How trolls waging social media Mahabharat changed us in 2015

Heroes and villains, trials and coronations, the disorganised sector of anonymous users on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp gave us the highlights.

 |  Angiography  |  7-minute read |   30-12-2015
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They might have instantly changed their DPs (display pictures) to express solidarity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's flagship Digital India when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed them the way, but the "trolls", or what the myriad multitudes of insta-opinionators online are often called, aren't just a sideshow in today's crowded political theatre. "Trolling" is now one of the most acknowledged forms of ideologically charged political participation.

And even though there is "nothing official about it", it wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that in terms of mass voicing of the national mood, or exposing its various fractures and fault lines, trolling is not very far below voting in sheer scale and impact. As an astute commentator has observed, it represents a "democratisation of opinion-making", even though, more often than not, trolling is associated with the worst forms of misogyny, communally-sensitive distortions against religious and caste minorities, and entrenched prejudice against difference - sexual, linguistic, regional, gastronomic, among others.

Originating in Norse mythology and Scandanavian folklore, the word "troll" meant hideous supernatural creatures, who specialised in mischief-making and thrived on pure nuisance value for the human settlers. Trolls are supposed to be ugly, impoverished, unhygienic and first-class buggers who derive a natural pleasure in annoying people. Though not necessarily harmful or particularly evil, even within the fantastical universe of Old Norse mythology, trolls, by default, have been the proletarian outcasts of the paranormal realm - trampy, churlish, juvenile and definitely irritating.

Plucked from its Old Norse origins, and suitably indigenised, the troll has not only got a fresh lease of life in the amorphous, still hazy world of cyberspace, but has also blossomed into a full-fledged, headline-making, agenda-setting phenomenon by now.  And although their international debut happened sometime in 2007-08, at the peak of US president Barack Obama's first election campaign, in India the trolls made their presence felt more recently.

Armed with entry-to-mid-level "smartphones" (or high-end ones, if they belong to the hallowed bracket of "NRI trolls"), and nebulous profiles (such as anonymous Twitter handles that do not give out the identity of the user, or pictures of Bollywood film stars, and even netas as Facebook DPs), millions of cyber entities found their voice for the first time when, in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections 2014, BJP orchestrated the, extremely successful as it later turned out, #NaMoforPM or #AbkiBarModiSarkar campaign.

On the other hand, the Anna Hazare-led "India Against Corruption" movement found enormous fan following on social media, with millions of anti-corruption vigilantes suddenly sprouting online, their DPs wearing the "I Am Anna" cap. Out of this morass of Indian aspirations rose the Aam Aadmi Party, steered by Arvind Kejriwal, but really resting on hundreds and thousands of online aam aadmis and aurats, hashtag crusaders for a new, spotless national dream.      

However, "selfless senas" as the tour de force behind Narendra Modi's meteoric rise in the national political scene is so 2014. The transformation of the organised cyber battalion, remote controlled from respective party war rooms and strategy cells, to the emotionally charged, opinionated and often unpredictable "troll" is something that really played out in full form only in 2015. To the extent that we even saw the hashtag #ModiInsultsIndia trend on Twitter when the prime minister, in a major protocol gaffe, walked away while the national anthem was still playing, in his recent visit to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow.  

It may be a Tower of Babel, a cottage industry of inarticulate (out)rage, the online world's equivalent of footpath agitation, but most of us now more or less agree that "trolling", though often rightwing in nature and full of pungent biases, is, nevertheless a veritable expression of opinion from the "invisible masses". If criticism, or what we call a more measured, erudite response to sociopolitical stimuli, is the opium of the classes, then trolling is the newfound religion of (culturally) unwashed millions. And, if the last two lines appear to be somewhat cringe-inducing and belie heavy prejudice that many associate with "Lutyens' media", they are intentionally so, since, for want of a better term, "trolling" is, for many of us, how the "incoherent" communicate. Trolling is the new "noise" in which the "message" gets lost.

Depending on their half-baked political leanings, trolls have been classified as bhakts, Aaptards, Libtards, sickulars, Internet Hindus, Congis, Modi toadies, Kejriwalsena, Sangh sainiks, among a slew of other equally fuzzy categories that say more about the established ideological camps than the emerging pattern of trolling as vox populi. It's literally voice of the people - rough at the edges, but with a strong emotional core striving to connect with the opinion-making mainstream.

We can gauge how this social media-aided revolution changed the political landscape by examining who were the biggest "victims" of trolling in 2015 alone. That illustrious list includes Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Chetan Bhagat, Mark Zuckerberg, Shriti Seth, Sonam Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Kavita Krishnan and even Narendra Modi. Non-human targets includes the cow. Whether it's the intolerance debate or the beef ban row, Modi's declaration that the "biggest choice facing today's youth is Android versus iOS", or Kejriwal's #OddEvenFormula, trolling has got everyone's goat, forcing them to rethink, clarify, issue apology, claim hurt or cry foul.

Uncharitable, elitist analyses, such as Chetan Bhagat's "anatomy of an internet troll", or Sagarika Ghose's "swarm of bees", and Chandan Mitra's "social media does not dictate policies" have been, in turn, subjected to prompt trolling. Bhagat's idea that the troll is a sexually-frustrated Modi bhakt with little English-speaking skills almost cost him his readership, while Mitra's comments were dismissed by commentators saying the Rajya Sabha MP from BJP is grossly out of sync with present-day realities. R Jagannathan, in one of his first pieces as the editorial director of the rightwing web portal Swarajya, said Mitra, and the old media, don't get that just having a Twitter handle does not make one "social media savvy". By savvy, I assume, he perhaps meant the rare ability of understanding the digital pulse of the nation and not getting trolled at every opportune instance.

And he is right.

Unlike conventional party politics wherein the top brass dictated terms to a more or less obedient cadre base of staggering numbers, trolling inverts the terms somewhat, although ideas and illusions are still heavily shaped by the perspective industries including mainstream media. However, we simply cannot overlook the fact that trolling is a classic case of the empire writing back. Literally.

Perhaps the god of the trolls is named Typos.


Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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