Somewhere in the middle of September, a new conspiracy theory emerged in one of the several “Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput” groups on Facebook. The post, which showed a picture of Rajput’s body, with several marks, with a zoom into his eyes was shared by users who believed that the actor had live-streamed his death and that the video was then sent to the dark web to be sold for bitcoin, and that some leading Bollywood actor had it in his possession.
The text on the post merely said: “Guess who is the last visible prson in sushant’s eye…Optography: read the science” (Facebook has since removed the post after ET shared it with its team for review). This was straight out of Doctor Who, which, in a 2013 episode used ‘optography’, or a Victorian-era forensic science technique, which has been classified as ”pseudoscience” in some quarters.
Another viral post on one of these groups said this — while tagging a YouTube link that furthered the “optography” theory — “#SushantSinghRajput was 1st beaten brutally with a bat & his right ankle was broken…these bastard killers were mocking him and saying..Cricket khelna h tujhe…khel naa cricket..abhi khel…Dhoni banega..2nd they used stun gun on side of his neck to paralyze him partially & 3rd with Sushant’s dog Fudge’s collar belt they strangulated him…all this happened.” (Sushant Singh Rajput was first beaten brutally with a bat and his right ankle was broken. These ba***rd killers were mocking him and saying you want to play cricket, right? Now play. You will be like Dhoni?…)
This theory seems to have emerged from a YouTube channel called “Ulti Khopdi” and has garnered over 270,000 views so far. The video has also appeared on several other YouTube channels, including “Engineer Inside” (164k views) and “Sakshi Bhandari” (70k views) among others.
One such Twitter user, Advocate Vibhor Anand, claimed on 9 September, “Dear SSRians, The murder of @itsSSR, Disha Salian and the Minor Girl was live-streamed on Dark Web across the world. This is the reason why Sushant was brutally beaten up before his death and all these Bollywood Actors enjoyed the Live Killing of Sushant.” Anand would later claim that the said “dark web” video was retrieved by agencies.
These conspiracy theories are based on the sole belief and conviction among “SSRians” — that the Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput did not commit suicide — and indeed, was murdered. And that several key characters — some political leaders, and mostly those in Bollywood were the ones behind it. Most of these theories have since been mainstreamed in various news channels — both on television and those who exclusively operate on the internet, specifically on YouTube and Facebook. These online platforms, along with Twitter have emerged as serious vectors of misinformation related to the case, with little signs of slowing down. Several personalities who have tied themselves to the cause, including multiple lawyers, former journalists and Bollywood personalities — have also grown exponentially in popularity since the actor’s controversial death.
Twitter did not respond to ET’s questionnaire about its approach to tackling these conspiracy theories on its platform.
Satya Raghavan, director of content partnerships at YouTube India, in response to ET’s questions said, “YouTube is built on the premise of openness and we’re really proud that YouTube is a place where anyone can share their story or express themselves. This commitment to openness is not always easy, it means that we need to protect our platform from bad actors trying to exploit our open platform.” Raghavan added that “consumption of borderline content or harmful misinformation videos” from YouTube’s recommendations are “slightly below 1%” and that the company was “working to reduce this even further.”
But beyond the proverbial YouTube rabbit hole, Facebook Groups have become a vital cog in the digital content ecosystem. They are an underreported phenomenon in India much unlike their counterparts in ‘Pages’, which have in the past, been used to spread mis/disinformation, fake news — especially by individual entrepreneurs, affiliates of third party political propaganda entities. During the 2019 elections, large public Facebook groups became fake news farms — with fake quotes, photoshopped tweets and other unverifiable information. In many ways, they mirror WhatsApp groups, but multiple times the number of users that can be accommodated in a group, going up to the thousands and the millions.
A Facebook India spokesperson, in reply to ET’s questions, said, “Our Community Standards apply to public and private groups, and our proactive detection tools work across both to remove violating content. For combating misinformation in groups, we take a ‘remove, reduce, inform’ approach that leverages a global network of independent fact-checkers. We know there is more to do to keep groups safe on Facebook, and we’ll keep improving our technology and policies to ensure groups remain places where people can connect, find support and access accurate information.”
The story about conspiracy theories on Sushant Singh Rajput’s death – bear a striking resemblance to QAnon conspiracy movement — which began in the United States and is now going global — to a large extent, underscores the global concerns about the information ecosystem, as it stands today. The several grievance-filled hashtags, deliberate misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories arising out of large social media platforms are being mainstreamed by popular news channels, only for further content on those channels going back to the system, amplified by the same actors and drawing higher engagement.
Using fact-checking sites data from Tattle, ET found that there were 45 fact-checked articles among English fact-checking websites like AltNews, BoomLive, IndiaToday and Newsmobile. All of them were found to be wrong. This data excludes other fact-checkers who also specialise in regional languages such as Hindi, Bengali, Telugu among others. Newschecker, which checks misinformation in eight languages, including English, fact-checked 24 claims.These proved to be wrong as well.
