It's not just them: Blaming BJP supporters and the party alone for Sushma Swaraj being trolled is wrong

Is Twitter even capable of curbing abuse? Is it even interested?

 |  4-minute read |   02-07-2018
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When external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj asked people on a Twitter poll if they approved of the kind of abuse she has been receiving over the past week — it all started after the transfer of passport official Vikas Mishra for allegedly harassing an interreligious couple in Lucknow — she probably did not expect more than 53,000 people to say yes.

Being a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a minister popular on social media may have kept her sheltered from the kind of abuse received usually by women, especially journalists and those who oppose the Modi regime; Alas! That bubble has now burst. But just for her. There are many who were not even a bit surprised at how quick the mostly faceless trolls on Twitter were to subject yet another woman to their viciousness and abuse.

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It is easy to see the vile tweets being aimed at Sushma Swaraj and her husband as just the BJP’s pet chickens coming home to roost; many party leaders, including PM Modi follow Twitter accounts that spread and encourage abuse. And a digital aashirwad in the form of a “follow” from these influential leaders — many of these abusive accounts wear “Followed by @NarendraModi” as a badge of honour — is often a huge factor in legitimising pernicious behaviour often displayed by many BJP supporters.

But singularly blaming the BJP’s social media ecosystem in this episode (and possibly many more to follow) is akin to blaming the US for creating the Taliban — you let religious fundamentalism off the hook.

Similarly, when you make the argument that Sushma Swaraj is only reaping what the BJP has sown in the last four years, no matter how true it is, you let the platform itself off the hook.

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Acclaimed technology journalist Charlie Warzel, in a 2016 essay for Buzzfeed quoted a former Twitter employee saying, “… product inaction created a honeypot for as*holes”. What this statement essentially means is that that abuse and “trolling” on the micro-blogging website is not a bug, rather a feature. And anyone who uses Twitter is well aware of just how widespread this feature is.

In its “Hateful Conduct Policy”, Twitter proclaims, “Freedom of expression means little if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. We do not tolerate behaviour that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another person’s voice,” — but in reality, it does very little to curb it.

Death threats, rape threats, doxxing and abuse are still very much a part of the problem, but the trolls, over the years, have become smarter.

Trolls, in general, are believed to be people who want to elicit a reaction through provocations.

But what happens when trolls stop looking for attention and start targeted attacks meant to silence, wear out or scare people? What happens when there is a group of people whose sole job is to create new accounts — just to be able to harass?

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Is Twitter capable of curbing such an onslaught?

Last week, in an attempt to address abuse and trolls on its platform, Twitter introduced new policies on hateful conduct and violent extremism. But what are these policies? “To make it harder to register spam accounts, we’re going to require new accounts to confirm either an email address or phone number when they sign up to Twitter. This is an important change to defend against people who try to take advantage of our openness,” Twitter wrote in a blog post. “We’re also moving rapidly to curb spam and abuse originating via Twitter’s APIs. In Q1 2018, we suspended more than 142,000 applications in violation of our rules — collectively responsible for more than 130 million low-quality, spammy tweets,” the blog post added.

This, however, does not feel enough.

Not by a long shot.

Again, looking back at the comment made by the ex-Twitter employee, the website’s very ethos allows for harassment and abuse to be this free-flowing. Harassment is complicated and nuanced and even with human checks, it can be difficult to recognise, let alone curtail. To the untrained eye, targeted abuse may look reactionary and harassment may look like critique. How then must one deal with it?

Not using the platform is simply not an option for many, seeing how politicians have made a norm of using this podium to circumvent the media. The only option, then, is to grow a thick skin, almost like the one Twitter has when it comes to legitimate criticism.

Also read: How Vir Kotak is opening Indian market to a taste of new beers

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