I found myself in three very different contexts these last couple of weeks, bound together by a normalising of cyberbullying. The first was a conversation with a professor, who had punished a group of students in her class for disruptive behaviour involving their cellphones. As a form of retaliation, they photoshopped her face in a set of pornographic and explicitly profane images and made her into a meme. In the course of a week, many others piled on to this viral phenomenon, and the professor was now suddenly finding her private information, and her face being shared and commented on in ways that she could not control or process. When the four students responsible for the first meme were identified and questioned, their first reaction was that they couldn’t understand what the problem was. “This is what everybody does these days,” was their first collective response. While they were punished and made to recognise their crime, the images of this professor are here to stay on multiple social media sites, with more people sharing them faster than they can be removed.
In a very different setting, one of my friends, who has an 11-year-old son, called me frantically, because she found a steady stream of abusive messages on her son’s phone, targeted at him. These messages were on a closed-group social media platform consisting of students from his school. Her son, apparently, had reported some other kids bullying on the school ground and the chastised bullies had taken to tormenting him online. Calls to the school, inquiries from the principal, attempts at mediating and reconciliation had all fallen on deaf ears. When my friend suggested that her son get off the platform, he was in tears, and adamant that his social life will be over and he has to just stay on, and pay his dues. “Everybody has to pay for what they did. This will also get over,” he said, justifying the bullying and mob attacks that he was being subjected to.
On Reddit channels, I witnessed a furious fight about the suicide of Dr Payal Salman Tadvi — the medical doctor who gave in to depression and, eventually, death, after being bullied by three senior doctors who decided that her caste origins offended their professional sensibilities. The thread was started to talk about caste-based discrimination in contemporary Indian workspaces. It was soon taken over by people using this incident to call people of different castes weak, low-willed, and entitled snowflakes, who could not take hardship because they have been coddled by affirmative action. The irony of this argument aside, the one thing that they kept on insisting was that this act of bullying was not about caste at all because “everybody gets bullied and they have to be strong to fight back” or there is no hope for survival.
In all of these three very different cases, scattered around three different continents and privileges, one thing stands out. Cyberbullying is not just here but it seems to have been naturalised and accepted as the new normal. Thus, instead of stopping these acts, the focus seems to be on helping people cope with it. Similarly, the efforts are directed not at calling out such acts, but at supporting victims to see it through, without any structural respite.
Bullying has become such a widespread and commonplace phenomenon that we no longer recognise the privileges and powers invested in these acts. If everybody is a bully, then nobody can be a victim and if victimhood is commonplace, then those who are unable to cope with it, are just deemed weak and “asking for it”. It justifies that if we see something, we no longer need to say something.
Much research has pointed towards anonymisation, accelerated communication, non-embodied interactions, and distanced engagements as responsible. I have no new insight to add to this. However, I do want to remind us that the more apparent and rampant bullying becomes, the more important it is going to be to call it out, to protest — that we cannot naturalise it, and if we see something, we have to say something, and indeed, do something. An inaction is no longer an option.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in print with the headline Digital Native: The Power of the Gang
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