NEW DELHI/BENGALURU—A surprisingly influential voice in the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir debate is the CEO of a fast-growing robotics firm in Bengaluru writing on Quora, a question-answer website based in Mount View California.
Balaji Viswanathan, the CEO of Invento Robotics, is one of Quora’s most popular writers—his posts have been viewed nearly 300 million times. His take on the Ayodhya dispute—in which he suggests Muslims give up their claim to the land, and Hindus build a temple after apologising for demolishing the mosque—has been seen by over 100,000 people, and upvoted over 8,000 times.
Viswanathan isn’t alone. In the years since the BJP swept to power in 2014, Quora—a platform where people ask questions and get answers from other community members—has quietly evolved from a place for engineers in start-ups to share professional insights, into a platform for conservative, right-of-centre political discussions to thrive, and in some cases, where pro-Hindutva falsehoods on the BJP’s pet political projects like “Love Jihad” and “Hindu genocide” are amplified without pushback.
For instance, a communications professional’s unsubstantiated “account” of a Hindu girl being duped by a Muslim colleague as an endorsement of “Love Jihad” attracted over 27,000 views; while a software sales professional’s number-crunching exercise to “prove” that gau rakshaks do not specifically target Muslims, was viewed almost 50,000 times.
Even serving bureaucrats have taken to Quora to curry favour with the current government. To a question titled, “Can you describe PM Modi in one sentence?”, Sanjay Nandan—a Gujarat cadre IAS officer whose posts on how to join the civil services have attracted almost 6 million views—answered, “I will take help of Bh Gita . Remember Krishna is in our hearts as soul. Modiji is in touch with his soul the Krishna and he is also Arjuna.”
The sheer numbers of Indians clicking on Quora (India is the site’s second largest market after the US) means that these “answers”—many of which are outright false—on politically-charged topics are often the highest ranking results when people search for information on Google.
As a community, Quora logs 678.8 million monthly views globally according to the analytics firm SimilarWeb, with users in India accounting for 19.2% of site-traffic, or about 130 million monthly views. Alexa rankings list Quora as the 17th most popular site in India, well above the websites of established media houses like NDTV, Zee News, The Indian Express and the Hindustan Times — suggesting Quora potentially shapes more opinions than many Indian news organisations.
Unlike the fleeting drive-by rage sparked by Twitter, Quora posts are long and extensively footnoted, to give the impression of being well sourced, and spark sustained engagement over a period of years.
2018 was the year when Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp were finally acknowledged as potent tools of propaganda and intimidation by the abusive troll-armies controlled by shadowy political consultancies, including those employed by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). But has the same also already happened on Quora?
The BJP’s railways minister, Piyush Goyal, joined Quora a year ago to answer questions about the bullet train. He remains active, answering a question this week about Assam’s Bogibeel bridge. The minister has 2 million views on his answers, and 50,000 followers, but he is fairly regular, answering around a question every fortnight: April and May were exceptionally active, with seven posts each. In November, his answers reached nearly 200,000 people.
Shweta Shalini, the official spokesperson of the BJP in Maharashtra and advisor to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, is an active member of the community as is Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Union minister of state for agriculture, who is also fairly active as well. This July, when the Narendra Modi government was under fire for violating established procedures in the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft, Shalini wrote a long defence of the deal, which got 13,000 views. That said, Quora’s blend of social network and blogging platform makes it harder to track people; HuffPost India couldn’t find many prominent BJP leaders who are active online, nor any Congress leaders.
As the country prepares for the 2019 general elections, Quora shows us how political interests are not leaving any part of the Internet untouched in their push for dominance. The downside being that every social platform for online conversation is increasingly hijacked by trolls.
To try and determine how much of an impact this could have, HuffPost India reached out to a number of analysts who track platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but few people had things to say about the site’s use in politics, which shows again why so much of this conversation has flown under the radar.
Quora did not respond to HuffPost India’s queries.
Who’s posting on Quora?
Balaji Viswanathan, the Quora power-user with over 500,000 followers, told HuffPost India that he joined the platform around seven years ago. “I’ve been a blogger since 2005, and so when Quora came around, it was great, it was perfect for someone like me,” said Viswanathan. “On Twitter, because of the character limit, it’s very easy to be misunderstood, but Quora lets you post in depth.”
Like many Indians on Quora, Viswanathan is a true-blue techie—Google analytics shows Quora is most popular around cities with famous engineering colleges, like Pilani and Roorkee. He appears thoughtful, and doesn’t see any conflict between his work as a tech CEO, and the posts that he’s making in public.
