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The Structure and Style of a Dogma Community: Conspiracy theories and organized Twitter engagement on Sushant Singh Rajput

Studying the ‘community’ supporting the late Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR) shows how Twitter was gamed through organized engagement

By Anirban Sen and Joyojeet Pal 

Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR), the famous Indian actor who was the heartthrob of many, passed away on 14th June 2020. Initial investigations revealed that he had hung himself from his ceiling fan in his Bandra residence, and that Rajput had shown signs of clinical depression and bipolar disorder. Based on the investigation by Mumbai Police and the postmortem report afterwards, the death was declared as being a case of suicide. Foul play was also ruled out by the Viscera report. On 25 July, Rajput’s family lodged an FIR with Patna Police (Rajput’s hometown), accusing Rhea Chakraborty (his girlfriend) and others of abetment of suicide.

Within a month of Rajput’s suicide, and primarily after the accusation lodged by Rajput’s family towards Rhea, a large number of tweets started appearing on Twitter on his demise. They fueled different conspiracy theories, ranging from Rajput being depressed owing to the nepotism that he experienced in Bollywood, to him being murdered. Some even accused Rhea of abetting the “murder” of the actor. While many of these tweets initially came from influential celebrities in Bollywood like Kangana Ranaut, some also came from political actors like Subramaniam Swamy. Eventually, actors like Akshay Kumar and Sonu Sood joined the bandwagon as well, bringing the issue into mainstream attention. In a way, these celebrities commenced a social media movement around the death of the actor.


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Enter the cult-like ‘Dogma Community’ 

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However, the interest of these celebrities eventually waned, which is when the “movement” was taken over by a group of dedicated Twitter users, who started posting regularly on the issue in massive numbers. Some of them were legitimate fans of SSR, who often posted about the life, charisma, and films of the late actor since before he died. But a significant number of users also joined the Twitter discussion around the issue after his demise, probably instigated by the initial tweets by celebrities.

Many of these late joiners slowly assumed even more importance than the actual SSR fans around the issue. Henceforth, a large part of the narrative moved from mere “celebrity worshiping” towards conspiracy theories and dogmatic tweeting around the event – the “dogma” here being the belief of victimization of SSR in Bollywood that led to his death, and the community’s belief in the noble goal of being the voice of victims/outsiders in Bollywood without powerful connections. Not surprisingly, many of these tweets projected Rajput as an innocent but talented small-town boy, who simply could not survive in the industry owing to systemic oppression and bullying. We term this community of non-celebrity users who ardently keep the dogmatic tweeting around the event alive, since the actor’s death till now, the dogma community.

The movement took a wrong turn primarily when the tweets by this community changed from being just about Sushant’s death, to trolling, personal attacks, gender based slurring, and spread of misinformation. Increasingly, the dogma community also showed clear indications of organized messaging where the tweets by this community were carefully planned and systematically spread on Twitter. It is this organized messaging that keeps the movement still alive. In this article, we report how organized messaging strategies were used by a group of users, and how this group shows a cult-like characteristic feature in sustaining the social media movement around the issue.

Twitter Users in the Dogma Community

We started with a set of 10 user accounts that were very actively engaged in tweeting about Sushant Singh Rajput. These users were sampled from the results of another study on conspiracy theories around the SSR case. The user details for their one-hop and two-hop friends on Twitter (that is, friends and friends-of-friends) were collected next. After filtering this data, we finally considered only those users who had tweeted SSR related hashtags (e.g., #justice4ssr) in their last 20 tweets. This provided us hyperactive accounts dedicated to SSR related tweeting even recently.We also collected tweets related to the SSR case for these user accounts, for the time period of 14 June 2020 to 20 April 2022. In essence, this final set of accounts formed the dogma community heavily invested in engaging material related to the SSR case.

We found that nearly all users in this core group of users are dedicated users, who seem to exist on Twitter solely to post about SSR. We observed that above 60% of tweets by these users during the entire timeline of study are just about SSR. This trend is even more evident when we compare the number of tweets on the issue by some media houses with that by the core group in Figure 1.

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Figure 1: Daily number of tweets from five media sources and by the number of tweets from the dogma community on the SSR issue: The red line plot shows the number of tweets by the dogma community (left y-axis), and the blue plot shows the number of tweets by media (right y-axis)

The five media houses considered for this plot are @republic, @aajtak, @TimesNow, @ZeeNewsEnglish, and @ZeeNews, since each of these channels covered the subject extensively during the early phase of the issue. We see that post October 2020 there is little or no interest in the subject in the mainstream media, but the dogma community tends to keep the movement alive by aggressively tweeting on it, leading to a discourse that is almost entirely self-contained and recursive.

Conspiracy Theories that Emerged

We observed the emergence of different conspiracy theories along different lines in the SSR issue. Some of these theories revolved around speculative tweets that were posted since many were unable to make sense of the event or the unrevealed actual cause behind SSR’s demise. This uncertainty increased manifold due to the long trailing investigation around the case. These users also included influential politicians like Subramanian Swamy as can be seen from Figure 2. In fact, Subramanian Swamy’s 26-point breakdown of reasons for doubt drove up the conspiracy theories significantly.

