Social media's new normal: organised hate trolls

Social media's new normal: organised hate trolls
“First they came...” wrote Martin Niemöller, a 20th century German pastor and poet. It was written as Adolf Hitler’s hordes attacked and eliminated the Communists, then the Socialists, and their hatred finally led to the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews. It was a poignant admission of the cowardice of German intellectuals who did not stand up to Hitler’s army of murderous hatred. It aptly sums up the prevailing atmosphere on social media in India, where the trolls spare none.

Anyone who does not agree with a particular viewpoint is subject to vitriol and abuse, which has come to form the dominant form of discourse, if one can call it that, on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, sometimes even on LinkedIn, Instagram.

It wasn’t that the world’s largest democracy was immune to online hate and trolling earlier, but the crass and organised wrath that has come to be unleashed in the last three years and which has come to dominate the discourse at a time of social-economic-political transition is new. Worryingly, it has become the new normal, and it’s almost impossible for anyone to escape the digital claptrap should he or she so much as express any opinion.

The choice of being reasonable and coherent online has suddenly given way to the choice of being abusive, frenzied, slanderous. It stretches from unsolicited, ad hominem attacks on people over their choice of clothes or even christening their newborn, as it happened in the cases of two celebrities — cricketer Mohammed Shami over his wife’s outfit, and actor-couple Saif Ali Khan-Kareena for naming their son Taimur — to more concerted vicious attack by an army of trolls against anyone holding a view that’s at variance with the establishment’s narratives, dissenting against state policies, or criticising the government. In this atmosphere, a barrage of derisive slurs and even rape and death threats flow easily, with the latest prey being NDTV’s Ravish Kumar, who was subjected to targeted harassment on a WhatsApp group.

Another aspect of the prevailing hate-culture is that it is no longer anonymous, but post-2014 general elections,  the extreme-right trolls have been upfront, and have a sense of impunity, in their deliberately toxic, brazenly misogynistic abuse over issues ranging from hyper-nationalism to freedom of speech, an individual’s choice of food to her right to dissent.

It is an organised army of trolls, as pointed out by journalist Swati Chaturvedi in her book ‘I AM A Troll’, that spews venom against anyone who is even slightly critical of the current government — specifically of Prime Minister Narendra Modi —its policies, the political and ideological family from which he hails and a whole lot of other matters that they believe to be ‘holy cows’ that cannot be criticised in their idea of India, its demography, topography, culture, plurality, democracy, etc.

Anything contrary to their views on any of these issues is considered sacrilege and met with hate-rants, abusive name-calling, innuendo, smear campaigns, communal incitement, and threats of rape and death. The online-bashing of NDTV anchors as “anti-nationals” for backing Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ is an instance of organised wrath for not toeing the establishment’s line.

Muzzling dissent

The trolls are very conscious of who they are to target. The list is a long one — intellectuals, journalists, rationalists, thinkers, scientists, human rights and civil society groups, students, activists, government critics and other groups that assert the constitutional right to dissent and speak up and who express strong disagreements with the views and actions of the current establishment.

Several individuals have been the target of this hate culture, including rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi —– all murdered; U R Ananthamurthy, for his pointed observations on the far-right Hindutva nationalists, beef-eating culture and critique of Modi; actor Aamir Khan for speaking out against growing intolerance in country; former vice-president Hamid Ansari for voicing concern over increasing atrocities against minorities in the name of cow-vigilantism, love-jihad, ghar-wapsi, and the like.

Even Arun Shourie was subjected to “severe abuse,” as he himself put it, for his criticism of Modi – to the extent that the trolls did not even spare his celrebral palsy-hit son.

Earlier this year, Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur was trolled and threatened into silence with rape and death threats for speaking out against the violence unleashed by ABVP members at Ramjas College. The late Rohith Vemula, Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid, Anirban Bhattacharya were all branded anti-nationals and traitors for dissenting against the establishment’s notions of nationhood and sovereignty.

In other cases, people were ferociously trolled for expressing disagreement over singing of Vande Mataram, chanting of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ slogan. The gloating celebration over journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder is yet another case in point of the sadist social media culture that has become the new normal. What is more painful is that some of these serial online abusers are followed by the prime minister, who maintains a strategic silence, thus lending implicit, if not explicit, support to the hateful hordes.

There certainly is no quick and principled counter to the online vile and vitriol in a post-truth environment where putrid behaviours will persist and even get worse. Earnest efforts are needed to regulate the ‘networking spaces’ to ensure that it remains a sanctuary for free exchange of ideas, airing opinions and holding constructive dialogues.

Modalities and experiments must be evolved to weed out abusive and misleading content. Some ways of doing so may be to ignore, dis-engage, mute, block and red-flag abusers, but may need stronger follow-up. Those polluting the virtual social ecosystem need to be dealt with sternly. Will the prime minister please show the way by unfollowing handles of hate and thus taking away his sanction of abuse? He may want to remember Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

(The writer is a student of journalism, University of Mysore)

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