What if your life unspools in front of your eyes like an episode of the popular Netflix show on cyber dystopia, Black Mirror? Nirali and Ritesh Bhatia will tell you that two of your biggest assets to climb back on track are patience and presence of mind. In a career spanning 20 years, the couple, who met in 2001 while working at a Web development firm in Mumbai (which was co-founded by Ritesh and Nirali joined as an employee; they co-own it now) and married two years later, discovered their second professional coming — this time, in cyber investigations and counselling. There has been no looking back since, especially after a stint on television last year. The two were part of the popular show on MTV, Troll Police — a show that got celebrities to face their most abusive online bullies. Hosted by Rannvijay Singha, it had Nirali as the show’s official therapist and on-set counsellor while Ritesh was the cyber investigator, tasked with seeking out the bullies in real life from their social media handles.
Unlike his wife, Ritesh, 42, began his career at a chemicals company after studying polymer engineering. Much later, he joined a couple of friends in starting up his IT firm, V4WEB, resolving instances of cybersquatting and hacked servers for clients through the Nineties, before deciding to take the leap into criminal investigations (he had by then got a degree in law and studied cybercrime). By then, Nirali, 41, who was an established IT professional, sensed an opportunity to return to psychology, a degree that she had earned before settling for a career in information technology. “Cybercrime is different from real-life crimes and demands an understanding of both the cyberspace and the criminal mind. Otherwise, there is a gap in treatment,” she says, explaining how she has benefitted from both.
Nirali speaks of the many cases that came their way when clients, both male and female, complained about being spied upon on cyberspace and through their smartphones. “I’d investigate and find nothing. It took Nirali’s interaction with the client for us to realise that the client might be suffering from paranoia and needs counselling,” says Ritesh.
Experience has taught him that the key to dealing with victims of extortion is for a counsellor to put them at ease. “Most victims don’t want to go to the police or inform their families. They don’t even want to know who the blackmailer is. All they want is for the threats to stop. At that time, it is all about persuading a victim not to bother about a morphed video because it is very hard to prove that it’s them in it,” he says.
Their stint on television has made both of them confident that there is always a way to stand up to online bullies. While Ritesh’s role would end with handing over the contact information of the online abuser to the production house, Nirali’s job would begin once the person reached Mumbai for an unscripted confrontation with the celebrity. “These people had no idea that they would come face-to-face with the celebrity they were abusing. I would give Rannvijay a list of probing questions to ask and monitor the confrontation on set,” she says.
After the shoot, Nirali’s job was to debrief the person and ensure that he or she had calmed down before being flown home. Sometimes, the counselling sessions didn’t go to plan. After the very first episode, a young Lucknow University student, who had trolled actor Taapsee Pannu, went temporarily missing after being put on a plane back home. “The production house called me at 4 am informing me that the boy had gone missing. I was worried. Later, he got in touch to say that he was staying at a friend’s home before returning to his family,” Nirali says.
Their experience has helped them draw up a blueprint of characteristics common to trollers. “A majority of them are men aged between the early 20s and early 30s and come from respectable backgrounds. Many of them have a dual personality, making them prone to switching from being sophisticated offline to abusive online,” says Nirali.
Most trollers feel emboldened by anonymity and thus indulge in trolling. There are also those, says Nirali, whose mental health issues lead them to engage in abusive behaviour. Ritesh largely recommends ignoring these people, but, says, in some cases, sending out a stern message threatening legal action acts as a deterrent.
With the 2019 general elections only months away, attention is turning once more to how political parties will leverage social media to influence the outcome, especially since organised trolling is now a feature of politics. “Your decision on who to vote for cannot be made on social media. In fact, people need to be aware of how subtly radicalisation works,” says Nirali, adding, “In 2014, nobody voted for a party, they all voted for a man. The BJP made a celebrity out of Narendra Modi online. But there has been a slow shift in the narrative and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the upcoming elections.”
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘How to Tame Online Trolls’