In his own posts, Viswanathan said, he isn’t expressing an opinion, but rather, researching his answers through multiple sources, because he enjoys the conversations the platform enables, and wants to contribute positively. Quora is, to Viswanathan, a place to think about things other than work, and to make new friends—going so far as to hire some people whom he met through the site.
“The number of people might be lesser, but in terms of influence, this can be quite powerful. In fact, many of the BJP ministers have caught on to Quora because this is going to be critical way to shape up politics in 2019.”
An early internship drove an interest in AI and robotics. He then worked at Microsoft for four years before launching his own ed-tech startup, followed by a fintech startup, followed by Invento Robotics, based in Bengaluru’s HSR layout startup hub.
But his interest in politics, he told HuffPost India, goes back to when he was in Class VIII in school when a teacher encouraged him to take interest in ‘history and civics’.
Quora proved to be an ideal platform for him. Today, he told HuffPost India, he sets aside an hour a day just for Quora.
“I need to travel a lot for work, and from HSR to the airport is two hours, so that’s an easy way of getting this done,” he laughed.
Among Viswanathan’s most viewed answers is one on whether the Ram Mandir should be built in Ayodhya.
“As long as a temple is not there in his [Ram’s] birthplace, I will feel sad like any other orthodox Hindu. When Yogi Adityanath says Mandir Vahin Banayenge [we will build the temple only there] he is reflecting the predominant aspiration of the orthodoxy. Outsiders don’t understand the emotional value of that location.”
This view, in a post on Quora, has been seen by 100,000 people, and been upvoted (the equivalent for Facebook likes) 8,000 times.
In another post, he wrote, “Come on, if most holiest place of Hindus will not have Ram Mandir, where it will be? At Saudi Arabia? At the same time, how many Muslims actually pray their Namaz in Babri Masjid? It is said that the last time Muslims offered their Namaz at that place was in 1949.”
Yet, Viswanathan claims that he doesn’t have any political inclinations, and in-fact, disagreed when asked why Quora leans to the right. “Most of Quora’s top writers are actually left wing, but it has little bit more right wing than others, so, just that it’s more visible, so people say this [is a right wing platform].”
Viswanathan said that he’s frequently attacked on the site, and linked this to politics.
“So, the number of people might be lesser, but in terms of influence, this can be quite powerful. In fact, many of the BJP ministers have caught on to Quora because this is going to be critical way to shape up politics in 2019,” said Viswanathan. “And as we run up to it, the ones who are writing on it are going to be flamed like crazy, because there is no way people can write information without getting flame from one side or the other, no matter what side you take. I get dozens of hate messages every day.”
Bringing politics to the fore
For Shweta Shalini, the BJP’s Maharashtra spokesperson, Quora—where she has about 26,000 followers—serves as a useful extension of her work as a political strategist. Shalini told HuffPost India she spent over an hour each day on Quora to clarify her party’s stand on whatever happens to be trending in the news cycle. She recently wrote a lengthy post supporting the controversial appointment of Shaktikanta Das as governor of the Reserve Bank of India.
“I realised that there were hardly any politicians on Quora. I also realised that there are people who want to ask questions and now that we are in the government, people want to know things.” said Shalini, a 38 year-old former entrepreneur with degrees in engineer and management. “For example, Rafale. People would want to know more details about Rafale than what they see in the media. For example, it can range from questions like ‘why did the SC ask for a sealed envelope’ to and other things common men don’t know.”
Shalini’s posts on Quora are the closest one can get to official responses from the BJP on issues the top leaders aren’t speaking up on. Her other answers include ones on the election drubbing BJP faced and if Amit Shah and Modi should take moral responsibility of them. (Spoiler Alert: She doesn’t think they need to.)
If Viswanathan and Shalini are examples of the key influencers common to many social platforms, Quora’s question-and-answer format also allows for sustained engagement amongst people with far fewer followers.
“New joining people are converting it into Twitter. Previously, answers on Quora were written on the base of evidence, facts and analytics.”
Harshil Mehta, a final engineering student in Ahmedabad has only 7,600 followers, but some of his answers get close to 50,000 views. In one answer he wrote ‘Dear BJP, be loyal to Hindutva’, he said, “People who were only talking about development didn’t win. The person who was talking about Hindutva alongside development won.” Mehta, who said he was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was drawn to Quora to correct what he described as the media’s bias against the Sangh.
Yet Mehta too seemed to feel that the quality of writing on Quora has dropped. Mehta felt, after he joined Quora, “media spread many propaganda and lies on RSS; these are reflected in questions”. He added, “Being a part of organisation, (sic) answer them politely (if genuine) and many said the RSS is different from what media says”.
“New joining people are converting it into Twitter. Previously, answers on Quora were written on the base of evidence, facts and analytics.” he said, adding that he was a member of six libraries and based his Quora answers on the over 1,000 books he had read. “New people are writing on perceptions and feelings. They generally write about communal harmony based on fabricated history.”
