In the face of border tensions with China last week, India blocked the wildly popular Chinese short video-making app TikTok, along with 58 other apps, citing security concerns.
Just like with most conversations involving TikTok, this ban bolstered blatant, brutal, low blows from social media users who gleefully hailed the takedown of TikTok as an annihilation of cringe culture.
Trolls across Twitter and Instagram used classist and sometimes homophobic slurs to dismiss and look down upon TikTok’s massive community of creators, who often come from rural areas, marginalised castes or low-income groups.
But then, something strange, almost magical happened. Indian teens unleashed their wrath. But in a way India had never seen before.
In an amusing attempt to outrage against issues they feel strongly about, including the ban, India’s Gen Z decided to go straight to the source. So, they unleashed the uprising on India’s prime minister Narendra Modi by spamming the comments section of the world’s most followed leader on Instagram.
While social media outrage is a recurrent phenomenon, what made this one truly stand out was that these teens kept commenting thirsty pick-up lines that steadily delved into deeper issues. Each sentence was also seductively sprinkled with enough sparkle, heart-eyes and fairy emojis to put creepy “lukin byutiful” comments to shame.
The language used closely resembled “fairy comments”, a cheeky trend that became a big deal on TikTok for its ability to literally kill with kindness. These comments tend to start off all cute and wholesome, and then take a sharp, shocking turn to become dark, ironic and often insulting.
VICE spoke to a Gen Z group that was part of the first wave of this spam to understand why this comments explosion was planned, and what they hoped to achieve. Members of the group requested anonymity to prevent trolls from attacking or threatening them.
“At first it was sheer disbelief at what these people were saying about minorities [calling them things like ‘dirty people'], and how they were treating them,” said a group member, who was one of the first to escalate the comment explosion. “Then, we understood that we needed to do what Gen Z did best: turn it into a meme.”
Inspired by TikTok teens and K-pop fans in the U.S., who tried to derail a rally held by President Donald Trump, this movement was planned as an online protest where humour and facts could collaborate under the guise of thirsty pick-up lines. The idea was to make each statement a double-edged sword of provocation.
Suggestive comments screamed things like “Modi ji give me some😍😍 equality for minorities ✨🧚♀️”, “Are you lost baby girl 😍 like PM Cares fund details ✨🧚♀️” and "Yes, keep throwing those petals away 😍😍 like you threw away the rights of minorities, transgenders and Muslims💋❤️✨💅.” These statements oscillated between being cheesy, cheeky and criticising the Modi government for their recent policy decisions or lack of transparency.
“We’ve wanted to use fairy comments against the government’s policies for a long time now, but were always afraid of the backlash,” admitted another member of the secret group that supercharged the spam. Members of the group, which mostly includes young Indians under the age of 18, pointed out that this was the only way to protest the government since they didn’t get a chance to vote in the previous elections.
“This is Gen Z's way of letting Modi know that he's not as invincible as he thinks he is,” added another group member, citing the fact that through his tenure, Modi has never allowed the media to ask questions at a press conference. “He may silence dissent to the point that he feels that everyone in the country just has good things to say about him. But that's not true. This is our way of letting him know that we don't fall for his bullshit.”
The anger against policies some young Indians consider intolerant and undemocratic that boiled over into fairy comments was then opposed with equal vigour. In fact, most comments that were shared were deleted within a few days. But the most chilling fallout for the young people who subversively proclaimed their stance in this manner was the immediate intimidation they had to face for their opinions. Most minors who commented re-opened their Instagram to find their DMs flooded with terrifying death and rape threats, which prompted many young people to delete their comments over the fear of being attacked in real life.
“I commented on Modi’s post after seeing the growing movement because I felt it was funny without being vulgar,” says 21-year-old musician Lila*, whose comment—"Are you lost Modigirl”—received a lot of attention. “But I had to delete my comment after receiving rape threats. All the negative responses I got were either about raping my mother or me. It’s terrifying, because it shows how these trolls think. For them, rape as a threat is so normalised. They think it’s the right way to teach women who oppose their views a lesson, instead of trying to argue using facts as anyone would normally do.”
But Lila isn’t the only one disillusioned by the intent of the extreme trolling.
“In this country, if you speak against the government, you get arrested, declared a leftist, an anti-national, a terrorist or a supporter of the opposition party Congress,” says an 18-year old group member, who was scared of being killed after repeatedly receiving death threats for his comments.
But though the threats were intimidating, they weren’t enough to silence the young and restless. The teens were back at it real quick, this time employing tricks often used by trolls to their advantage. Using fake screen monikers, they decided to troll the trolls back.
“To counter their insults calling us ‘communists’, we began sharing quotes without revealing who made the statements," said yet another group member. "Many trolls read these quotes, and when they agreed with the ideologies, we revealed they were quotes by communist leaders like Stalin.”
These teens also began using lyrics of songs that seemed nationalistic at first glance, but had hidden meanings of dissent, and a sarcastic intent.
“It started with the TikTok ban, but that wasn’t the only issue,” points out 18-year-old Akash*, a student who jumped onto the spam wagon to voice his dissent. Akash says that his motive was also to call out the government for denying basic human rights in Kashmir, proposing the controversial Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification that will no longer require corporate companies to seek environmental clearances, and the new amendment that weakens the rights of persons with disabilities to create a conducive environment for investors. Giving examples of how in the past, protesters have been charged with sedition and even jailed for using terms like “azadi (freedom)” or “anti”, he says, “The point of using fairy comments was to raise awareness, while making sure it can’t be reported or misconstrued as a threat.”
And social media users are here for it.
“I think this tactic is an interesting form of online dissent, and has a mass appeal for the younger demographic,” says Avijit Michael, the co-founder and executive director of Jhatkaa, an activism organisation that often uses digital mediums to launch petitions that hold authority more accountable, campaign for better environmental policies and fight against sexual abuse. While Michael believes the movement has immense potential, he also feels that to truly impact tangible change, the movement needs a specific focus, and should go beyond social media.
“I realise this spam is more about attention than impact at this point, especially since teenagers like us aren’t a good enough vote bank for the government,” says 17-year-old Priya, who commented as a way to unleash her fury against systemic oppression and a crumbling healthcare system. “But we hope to see it evolve over time.” Priya points out that though this wave of dissent via fairy comments is a nascent method that may not amount to much, its main strength lies in how casually hilarious it is. “Humour, especially the dark and absurd type, is the best way to grab a young person’s attention at a time when terms like ‘woke’ and ‘feminism’ are getting stamped with assumptions of being preachy and annoying.”
Priya is aware that young people like her have been dismissed for being “snowflakes” for talking about issues like injustice, climate change and casual micro-aggressions. “They may not listen to us now, but we are the generation shaping the future, and we’re pissed. This is our way of giving intolerant boomers the proverbial middle finger, mixed with whimsical fairy dust.”
*Name changed or last names omitted to protect identity
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.