The current state of politics in the country is probably the most polarised and disruptive it has ever been in this century. As the protests pockmark the landscape of the country, with the young on the forefront, offering the last line of defence against a government overtaking constitutional provisions and rights, the digital fallout is quite intense. It is inevitable that we find ourselves engaged, angry, exhausted at the deaf ears that our arguments and conversations fall on. No matter which side we fall on, there is no denying that we are frustrated — either about the liberal politics that questions the naturalisation of a Hindu nation, or about the unapologetic fundamentalism that sees human life and dignity as disposable in the quest of militant nationalism.
These debates are not going to be resolved in the shouting matches online. We are not going to find resolutions to these fundamental ideological divisions with emojis. So, as we rage and subscribe to the outrage express that is the social web, it is important to remember the feminists call that “self-care is a political act”, and ensure that we are not being sucked into the vortex of hatred, anger, and grief that our social media feeds can often become in times like these. One way of self-care is to recognise the ways in which digital rhetorical devices will be used to silence and intimidate. Perhaps, the most insidious and aggravating form of political debates online is gaslighting. It doesn’t need a high level of sophistry but is manipulative enough to make the victim of an incident question their own memory, perception, and sanity as they express the pain of a trauma. Every time there will be an expression of pain or a recounting of the violence, there will be people who question, push back, seek to invalidate, or demand proof only to dismiss the voice that is struggling to make itself heard. The person shall be called paranoid, named a liar, and countered with facts and histories that have nothing to do with their story, but made to believe that there is a direct correlation.
Gaslighting is toxic because it doesn’t just produce counter-narratives or different sides of the story, but questions the voice and experience of the person as stable or dependable. Trolls who engage in gaslighting end up digging personal histories, find other narratives that do not negate but deflect the main message of the persons, and also unleash viral abuse that makes the person believe that they might be wrong to even perceive an event as traumatic, let alone experience it. This is a tactic that has been used in digital online spaces against women for many years now, and in these protests in India, we see it being deployed against multiple protesting and dissenting voices.
There are three effective ways of stopping gaslighting: First, Step up. When you see somebody being gaslighted, do not bear silent testimony. Don’t just slide into their DMs to offer them support. Stand up in public and push back against the perpetrators, while continually focusing on the key story.
Second, learn to recognise “whataboutery” and “whatiffery” — they are both hyperlinked digital conditions where the main story is immediately buried under arguments that take the form of “what about X?” where X might have nothing to do with the story at hand, or offering hypotheses which deny the material reality of things as they are and engage in rhetoric fancy. They seek to confuse and dilute the message of the original voice and create an imagined history of guilt and culpability which has no bearing on the now.
And the third is to stop feeding trolls. There will be people — sometimes friends and family — who will take pleasure in watching you explode into an outrage. They know exactly how to trigger you into rage, and point out inconsistencies in your personal life to make you feel a fool. Tempting as it might be, avoid engaging with them. In fact, block and mute them if needed. They are not there to have a dialogue, they are there to make a spectacle of you, and you don’t need them on your channels.
There are many handy lists to keep yourself safe when engaging in these protests. But it is important to remember that the protests continue in our digital world and we need to start creating a manual of how to keep ourselves safe and sane in digital spaces as well.