Take The Internet Back From The Mob
The Agrima Joshua case showed us the power of social media to take on trolls.
My relationship with social media, (mostly Twitter) these days is complicated. It is a toxic relationship. I am always on the verge of breaking up and yet I stay on because I am convinced that there is still good to be found here. Or rather, I remember the good times and stay on in hope. And then the hope dwindles – when I see a young girl being vilified and bullied because her film star boyfriend died by suicide, a young comedian going offline pleading fervently to let his family be and hate filled hashtags trending the whole day long. There are days I rationalise and say these are paid trolls, or orchestrated bots. But the truth is that a lot of them are real human beings with an internet connection which gives them great power, but no accountability. Like Shubham Mishra. But more on him later.
I have long given up on platforms being accountable for the content they host – their metric is audience engagement, and they take no responsibility.
The option then is to mute, block or just exit. For perfectly good reasons - you are outnumbered, you can’t reason with a mob and you rather not have abuse coming your way. Like they say in Hindi, ‘muh kyon lagna hain’ (roughly translated, I am not going to stoop down to your level). And also that is what decent folks do – they don’t trash talk, they mind their own business and they don’t get into spats.
But being decent about it won’t win you this battle. In case you weren’t aware, IT is a battle. It is a battle where there are no prizes for graceful exits. Discretion is not the better part of valour. It is a battle for sense and sensibility on the internet. It is the battle for rational discourse, and you have to fight the good fight and go in guns blazing.
Agrima Joshua is an example of what happens when you collectively don’t back down and call out the mob.
Joshua, a young female comedian, cracked some rather lame jokes on Quora reactions on a proposed statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. It was an old video which was completely misunderstood and led to the usual – sentiments were hurt, the venue for the performance was hurt and the State Home Minister asked for an investigation. Not into the actual vandalizing of the venue, but the alleged vandalizing of sentiment. So far so not needed but par for the course. Regulation. Occupational hazard for stand up comics in a thin-skinned country. Except there was more – a YouTuber from Vadodara, Shubham Mishra uploaded a video with rape threats and profanity targeted at Joshua.
And that is when the tide turned – influencers, actors, stand up comics refused to let it go. They did what is the preserve of the troll armies – they orchestrated and organized wide outrage. They got their hashtags to trend. They spurred the authorities and the National Commission for Women to take action, and they won. Shubham Mishra was arrested by the Vadodara police. An FIR has been been filed against him under Indian Penal Code sections 294 (Obscenity), 504 (Intentional insults to break public peace) 505 (Statements conducing to public mischief), 506 (Criminal intimidation) and 509 (Intending to insult modesty of a woman), as well as section 67 of the IT Act (Transmission of electronic material which is lascivious or tends to deprave or corrupt people).
Joshua’s content will still be investigated for hurting sentiments, but nobody gets away by threatening to physically harm her now without consequences. The lesson was clear- if you find someone’s content offensive, you file a complaint or question the content. It does not give you the license to threaten violence and rape to the creator.
But the biggest lesson yet from the Agrima Joshua case is that you can take on the mob with organized collective action. That you can reclaim the internet and not let it degenerate into a troll for all.
But don’t wait for it to reach this stage – start now. This battle needs the regular social media user, the celebrity influencer and the media to all come together and strike. This is how it could work.
Irrespective of where you stand in the social media hierarchy, call out even the minor bully, report hate speech and don’t back away. Even if the abuse is not directed at you. Especially if the abuse is not directed at you. Even if the abuse is directed at someone whose politics or films you hate. You can have a difference of opinion, you can even have a slanging match but don’t endorse hate speech.
Take on the bully. Even if the bully is punching above your weight and targeting someone who you think has the clout on their own to shut him up. Every tweet, every action counts. Stop him before he becomes the next Shubham Mishra. And defiles your internet space.
Which brings me to celebrities and their reaction to internet bullying – slinking away is not the answer. You have the resources to take this on – report, book charges and take it head on. You also have the clout to pressure platforms into accepting more culpability. If you exit, they lose brand ambassadors. Use that bargaining power- don’t just mute or block abuse. If you play hardball, social media platforms will have to play by your rules. Use your power and your following to help yourselves. And in the bargain, us. Come up with a plan – take a stand, for once. It is for you.
Of course, none of this pushback will work unless the government and police don’t proactively step in. Like they did in the Agrima Joshua case. If the consequences of hate speech are immediately visible like they were here, more and more people be it the celebrity, the influencer or the regular user will be spurred on to report bullying.
And people will understand that just like the real world, misbehaviour on the internet has ramifications and consequences.
Lastly, media organisations – stop picking up your cues from social media. It has to work the other way round. A twitter handle doesn’t make anyone an expert. You guys are supposed to be the experts and you cannot run news stories on opinions taken off Twitter. It is just plain lazy and you are mostly validating and amplifying uninformed sentiments. Reporting on social media feeds is not journalism of any kind. Remember that and while you are it, gag you news editors.
Ok, the last was a joke. Don’t troll me. Or do. I will put my plan for trolls into action.
(Naomi Datta tweets at nowme_datta & is the author of How To Be a Likeable Bigot. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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