Figure 2: Examples of tweets that propose speculative possibilities for an event

Several viral messages used the notion of Biharis as outsiders in Mumbai, harping on the difficulty of ‘making it’ in an India where nepotism is rife. These messages suggested that one is at risk, and that what happened in the case of SSR is something that could happen to you. While the majority of such tweets were Bihar centric (as SSR originally belonged to the state), there is also a general sense of the individual as being at the mercy of a nepotistic system. Here, as within some of the other threads of misinformation, there is an initial spark thrown by a commentator not necessarily seeking to trigger conspiracy theories, but ending up doing it. The case here is of journalists Shekhar Gupta and Rahul Kanwal starting conversations about ‘outsiders’ in Bollywood, which triggered a series of quoted tweets that pushed the speculation further (Figure 3). 

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Figure 3: Examples of tweets that promote the idea that an outsider is at risk due to the existing nepotism in Bollywood

In the SSR case, nationalistic language was also incorporated into tweets, presenting the murder of Sushant Singh Rajput as something perpetrated by a group of defined antagonists, mainly leading members of the Bollywood industry – often Muslim male stars, presented as a cabal hand in glove with a broader conspiracy against the national good. We see in Figure 4 several tweets which hint at an involvement between the SSR case and mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, or a Pakistani conspiracy.

Figure 4: Examples of tweets where the conspiracy theories present a person or a group of people as antagonists

Gaming the Twitter Algorithm through a Strategy of Coordination 

The dogma community of “SSRians” (as many users in the community call themselves) used various strategies of organized messaging on the issue, for the aforementioned conspiracy theories to spread and sustain in the network. One strategy we see since early 2021 is that of coordinated hashtagging. Here, the SSRian community has taken a page out of political tweeting, where the community takes a pyramid structure, with a small number of accounts at the top deciding what has to be talked about by the community as a whole.  For much of the first year, the community used hashtags to communicate, whereas by mid 2021, the strategy had moved to taglines where an exact string of text would be cut and pasted into every message that went out. This was ostensibly to avoid the attention of algorithms. We see examples of the community being explicitly instructed to avoid hashtags and use taglines instead in Figure 5. Ironically, this also suggests that those getting instructions are humans, not bots.

Figure 5: Instructions to the SSRians to use an exact string of text as a tagline in place of a hashtag

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The move to the tagline also shows how closely the community has gamed the twitter algorithm to continuously make the waves. There are a number of spike periods, however, the most significant of all is the spike on his death anniversary on June 14, 2021 (also seen in Figure 1). The event was planned in advance, with instructions sent out to the entire community on when they needed to be online, what they needed to do, and how much. Messages were also sent out periodically, through the trending date, to encourage users to tweet more aggressively, as we see in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Instructions to the SSRians to use an exact string of text as a tagline in place of a hashtag

Events like the “Sushant Justice Matters” trending eventually helped the community find a common cause. The community, through a discursive process, planned a major event to commemorate the actor’s anniversary in a top-down fashion, and in fact succeeded in reaching their target. The top-down tagline spread within the community in terms of organized messaging can also be observed from Table 1. We see that the top 10 most retweeted taglines within the community were all generated by the account nilotpalm3, one of the most influential SSRians. The influence of these taglines can be seen from the fact that all of them were retweeted by above 60% of the users in the community.

Author of the Tagline Tagline Spread in the Community (% users who retweeted)
nilotpalm3 SUSHANT JUSTICE MATTERS 89.8%
nilotpalm3 CBI Custody 4 Pithani 71.3%
nilotpalm3 Who killed Disha and Sushant 61.6%
nilotpalm3 No Mercy 4 Sushant Killers 74.2%
nilotpalm3 Punish SSR Killers 81.4%

Table 1: Top retweeted taglines in the SSRian community, and their spread within the community

Another signal of top-down coordinated activity is the instruction to the community by some of these influential users to maintain multiple Twitter accounts, to prevent unexpected hindrances caused to the movement due to account suspensions. We observed that several of the influential accounts (including nilotpalm3) were temporarily suspended by Twitter owing to mass reporting. We see in Figure 7 how the user instructs the community to safeguard for such events.

Figure 7: Planning tweet for coordinated activity, requesting users to post their back-up account IDs in case of bans

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Conclusion

It must not be assumed that the SSR community is a group that purely engages in conspiracy peddling. The community has similarities with other groups that spread misinformation or extreme speech, e.g. political hate speech groups. However, unlike these groups that promote a broad ideology, the SSR community has a shared sense of fraternity based on its shared belief, which helps it even further to sustain and spread this belief through coordinated messaging.

While there is clear evidence of manipulation by key influential players in the community, there also exist people in this community who are genuinely convinced of the conspiracy theories, and they exist well outside of Twitter – on Telegram and WhatsApp channels and on YouTube. The systematic targeting of Bollywood by this community also involves them promoting other theories on multiple threads, which may or may not be directly related to the SSR issue.  

We have seen in recent times that several similar Twitter communities objectively spread misinformation, conspiracy theories, and dogmas over a long period of time. The SSR community serves as a lens through which we can analyze other such communities, in terms of how they use different strategies of organized messaging to keep conspiracy theories and systematic manipulation alive among a large group of people. With the everyday increase in social media permeation in India, it is important to study such communities, since more often than not, they lead to a significant number of people believing in conspiracy theories, misinformation, and unverified statements as “truth”. Needless to mention, this is often the cause of hatred and division among people, and can be seen as a harm originating from the instant connection and sharing enabled by social media platforms which are vulnerable to being used in coordinated dissemination of (dis)information.

Joyojeet Pal is an Associate Professor of Information at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Anirban Sen holds a PhD from IIT Delhi . 


This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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