ET has been tracking information flow on these digital platforms for the last month and a half and spoke to multiple persons for this story. These included people familiar with this movement, individuals trafficking these conspiracy theories, senior executives of large technology platforms, and political consultants. Some of them spoke on a condition of strict anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media, while others cited their nature of work as a reason to remain anonymous.
Diving down the rabbit hole
To try and join some of these private groups demanding Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput, is akin to a virtual oath-taking ceremony of sorts. A pop-up greets you as you try and join a group that espouses the cause. “Do you seek justice for Sushant?” it asks. Say yes, and the next question below asks, “What will you do to seek justice for Sushant?” you answer, and the last question: “Will you give up in your efforts to seek justice for Sushant”, Answer ‘No’, and then you’re in.
And once you’re in, you are welcomed with a barrage of the actor’s images — some from his past social media activities, others with messages like “We miss you!” and so on. However, neatly positioned in between all of these, are some high-engagement posts. Typically, these posts are mass posted in at least five other groups, in a bid to generate virality and engagement. “Users coordinating their activities across networks of groups and pages managed by a small handful of people boost these narratives,” wrote Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center in a recent article on Facebook Groups in WIRED magazine.
As of date, there are at least 12 groups with membership between 100,000 and 500,000, and nearly 36 groups between 10,000 and 100,000 members. One such group titled ‘Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput’ garnered a membership of nearly 640,000, according to CrowdTangle data. CrowdTangle is a Facebook-owned “content discovery and social monitoring platform for publishers and brands.”
The volume of content posted around this subject has also seen a substantial spike. A mere search for ‘Sushant’ on CrowdTangle reveals over 500 million interactions since June 15, with over 870,000 public posts. This includes pages, groups and verified profiles. As a disclaimer, both search terms include instances of pages belonging to news media pushing out relevant content.
One post, for instance, showed a picture of Rhea Chakraborty with a noose around her neck and her hands folded (from a previous video she made while defending herself), which could be construed as seeking the death penalty for the person, merely seeking YES or NO. In the replies, one after the other, users wrote YES. That post garnered at least 6500 likes. Not just that, it was shared in multiple other groups, adding further to the engagement matrix — as per CrowdTangle data, a further 3500 likes/comments and shares.
When this writer reported the post to Facebook, its automated review system did not deem it as a violation of its community standards. Even after appeal, it stayed. That post from a particular user has been since taken down after ET officially flagged it to Facebook India. However, it has since resurfaced having been shared by a different user in a different group. In a group titled, “Sushant Singh Rajput Fans” with over 300,000 members, the image attracted over 10,000 comments, 6,700 interactions (likes) and 150 shares.
“People turn to Facebook Groups to connect with others who share their interests, but even if they decide to make a group private, they have to play by the same rules as everyone else. Our Community Standards apply to public and private groups, and our proactive detection tools work across both,” the Facebook India spokesperson added.
Additionally, these groups present the trappings of the proverbial “rabbit hole”. Join one group, and Facebook’s algorithm offers you a carousel in the ‘Discover tab’ or “Suggested Groups” of at least eight to nine such groups or pages, which harbour similar interests. And typically, users get sucked in, keen to consume more content on similar matters.
Most of the India-based groups are similarly named to popular Facebook pages — sometimes, they act as an extension of these pages — a “community” of sorts. Fan clubs of popular news anchors (Arnab Goswami, Rohit Sardana, Sudhir Choudhary), and right-wing politicians (Dr Subramanian Swamy, Tejaswi Surya and Sambit Patra to name a few). This cuts across party lines, with one of the most popular “secret” groups — FekuExpress, gaining traction among those opposed to the BJP and its ideology.
“A lot of things happen inside these groups, but they almost go unnoticed since all the attention is on WhatsApp and to some extent, Facebook pages,” says a New Delhi-based political digital strategist, on a condition of anonymity. Last week, Facebook announced that over 1.8 billion users were using its groups feature every month.
The justice for Sushant Singh Rajput movement, however, represents the first such instance in India, where a coordinated campaign, premised on a perceived injustice about a person’s death fueled a surge in content, boycott campaigns, a free flow of conspiracy theories. Most of them happened in large groups — public and private — set up after the actor’s death.
These groups, according to CrowdTangle data, have gained nearly 4 million users or ‘page likes’ since June 14, with over a million posts between June and till date, with an average weekly post count of over 65,000. Some of these groups, the data revealed, were averaging over 1200 posts daily. These have resulted in over 130 million interactions, across 79 groups tracked and reviewed by ET. Rajput’s page on Facebook grew popular after his death, adding nearly 400,000 likes, the data said.
