Miscellany

Section 66A: How abuse and misuse flourish

It is time social media companies worked with legal agencies to mount a more definitive attack on the Internet troll.

 |  Miscellany  |  5-minute read |   24-03-2015
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In a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court has struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that read: "Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine."

The law has been misused in a number of cases, such as the arrest of two girls in Maharashtra who wrote a Facebook post criticising the shutdown of Mumbai after Bal Thackeray's death in 2012. A professor in West Bengal was arrested the same year for posting a cartoon of chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Facebook.

The Supreme Court's judgement is broadly welcome in the growing battle for free speech and should allow common citizens to be more outspoken online, without fear of state reprisal. Even so, there is one rising element of social media discourse that the court should perhaps address in isolation: online public shaming.

Consider some recent incidents. Shah Rukh Khan recently responded to a Twitter troll who had left a string of abuses on the actor's timeline. "Obviously you don't have balls in your pocket or elsewhere," the actor replied in an uncharacteristic loss of cool. "So are you just excited to be on my timeline?"

For SRK, normally the more composed of our actors, to have taken the bait and responded with gusto to Twitter abuse indicates the level to which online discourse has turned gratuitously negative. But SRK is lucky. As a man he does not have to face the kind of misogynistic backlash on Twitter that is so violent and in-your-face that even well-placed women feel scared and are forced to perhaps censor themselves.

Writing in Matter last year, Sonia Faleiro threw attention on the kind of systematic abuse that passes for discussion on Twitter. Nilanjana Roy, one of our pre-eminent literary journalists, shared with Faleiro a typical sample from her timeline: "You hole who should be raped by a bamboo lathi."

While the Matter pieces takes a political look at the genesis of the Indian internet troll, there is no gainsaying a wider campaign on Twitter to silence women who choose to speak their minds. Last week, Hollywood actor Ashley Judd wrote a passionate appeal for greater online monitoring so that women's voices are not muzzled. She was responding to the vicious backlash that was directed at her after she spoke in support of the Kentucky Wildcats in this year's NCAA college basketball tournament. Judd's crime: her tweet about the opponent team that blamed them for "playing dirty". That even such an uncontroversial assertion launched a flood of abusive online commentary is itself instructive.

Judd, to her credit, did not just express her anguish but is going ahead and pressing charges: "I routinely cope with tweets that sexualise, objectify, insult, degrade and even physically threaten me. I have already - recently, in fact - looked into what is legally actionable in light of such abuse, and have supplied Twitter with scores of reports about the horrifying content on its platform."

The idea that the internet is a safe place for launching attacks on public figures continues to operate. The famed anonymity of the web can lull users into writing stuff that they would not dare to offline. But the problems of internet abuse go beyond getting kicks out of dissing a famous person. A culture of online humiliation can have devastating effects on anyone, and even regular people can feel forced to take extreme steps.

Monica Lewinsky spoke at a Forbes event last year (I wrote about it here) detailing the public humiliation she felt in the aftermath of the Bill Clinton scandal. This was before social media, yet Lewinsky felt bereft of all agency in deciding how her story reached the world. Lewinsky relived the trauma in a TED talk she delivered last week, and one of the examples she used to make her point was the case of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after a video made by his roommate was published online. The video showed Clementi having sex with another man.

It would be tempting to suggest that public shaming online is directed at members of one or other minority, such as women or gays. (One respondent to another piece of mine on DailyO thought my argument not worth considering on the sole basis I am gay.) But there is another disturbing trend at play. After Twitter user @Sagarcasm alerted ESPNCricinfo and Cricbuzz to a portion of commentary on the two websites during the India-Bangladesh match that looked similar, Sambit Bal, the editor of ESPNCricinfo, tweeted that a commentator working for his website had accepted that he had lifted the text from CricBuzz. For good measure, Bal added: "He will never work with us again." While what the commentator did was unacceptable, it was not exactly the grave moral error that called for a sacking. Live-tweeting a cricket match demands mindboggling levels of concentration and it is not inconceivable that someone would, say, miss a ball. Add to this the intense competition for eyeballs and you have a situation where slip-ups can happen. That the commentator's deed made it to Twitter and that the editor of the website chose to set an example via his sacking may look like just desserts but also smacks of a bit of overkill.

The explosion of social media has allowed us to live a lot of our lives online. It also, sadly, lets us replicate our baser tendencies. Watching someone go down in real time may be thrilling but it helps no one. Worse, it can have deleterious consequences, both psychological and otherwise, for those at the receiving end of the public shaming. It is time social media companies, primarily Twitter and Facebook, worked with legal agencies to mount a more definitive attack on the Internet troll. It is also time that we stopped using social media as a place where our more thoughtful selves go to die.

Writer

Vikram Johri Vikram Johri @vikramjohri

I write for a living. Sometimes the words comfort the heart too.

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