The anatomy of trolling: What victims have to say about the trend

Are these disgruntled individuals or an organised army? Who are these angry people on social media?

 |  5-minute read |   10-08-2018
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Social media. That vast pool of infinite space with room for everyone, with limitless possibilities, the ultimate front for free speech, a safe space to express your views. Or, a medium to get attacked, abused, threatened?

Has “social media” today disrupted more than just the internet game?

Who are these people who indulge in endless debates and whataboutery online? Why has a vast majority of our online exchange turned so virulently abusive and polarised? Why are so many on the internet targeted for what they say, do or wear? Why are so many harassed, abused and threatened? Are these just angry individuals, or, at times, is it an organised army out with a diktat to follow?

A few weeks ago, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj suddenly faced a volley of negative tweets on the microblogging site, Twitter. The comments were accusatory, virulent and inflammatory.

The tweets disapproved of her action of helping an interfaith couple out with their passports. The comments targeted the minister’s personal life — she was asked the religion of her recent kidney-donor and whether that had influenced her decision. Even her husband, a former governor, was dragged in — a Twitter user asked him to “beat his wife and teach her not to do Muslim appeasement”.

What’s worse, many of those who wrote these offensive tweets were followed by top BJP leaders.

When the minister retweeted some of these tweets and began a Twitter poll asking people whether such trolling was okay, 43 per cent of the respondents said YES.

So who is a troll?

Is it an introvert sitting in a secluded corner, hooked on to the dark net, typing away furiously? Is it the person sitting right next to you at work, or on the next table at a fancy dinner? Is it that old school friend of yours, on whose social media feed, one can chart the growth of polarisation in India? Or is it the businessman who once congratulated a journalist neighbour for her career but now sniggers and says “ab presstitute toh koi nahi bolta, nai (now no one calls you a presstitute, do they)?”

For a word that started off in the dictionary as a verb derived from a fishing term, “trolling” today conjures up a dark image. Much more than grumblings of disagreement, it has metamorphosed into hate-filled attacks on a person’s religious, regional, gender identity. The troll online targets everyone with a view different from theirs.

Most often vile, some are also quite bizarre.

Film journalist Anna Vetticad is often trolled for her film reviews. “On my review of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, someone trolled me saying I criticised it because the Pope asked me to, because Prem Ratan Dhan Payo was a Hindu film,” Anna laughs, asking, “What does that even mean?”

Amit Malviya, the national head of BJP’s IT cell, considers trolling more like Amit Malviya, the national head of BJP’s IT cell, says trolling may be nothing more than just the "the language of disagreement". (Photo: Screengrab/Youtube.com)

It is, however, the threats of physical violence like rape, which women often receive, that unnerves social activist Shehla Rashid. Attacked fiercely for her political stand, Shehla points out that the manner in which she is trolled points at an organised army of cyber bullies, who target her the moment she posts on social media. “Earlier those who trolled did so anonymously. Post 2014, they openly incite genocide,” Shehla says. She also points out how many who troll her are followed by top BJP leaders, including the Prime Minister.

A claim echoed by a former volunteer with the BJP’s own social media cell, Sadhavi Khosla. Khosla recalls a text message she received back in 2014 from the BJP’s social media head, asking volunteers to troll actor Aamir Khan.

In an interview, Khan had stated how his wife Kiran Rao felt uneasy in the country and contemplated shifting abroad. “I was seriously taken aback, that it was their official agenda to troll Aamir Khan just because his wife said she feels unsafe. His wife never said anything against the BJP (sic). By that time I was very put off, quite disillusioned with Mr Modi, there were many reasons, but one big reason was ‘hate’ (sic).”

Amit Malviya, the national head of BJP’s IT cell, maintains difference of opinion on social media is natural and the language is just of disagreement. “Using the troll brand to dismiss an argument, just because it doesn’t meet your exacting standards of language, or idiom or phraseology, is perhaps not the right way to do it (sic)”,” he says.

Is quitting social media the only way to protect oneself from trolls?Is quitting social media the only way to protect oneself from trolls? (Photo: Reuters)

For the administrator of the satirical Facebook page ‘Humans of Hindutva’, trolling took an ugly turn when some threatened him and his family. “They abused me, said they would teach me and my family ‘a lesson’. They put out my (contact) details on many right-wing fora.”

Speaking anonymously, he asserts that he ‘trolls the troll’. “There is no typical troll, because the tendency to irritate others is in all of us. There is a troll in every one of us. I’m only trolling the trolls. If I focus on Hindutva, it’s because ‘Hindu nationalists’ are the ones lynching people in broad daylight in my country.”

So what prompts a person to indulge in such aggressive behaviour online? What goes on in the mind of the troll?

According to psychologist Kapil Kakar, at times, it is the instant gratification of online fame. “If you check some of these troll tweets, you’ll see a lot of compliments, likes and shares. This is the kind of attention they are seeking.”

Cyber law expert Pavan Duggal also points out that the lack of political will to create laws that prevent trolling and other forms of cyberbullying give a free reign to such crimes in India. “To politicians, (trolling) appears to be personal quarrels of some people. What they don’t understand is, tomorrow they can also be trolled, as political leaders.”

So what will it take to curb this violence that’s taking over another public space?

Is it time to quit social media?

Also read: Why hatred and hate speech are not social media inventions

Writer

Moumita Sen Moumita Sen @mou_sen_

The writer works with India Today.

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