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Trolling — An Unpunished Wrong Rising Exponentially. What Can Be Done?

With respect to legislation, what's most important is how it would protect the person once the trolling has started.

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Recently, a 33-year-old tech worker, whose eight-month-old child miraculously survived a fall from the fourth floor of an apartment building, committed suicide after facing severe social media harassment that labelled her a bad mother. Little did she know that the miracle would ultimately lead to her own demise.

Similarly, a 16-year-old boy from Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, reportedly took his own life after receiving hate comments on his transition Reels on Instagram. Little did he know that instead of receiving the support he expected, he would be met with hate comments that would ultimately drive him to question his own survival.

No one uses social media to seek insults; rather, they seek support or recognition. However, when opinions clash, situations often take a negative turn. Sometimes, individuals' actions are shared extensively without their consent.

It's crucial to recognise that trolling diminishes one's reputation in the public eye, often leading to severe consequences such as suicide. Sometimes, users do not even leave the minors. For example, a minor who topped UP Class 10 Board exams this year was subjected to extreme trolling owing to facial hair.   
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As social media users, we have to understand that social media is now an integral part of everyone’s life and constant exposure to negative comments, insults, and harassment can lead to feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and anxiety. It may also cause depression and contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

At times, posts are rapidly shared with trolling captions and comments, leaving victims unable to defend themselves. We contend that trolling should be recognised as a distinct offence under Indian law, necessitating comprehensive legal measures to curb its proliferation and protect individuals' rights and well-being. 

What is Trolling? 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary aptly defines trolling as “to antagonise (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content”. Despite numerous studies revealing the detrimental effects of trolling on individuals' mental well-being, there is a lack of comprehensive legislation globally to ban trolling as it ought to be. Therefore, there is no law defining trolling in the context of regulating it.  

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Freedom of Speech and Restrictions on It

Although, Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution permits social media users to freely speak and post on social media, however, Article 19(2) allows the legislature to make a law restricting such posts and comments which are indecent, immoral, or if they incite an offence.

Surely, the words ‘decent’ and ‘immoral’ are very broad to include trolling. Hence, these provisions serve to curb trolling on social media platforms. Earlier, we had Section 66A in the IT Act which provided punishment up to three years for sending messages for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience to the receiver or anything which was grossly offensive or having a menacing character. However, Section 66A was struck down by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, AIR 2015 SC 1523

Unfortunately, there is currently no legislation in India that penalises trolling as sometimes it is not associated with spreading communal hate or hurting religious beliefs or gender-specific etc. In the absence of dedicated legislation, prosecuting trolls and holding them accountable for their actions becomes challenging, if not impossible.  
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How Should a Law Be?

The legislation should first provide a comprehensive definition of trolling, encompassing various forms of online negative comments and posts in such a way that it does not seem vague and arbitrary. The legislation should include sufficient illustrative instances to delineate what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, thus clarifying the legal boundaries.

This clarity is essential to prevent potential legal challenges in court. It should extend the provisions to cover all forms of digital communication, including social media platforms, messaging apps, online forums, and email. Penalties for trolling should be proportionate to the seriousness and repercussions of the behaviour. Moreover, the law ought to mandate social media platforms to proactively address trolling; failure to do so should result in accountability for those in charge.

Most important here is how the law would protect the person once the trolling has started. Well, the law should impose the liability on the platforms themselves to use their AI to track down all the posts which share the flagged post.

Further, the aggrieved person should get the control to delete all the comments on his or her post at once. The aggrieved person should get the option to disable the sharing of posts and taking of screenshots by any other user. The social media platforms should be directed to use keywords to prevent the hate comments. Also, sometimes, the trolls come from unrecognised fake accounts or unanimous pages which make it difficult for the aggrieved person to take any step. Therefore, the platforms should be directed to attach a particular identity to every account so that the handler can be identified and tracked down by all other users.  

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Conclusion

In conclusion, the devastating consequences of trolling on individuals' mental well-being, as evidenced by tragic incidents like those of the 33-year-old tech worker and the 16-year-old boy from Ujjain, highlight the urgent need for comprehensive legislation to address this issue in India.

Users have to understand that teenagers are often in the midst of exploring their identities through their interactions with the world. If they face trolling during this sensitive period, it can undermine their sense of self and their connection to others.

Despite the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, the rise of trolling on social media platforms has underscored the limitations of existing legal frameworks in protecting individuals from online harassment.

By enacting a law, we can create a safer and more respectful online environment where individuals can freely express themselves without fear of harassment or intimidation. Ultimately, the protection of individuals' rights and well-being in the digital age requires proactive measures to prevent trolling and uphold the principles of dignity, respect, and inclusivity online.

(Ravi Singh Chhikara and Rishabh Attri are practicing advocates at the Delhi High Court. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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