Indian Twitter is a bastion of masked troll-slayers

Anonymous handles ensure less abuse and more followers than your real name could get

There is a lofty parallel between anonymous Twitter handles and masked superheroes. However, the handle holders know what they do is far less romantic.

There’s one Iron Man, one Babur and two Jawaharlal Nehrus on Twitter.

Anonymous handles have become a staple of the Indian Twitter scene, with new parody accounts cropping up every now and then. The Babur account (@Baburnama), in fact, is no older than two weeks.

Contacting them is tricky: the more popular and outspoken an account is, the higher the chances of abusive trolls trying to get to it, so most of them have switched off the option of DMs (direct messages).

You just tweet to them and keep your own DMs open. If you are lucky, they will get back to you. But if they do agree to speak to you, they prefer DMs itself, because a mail ID or phone number puts their anonymity at risk.

One exception to this was Babur, who insisted on mail, the ID to which was also named after the Jahanpanah. Since he was the sole exception, Metrolife asked him whether the id was created just for this conversation.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” the Jahanpanah said, “Although Jahanpanah doesn’t email currently, I created this email to activate the Baburnama Twitter handle”.

Why it’s tempting

Anonymity is very tempting for many, and it’s a different temptation for each one person.

One handle said he had taken up anonymity because on his previous handle, attributed to his real-life self, he had faced backlash for speaking up.

“It was religion-based abuse and trolling even from my own friend,” he said.

Anonymity is also the reason there are so many dead people on Twitter. The rationale behind their resurrection generally being: if the dead awaken and had sharp tongues, what would they tell the government and the trolls?

Both Nehru accounts (@Nehru_who and @PMNehru) were started because the former prime minister gets blamed for everything; according to @Nehru_who, even for a road accident.

Babur was snarkier: “I wanted to get under the right wing skin by impersonating someone who is fairly well hated,” the Jahanpanah said.

“I was lying in bed, recalling a tweet on Nehru and that was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. I realised that if there’s anyone the right wing hates more than Nehru, it was Babur.”

Dead people aren’t the only ones getting parody accounts. There is one even for the right-wing Twitter icon Shefali Vaidya; called ‘Checha Ali Vaidya’, with the even more provocative handle name @AuntyHindutva, the account’s primary purpose is to tick off the real Vaidya.

For the older and more widely followed PuNsTeR™ (@Pun_starr), he stumbled on to his current avatar after a series of hits and misses.When he started out years ago, it was like any other account, with his own name and using his own photo. He changed the name of his handle six times before his current Robert Downey Jr look as Iron Man. Before calling himself PuNsTeR™, he even used to be “Irony Man”.

For most of them, these avatars aren’t their first go at Twitter, so from experience, they know that a funny alter ego can reach out to a wider audience than your original self.

In the words of @PMNehru, “Twitter is the bastion of anonymous accounts”.

He himself has another anonymous account for his non-Nehru commentary; he refuses to tell you which one it is; time again, people who have tried to guess have failed. Being their “bastion” does not mean it is a bed of roses. Two anonymous accounts — one is @Nehr_who — had recently complained that they lost followers overnight. The Arun Jaitley parody account had to change its name to Jet Lee because Twitter said this violated its norms. A Nirav Modi parody account, joking prefixed with “Chowkidaar”, was shut down by Twitter, and its owner had to start a new one. Clarifications from Twitter are scarce.

What is it like?

Anonymous fame is paradoxical: you are hidden in plain sight. Your followers may run into lakhs, but you are once removed from your own fame: you may enjoy it only in secrecy.

@Nehr_who said he has followers among his colleagues, who don’t know it is him; his oblivious family discusses his posts on their WhatsApp group.

While some of them let a select few know, some like @AuntyHindutva say absolutely no one knows the link between her and her alter ego.

Pop culture offers a very apt parallel to this, albeit a very lofty one: this is the life every caped crusader leads; this is Indian twitterati version of the Clark Kent-Superman life.

There is even an eerily close Bruce Wayne-Batman situation with @GarvSeSecular, who is the Managing Director of an European multinational company by day and a proud anonymous exponent of secularism by Twitter.

Ironically, though Indian Twitter has a famous Iron Man parody, the superhero happens to be one of those whose real name everyone knows.

Even those who are aware of this parallel know it is a bit too grand. Asked whether the analogy makes him happy, @PMNehru said “Not really, it diverts your attention from real life problems, but it doesn’t end them.”

The trolls will come knocking all the same, however, there is respite.

Anonymity strips you off everything from your face to gender to religion to skin colour. People contradict each other even when trying to describe the person behind the handle.

“Some call me a mulla while others call me a gadda Hindu,” @Nehru_who says. @AuntyHindutva says that for some, ‘Chicha’ is a ‘he’ and for some a ‘she’ Anonymity, therefore, provides a strong shield, created by dissociating yourself from your alter ego.

“I have encountered a few with strong opposing views but the best way I have found to tackle them, is to not get emotionally attached to the character (on your handle),” says Babur.

And no one has perhaps dissociated himself as well as Jet Lee. “When some accounts abuse, I kind of like to believe they are not abusing me or my family but the one in my DP,” he says.

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