Under the veneer of “free speech”, social media in Twitter has been the fertile ground for pitching vitriolic sexist, racist and religious comments. From snide remarks and patronising jibes to unapologetic, hateful memes, trolling has become a day-to-day event. And it’s the perfect fodder for the media.
Trolling, in Twitter’s sprawling empire, is ubiquitous. When Twitter made its foray into the realm of social media, it created an illusion of a leveling field. It not only made people of public relevance (actors, cricketers, politicians, including our very own Prime Minister) accessible, but it also encouraged a strange degree of voyeurism—posting comments and photographs of what these celebrities or figures of power were doing almost every day. Needless to say, Twitter shattered the glass screen and bridged the distance between those who held authority in the public eye and the masses. It allowed many to consider that tweeting to an individual of some social relevance is like texting a friend—there is a good chance your post will be read by them. The common man/woman then invariably floats in the delusion that since he/she is now a close spectator of everything a celebrity does or thinks, he/she has the liberty to comment on the latter’s personal life.
Recently, Indian cricketer Mohammed Shami, who has a tribe of over 40,000 followers, received acerbic conservative comments – predominantly from men – when he posted a photograph of his wife who was wearing an outfit, which in their eyes, seemed “religiously inappropriate”. Shami’s wife Hasin Jahan was wearing a sleeveless gown. Almost immediately, the cricketer was pulled up for allowing his wife to “disgrace” the community by wearing a revealing outfit.
Clearly, the derision was anchored in the patriarchal thinking. A follower remarked – “Bhai me a bhat aap se yehi kahunga aap apne bibi ko Islami tarike par rakho sami bhai allah ke liye” (I will tell you one thing brother, keep your wife under Islamic traditions for the sake of Allah). Others questioned Mohammad’s faith and whether he was truly a Muslim. They were also outraged that Jahan was straying from the modest Muslim culture by adopting the western culture.
The ability to demean an individual (in this case, Hasin Jahan) by an army of self-proclaimed moral policemen without facing any ramifications is disconcerting. Today, the demarcation between the private and public spheres have been expunged. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook function as instruments of scrutiny – everybody considers it to be his/her personal agenda to be in the know of what’s going on in the lives of those who put themselves on display. The former considers it his/her right to offer his/her opinion on it.
For instance, last week the actor-couple Kareena Kapoor Khan and Saif Ali Khan shared the birth of their child – an extremely private moment – with the country. They were later berated, unabashedly, for naming their first born Taimur Ali Khan Pataudi. The internet empire had managed to find a dubious link between the child’s name and the 14th century Turco-Mongol invader, Temur Lang. Lang had conquered and marauded Delhi – an invasion that reportedly led to the slaughter of approximately 10,000 Indians. However, this event that occurred seven centuries ago, apparently seemed to be as vile and palpable as ever in the minds of aggressive Indian fundamentalists who called the naming of the child heresy. They hurled disconcerting allegations at the couple, accusing them to be anti-national.
This derision isn’t limited to cricketers and actors alone. Politicians, in particular, have built a large following on Twitter. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has 25.8 million followers and counting, while Arvind Kejriwal has 10.1 million. But they also have their respective trolling counterparts – like @Troll_Modi and @TrollKejri – that thrive on social media fodder generated by them. For trolls, Twitter is like an over-populated country with no laws. If you are a nobody with a lot of time in your hands, you can get away with almost anything, without any consequences.
However, Twitter is also a colosseum for politicians who take jibes at each other every now and then, creating an amusing, but sometimes a disconcerting spectacle. When Modi gave his second exclusive interview to Arnab Goswami on TIMES NOW, #PMSpeaksToArnab became a trending story. Arvind Kejriwal asked, “Is Arnab Goswami a journalist or Modi propagandist?” On another occasion, Kejriwal called Modi a “coward” and a “psychopath”. Modi of course, steered clear of launching into a twitter battle. Nevertheless, the members of his party, like Union Cabinet Minister of Textiles, Smriti Irani (5.4 million followers) have often participated in heated arguments on Twitter. Irani is known for her skirmishes with many, including journalists like Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghose.
Twitter trolling by politicians gives an interesting insight into the nature of our politicians and also their idiosyncrasies. It also brings home the fact that at the end of the day, they are human. But what it also exemplifies is that politicians more often than not, aren’t using the social media to have level-headed political conversations/debates—neither with the common man/woman, nor with their opposition. They seldom use the platform of twitter to deliberate over important issues or talk about how to solve challenges that are impeding the country’s progress. And perhaps that is something to think about.
No wonder people are thinking twice before posting their views on things. More often than not, anyone who tweets anything, will be at the receiving end of some brand of derision. It’s the volatile nature of that derision is what’s troubling.
When its makers envisioned Twitter, it was considered to be a town hall of sorts – a virtual meeting ground for people, unbounded by geography and time, where constructive discussions could take place and ideas could ricochet off each other. Today Twitter has metamorphosed into a battle ground. From constant belittlement and moral policing to rampant fake news – twitter has been reduced to a place where the ability to comment on any issue has led its users to believe that its their unchallengeable right to write about anything. However condescending it might be, they will not face the consequences. Twitter and Facebook are characteristically echo cambers – one troll’s views will be retweeted or shared – and that view will snowball into something else entirely. This ability to say anything, however, should be checked. I’m a staunch supporter of free speech, but when trolls consider it to be a ticket to condescend, deride and make fun of others, it is worrying.