disturbing element to emerge in digital space is the weaponisation of sexualised disinformation against women. A recent report by the Wilson Centre, Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponised against Women Online, says. “It is a phenomenon distinct from broad-based gendered abuse and should be defined as such to allow social media platforms to develop effective responses. The research team defines it as “a subset of online gendered abuse...sex-based narratives against women, often with some degree of coordination, aimed at deterring women from participating in the public sphere. It combines three defining characteristics of online disinformation: falsity, malign intent, and coordination.”

As this report identifies, this mode of attack is qualitatively different from sexist abuse that women face in digital spaces. This is not to underestimate the malign nature of everyday sexist abuse, but the scale of this form of attack: it is coordinated, false and uses software tools as weapons in multiplying the attacks targeting women. The Wilson report also identifies the primary targets in the US, women of colour and active in the public sphere, like Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And its objective is clearly political: to drive such women out of the public sphere. The Indian example is no different: it targets Muslim women who have created some identity for themselves, as journalists, pilots, activists, etc.

How do we fight such malign players in the digital space? For this fight to be successful, we need to understand that this form of attack is different from the routine staple of the right-wing Hindutva troll brigade that we need to fight every day. It is weaponised as it uses software tools to multiply its lies; its target minorities—religious, oppressed castes and women. It can be nipped in the bud if we are vigilant and raise our voices right in the beginning when such attacks take place. And force the law enforcement agencies to act immediately. If not, move the Parliament, media and the courts. Let us remember that only our vigilance, unity and organised resistance against attacks on different sections of our people, can save our Republic.