Take, for example, a mid-September post 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 on it and a zoom into his eyes – was shared by users who believed the actor live-streamed his death, that the video was then sent to the dark web to be sold for bitcoin, and that some leading Bollywood actor has the video file in his possession.
Where did this come from? From a YouTube channel called ‘Ulti Khopdi,’ which has attracted over 270,000 views so far. The video also appeared on several other YouTube channels, including ‘Engineer Inside’ (164,000 views) and ‘Sakshi Bhandari’ (70,000 views). Other videos on the subject have garnered millions of views.
Naturally, all these conspiracy theories are based on the belief that Rajput did not commit suicide but was murdered. They are convinced that key characters – some political leaders and mostly Bollywood players – are behind it.YouTube and Facebook have been the main platforms for SSR conspiracy peddlers. Twitter has seen its fair share.
An All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) forensic panel, asked by the CBI to examine Rajput’s viscera, ruled it a suicide. Television coverage on murder theories has lost steam. But on the web, the conspiracy lives on.
ET has been tracking information flow on these digital platforms for the past 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.
Millions of posts on large groups
Some spoke on strict conditions of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media, while others cited the nature of their work as a reason to remain anonymous.
Most SSR conspiracy theories are being peddled by large groups. According to data from CrowdTangle (a Facebook-owned “content discovery and social monitoring platform for publishers and brands,” as the entity described itself), these groups have gained nearly 4 million users or ‘page likes’ since June 14, with over a million posts from June till date and an average weekly post count of over 65,000.
Some of these groups were averaging over 1,200 posts daily. These have resulted in over 130 million interactions, across 79 groups tracked and reviewed by ET.
As of date, there are at least 12 Facebook groups with 100,000-500,000 members, and nearly 36 groups with 10,000-100,000 members. One such group garnered a membership of nearly 640,000, according to CrowdTangle data.
That QAnon feeling
These groups discuss a wide variety of conspiracies. For example, one prominent conspiracy theory claims FAU-G – a game developed by GOQii founder Vishal Gondal and promoted by actor Akshay Kumar – was originally Rajput’s idea. And conspiracies flowed from that claim.
This theory is based on nothing more than an Instagram post by Rajput, where he was supposedly learning the basics of gaming. The claim was fact-checked by BOOMLive and discredited, with clarifications from Gondal and his company nCORE Games.
Yet, in SSR groups, this claim was a viral success. Some of it reached Twitter. One user, identified as Anand, told ET, “I only put facts on record. I even challenged Gondal to refute these facts. He blocked me… 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, including the thread by Anand, according to legal documents reviewed by ET. These have been also submitted to the ministry of electronics and information technology.
Anand’s tweets have been popularly quoted in these groups. One such tweet, taking a cue from QAnon movement slogan ‘Save the Children,’ said, “Between 24 March and 14 June 2020, around 26,000+ kids went missing from Maharashtra. @OfficeOfUT Where are these children? Raped, murdered or still being tortured to harvest adrenochrome (a non-existent substance QAnon in the US claims exists in human body)?”
The conspiracy theory here is directly inspired by QAnon’s claims in the US – some Bollywood actors are consuming ‘adrenochrome’ to keep themselves young.
“Unsurprisingly, the ‘Justice for Sushant’ groups have come to resemble the QAnon movement – both in behaviour and approach. It’s like an alternate universe,” said a digital expert who has tracked several of these groups.
“They have been essentially role-playing sleuths and investigators, trying to piece together every little detail of his death, while crying conspiracy.”
Some of these conspiracies have targeted the Maharashtra government, including minister Aditya Thackeray. For instance, a popular belief among SSRians is that Thackeray and Akshay Kumar reportedly worked together to “scuttle” Rajput’s work in developing a voice-based Covid-19 test, as claimed by a Dubai-based Twitter user. This was based on images that showed Thackeray piloting a test by a global not-for-profit organisation in a Mumbai ward.
Varun Sardesai, general secretary of the Yuva Sena and a close aide of the Thackeray family, said, “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 that has been fighting tirelessly to help people during the pandemic. The citizens are seeing through it.”
However, most of those involved in this largely online movement say they are apolitical. “We just want justice for Sushant and accountability of the police and the government. The court must get to the bottom of it and hold people responsible if they are guilty,” said Ujjawal Trivedi.