Yet many of Mehta’s own answers are speculative, rather than empirical. One of his most widely-read answers, viewed by over 6,000 people, is a response to a question that asked what would happen if Jignesh Mevani were to become the country’s Prime Minister.
“After seeing his link with JNU tukde tukde gang, he will surely gift Kashmir to Pakistan and Arunachal Pradesh to China. And If any islamic country claims any part of India. He will gift it any cost to maintain the harmony and unity between Dalit-Muslims.),” Mehta wrote.
In response to the same question, Prashant Shukla, who identifies himself as a ‘nuclear and high energy physicist’ in Mumbai, wrote if Mevani was to become the PM, his foreign policy would be, “Bharat tere tukade honge, Insha Allah Insha Allah. (O India you will be broken into pieces as per the will of Allah).”
Instances of unabashed propaganda can be spotted on the website as well. Bhai Suraj Singh Dhingra who identifies himself on his profile as a ‘gau rakshak’ who is also ‘aggressive and violent’, is keenly followed by many handles. Dhingra also mentions he is an ‘introvert’ and ‘often lonely’. His ‘pinned’ answer is one on ‘genocides against Hindus’ where he claims that 5,000 Brahmins were slaughtered by Congress workers soon after Nathuram Godse — Dhingra calls him ‘Nathuram Godse ji’ — shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi. There is no evidence of this in any historical narrative. This answer has registered close to 13,000 views and has been upvoted by 700 people. HuffPost India tried reaching out to Dhingra but he refused to engage with us.
A question on whether ‘love jihad’ is a hoax or reality has over 100 responses, with a majority of them posted from anonymous profiles—a man who raped a woman after mixing ‘something’ in her mocktail, a man who raped his girlfriend, a woman on a train who relentlessly complained about how lazy and incompetent her daughter-in-law was, women who insisted that their partners must convert to their religion, a driver who tried to establish sexual relations with minor girls, a man who WhatsApped ‘friends’ about how women have fewer rights than men and men who forced their girlfriends to have sex with politicians and police officers after bluffing them about being in love. All these stories have one thing in common—the ‘villains’ all happen to be Muslim.
All these answers—backing the idea that ’love jihad’ is rampant in India—get anything between 1,000 and 7,500 upvotes and between 5,000-100,000 views. The ones contradicting these claims, like one posted by a writer called Gul Bano in Kashmir, received only 48 likes, despite being from an authentic account.
It’s not just paid trolls
As Quora has grown, the Indian techies who joined the community as young engineering students have grown as well, making the platform a fascinating lens into the thoughts and prejudices of India’s tech and start-up ecosystem.
Worryingly, it also reveals how the boundaries of acceptable speech have expanded to include bigoted falsehoods—like Love Jihad—that managers of multinational companies would once be wary of espousing.
For example, 47-year-old Dilip Sadh, an entrepreneur formerly employed with MNCs like Capegemini said he is on Quora 15-30 minutes a day. Though he said he doesn’t come to the site to for information on political contentious issues, he said that his most read answers are ones on Hinduism and Modi.
One of Sadh’s most viewed answers is one where he cited a decline in Hindu population of countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, suggesting India will be headed for a similar future if the religion is not saved. Though Sadh as just 26 followers, his answers are widely viewed, mostly because he chooses the most popular questions to answer.
“We’ve started to make posts here for CEOs of companies,” A PR executive working with multiple tech CEOs who asked not to be named told HuffPost India. “People are keen now to see that the heads of companies are also thinking about the same things as them, and if that happens to be about Hinduism and things like that, then of course we will write it too.”
“We spend a lot of time to make sure that whatever they’re talking about, these opinions should be expressed as ‘scientifically’ as possible, they shouldn’t seem bigoted” the PR executive said. “It can be something that gets people worked up, but it shouldn’t be something that comes across as crazy, it should showcase how smart they are, how much they know about everything.”
A PR consultant, who works directly for the CEO of one of India’s biggest phone brands, added, “These days, personal brand is very important—today you’re the COO of one tech start-up, tomorrow you’re CEO of another one. For these guys, getting press, and building a following is as important as growing the company. So I do things like run Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and Quora too, depending on what the client is looking for. Right now, my main job is making sure that the client’s getting interviewed for stories about leadership, and getting pitched as a ‘youth icon’, and for him, LinkedIn has been the big one.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The answer ‘Bharat tere tukade honge, Insha Allah Insha Allah. (O India you will be broken into pieces as per the will of Allah)’ to the Quora question was erroneously attributed to Harshil Mehta, instead of Prashant Shukla. The error is regretted.