It also comes three years after Facebook shifted its focus to emphasising more content from groups that users join, as a bid to create more “meaningful communities.” Instead, globally, these groups have become an important touchpoint to attract users towards conspiratorial thinking — with health or anti-vaccine support groups, to violent movements such as QAnon or Boogaloo Bois in the United States, which are founded on conspiracy theories.
“Unsurprisingly, the ‘Justice for Sushant’ Groups, have come to resemble the QAnon movement — both in behaviour and its approach. It’s like an alternate universe,” says a person who has tracked several of these groups on a condition of anonymity. “They have been essentially roleplaying sleuths and investigators, trying to piece together every little detail of his death, while crying conspiracy,” the person adds. This week, Facebook in a massive clampdown has removed all accounts, pages and groups associated with QAnon, NBC News reported.
Curiously, on 22 September, one Twitter user named Shipra tagged Virginia Guiffre, a survivor of the sex trafficking ring operated by Jeffrey Epstein with this message: “@VRSVirginia #PleaseFollowJustice4SSRIsGlobalDemand as a huge paedophile ring is coming2light in Bollywood & Mumbai government linked2extraction of Adrenochrome and trafficking which lead to murder of @itsSSR. We need global support @TeamKangana @shwetasinghkirt”.
A typical day in these groups starts with an image of the actor with accompanying texts like “Miss you bro
Over the last three months, there are also adjacent issues that have drummed up activity and high levels of engagement on these groups and pages — be it last month, when Ranaut arrived in Mumbai and the BMC’s demolished her office, or the Republic reporters being detained by the Maharashtra police, or for that matter, the recent Fake TRP scam involving Republic TV and Goswami.
Besides, a lot of viral content have also emerged from Facebook-based digital news outlets — who typically use a smartphone camera and a mic, with a few talking heads and clickbaity chyrons as part of their coverage. One such channel, Pyara Hindustan has been hawk-eyed on this story using a BJP leader in Mamta Painuly Kale as its chief talking head. Another channel, Desi TV is prone to use clickbait-y chyrons and deliberate misinformation, including a video frame that suggested “Rhea Chakraborty committed suicide in jail” has also grown over this period. These channels, according to CrowdTangle data, have had nearly 32.2 million interactions on Sushant Singh Rajput content since July.
Kale, who was also a former CBFC member, also featured in a video by former entertainment journalist Ujjawal Trivedi, whose page has grown substantially since Rajput’s death, with him providing bite-sized updates on key developments. He got into it accidentally, he tells ET, after a friend asked him for the late actor’s number on 13 June. “Not many channels were covering it. And there was demand. There was a need to understand what happened that night, what may have happened,” he says. “The common people feel empowered about this case. People are merely asking questions using social media,” he adds.
While Trivedi admits that things have gone in a different direction, he doesn’t endorse baseless conspiracy theories. “I have not resorted to name-calling, nor can I endorse it. No one should take names without any proof or evidence,” he says. Trivedi, who began posting daily videos on a Facebook Page — “Ujjawal Trivedi Page” since August, has nearly 100,000 likes over two months, data revealed. Some of his videos include titles like — “What about the technology patent that Sushant was working?” and “Kya hai Sushant ke terrace ka raaz? Kya back door se mili kisi ko entry?” (What is the secret of Sushant’s terrace? Did anyone get entry from the back door?)
And then come the bizarre conspiracy theories — ranging from how the Maharashtra minister Aditya Thackeray and Akshay Kumar reportedly worked together to scuttle Rajput’s work in developing a cough-based COVID test, as claimed by a Dubai-based twitter user named Meena Das Narayan. This was based on images that showed Thackeray piloting the test by a global not-for-profit in a Mumbai ward.
Thackeray is derisively referred to as “Baby Penguin” by those associated with this online movement. His father and chief minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray has also been targeted by these groups, including an image of his blackfaced and garlanded with slippers.
Varun Sardesai, general secretary of the Yuva Sena and a close aide of the Thackeray family says, “This is rubbish. These conspiracy theories have no justification whatsoever and are a clear ploy and a desperate attempt to defame the Maharashtra government. Not just that, they have defamed the Maharashtra machinery who have been fighting tirelessly to help people during the pandemic. The citizens are seeing through it.”
The party has also filed multiple complaints with Mumbai’s cybercrime unit, which has sent notices to at least 10-15 persons who have furthered these theories. He expects platforms to do better. “We have sent so many of these videos and images to YouTube and Facebook’s public policy team. While Facebook has largely been responsive, at least they communicate with us, YouTube has been problematic, asking us to file FIRs before they take down these videos,” Sardesai adds.
Raghavan of YouTube says, “We have well-defined processes and clear policies for removal requests from law enforcement agencies around the world. We rely on court orders or governments to notify us of content that they believe is unlawful under the specific provisions of the law through official processes, and we act on it immediately to restrict it after a thorough review. All of these requests are tracked and included in our Transparency Report.”
The Facebook India spokesperson added, “We work closely with law enforcement agencies in Maharashtra and across India. We review every request for user information from law enforcement for legal validity and against our policies. Any content that is reported to us is reviewed and removed if found in violation of our Community Standards.”
The other prominent conspiracy theory features how FAU-G, the game developed by GOQII founder Vishal Gondal and promoted by Akshay Kumar were originally Rajput’s ideas. This theory is based on an Instagram post by the late actor where he was supposedly learning the basics of gaming from Khan Academy, during the lockdown. The claim was fact-checked by BOOMLive, and discredited, with clarifications from Gondal and his company nCORE Games.
Yet, on these groups, it was a viral success. Some of it reached Twitter, Anand, who, in a thread, tried drawing distinct connections between the death of Qyuki founder Samir Bangara, and Gondal, formerly colleagues at Indiagames, before it was sold to Disney in 2013, besides linking it to Rajput and Akshay Kumar. “I only put facts and on the record. I even challenged Gondal to refute these facts. He blocked me,” Anand tells ET, before adding, “My only role in this is to seek justice for Sushant Singh Rajput, that’s it. I don’t come up with conspiracy theories, the media does it. I don’t even know why I am talking to you.”
Gondal has filed multiple cases against those who sought to damage his reputation, according to legal documents reviewed by ET. These include the thread by Anand. The same has been submitted to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity).
Anand’s tweets have been popularly quoted in these groups. One such tweet, taking a cue from the QAnon movement around “Save the Children”, said, “Between 24 March and 14 June 2020, around 26000+ kids went missing from Maharashtra. @OfficeOfUT Where are these children? Raped, murdered or are still being tortured to harvest Adrenochrome?” The conspiracy theory, to sum a Facebook user’s post endorsing Anand’s theory, is that some Bollywood actors are consuming “Adrenochrome” to keep them young.
Anand’s twitter account has since been suspended. He and his loyal followers (or fans) have since switched to the encrypted messaging platform Telegram and recently, to the “free-speech” platform Parler, where he would be dropping updates. In 2014, Reuters reported that Anand, then a 24-year-old law student had convinced his father VK Anand to defend two rapists in the Nirbhaya case. He also runs an organisation called “Indians Against Biased Media.”
Several of these groups today have people from diverse backgrounds, with an overlap between die-hard Bollywood fans, members and followers of various political parties and casual users, though highly engaged in the midst of a pandemic, happy to roleplay sleuths, investigators, in a bid to collectively solve these cases. Some of these include persons in the US, in Hungary and other countries.
Those involved in this largely online movement say they are apolitical and do not represent views of any political party. “We just want justice for Sushant and accountability from the police and the government: the court must get to the bottom of it and hold people responsible if they are guilty,” says Trivedi, the former journalist. “We don’t represent the Congress or the BJP or the Shiv Sena or anyone, this is a people’s revolution. That is why I have also joined them in calling for a boycott of Bollywood,” he adds.
Multiple sources familiar with online political strategy say that his movement has also morphed into something political parties can later piggyback on. “There’s the obvious link to the Bihar elections, and it gives them a good opportunity to create a parallel narrative, besides targeting the Mumbai Police and the Maharashtra government, something that has been a constant since Thackeray became CM,” says the digital political strategist quoted earlier in the story. A recent report by social media researcher Joyojeet Pal and his team highlighted that the data showed “the important role played by politicians, especially the BJP, in proposing a ‘murder’ alternative to the ‘suicide’ narrative.”
This pivot could also help them acquire newer followers to push out their messaging to. In that case, there could be a political pivot, closer to the Bihar elections, even as older pages, groups and content properties — YouTube channels and Twitter handles are being demonetised or suspended by these platforms for violations. Even as elections have been announced, ET has found no such renaming or rebranding of these groups. One such group, however, has pivoted to the ongoing Indian Premier League.
However, not all of this has gone unnoticed with law enforcement. A Faridabad-based model and YouTuber, Saahil Chowdhary was arrested by the Mumbai Police’s cybercrime cell for allegedly posting videos on his channel that peddled unfactual information on the Sushant Singh Rajput “murder mystery”.
In a nearly two-minute video reviewed by ET, Chowdhary purportedly apologises in Hindi saying “The facts were not right and that he was following news channels and they were wrong because of which a lot of rumours had spread, and a lot of people, including Aditya Thackeray and the Mumbai Police, were troubled.” He adds, “The Mumbai Police told me that all the evidence with YouTubers and subscribers is all fake and that it is entertainment for them. The Mumbai Police has helped me.”
He later appealed to YouTubers to “check their facts and later make videos, because I don’t want them to face the same issues. So please don’t make these videos, which damages the respect and reputation of other people.”