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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Trolling – An Ever Growing Menace In India

The social media is now literally everywhere. Abuse on social media is hurtful and unacceptable, but it will not be easy to stop this ugly trend.

It has been phenomenal in its rise. The social media is now literally everywhere. Across the world, people have taken to blogging, tweeting and Facebooking with such fervour that at times the traditional media seems to be a pre-historic creature. With very few moderators vis-à-vis the number of social media users, it has become almost a free-for-all match on the worldwide web. There is so much blah blah blah all around us that it even prompted a columnist of a British newspaper to say that he is discontinuing his column to reduce word emissions. He was joking, of course.


So it was only a matter of time before trolls jumped into the pool to do what they do best: disrupt forums with their venomous comments. They have now become such a menace that recently the microblogging site Twitter was forced to apologise to its users and promise that it would do something to contain such abuse. Twitter’s apology, in more than 140 characters, came after three British female journalists said they had been subjected to bomb threats on the site. Saying that it wants to make its members feel safe, the company added that from now on the users will be able to report abuse directly from a tweet.

According to media reports, Twitter has only 40 employees around the world to review complaints about inappropriate comments, while Facebook has hundreds of staff doing the same and uses much more sophisticated technology than Twitter to target the trolls. For the record, Twitter has 500 million-plus users. In an interview to CNN, Whitney Phillips, a New York University lecturer who is writing a book on trolling behaviour, said that it is nearly impossible to “taxonomise” trolling behaviour. She added that a lot of trolling is about mischief and harmless, silly pranks but the really extreme behavior like attacking people “seems to be a behaviour with a different motivation.”

The sole reason why people have taken to social media in such a big way is because it gives them a chance to say what they want. While it is true that abuse against any commentator/user is unacceptable and there are technological solutions to contain such people, the reality is it will be very difficult to completely stop the army of trolls on these platforms. We have let the genie of free speech out of the bottle, so now we have the learn to live with it the best we can.

Close on the heels of the #SalmanKhan controversy, comes another case of online abuse. A few days ago, Salman Khan gave a statement wherein he compared his hard work and subsequent physical exhaustion in his upcoming movie Sultan, to that of a rape victim. While social media remained divided over the issue, with the hashtags #InsensitiveSalman and #SalmanMisquoted delineating the different opinions, there was another issue which came up due to this. Popular singer Sona Mohapatra, singer of “Bahara” and “Ambarsariya”, tweeted about the issue, like many others.
Soon after this tweet, social media erupted once again. However, this time, it was to abuse the singer, for speaking up against their ‘Bhai’.

In response, Sona Mohapatra did reply to these trolls, by saying that they have just proved her point regarding the misogyny and ill treatment of women. We had earlier written about the instances of Barkha Dutt and Kavita Krishnan being trolled on Twitter for various statements they had made, and we continue to be shocked by how trolling has become the akin to sexual harassment, with respect to how common it seems to be. It seems that people are waiting for prominent women to voice their opinions on cyber space, so that they can be trolled.

What makes the case of Sona Mohapatra unique is that up until now, no prominent figure, Bollywood or otherwise, had an opinion to make regarding the Salman Khan issue. And the only one who happens to do so, is a woman, who was told to shut up.

In a recent study by The Guardian, it was found that eight of ten most abused writers were women. These numbers are disgraceful, because it seems like the patriarchical notions against women have now entered the seemingly neutral cyber space.

Recently, in line with increasing cases of trolling and cyber crime, Union minister Maneka Gandhi has decided to take concrete action against these cases. The Women and Child Development minister has decided to take up the matter with Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and ministry of Information Technology to come up with a mechanism to tackle and punish such miscreants. The minister has also called upon officials of Facebook and Twitter to seek their assistance in tackling the menace of online trolling. Launching the initiative, Maneka tweeted on Tuesday asking all aggrieved women to send their complaints to her personal email address — gandhim@nic.in. Women can also tweet using the hashtag #IamTrolledHelp. This initiative has already gotten an excellent response from women, from all corners of the country.

At Centre for Social Research, we are strong believers of safe online spaces, and our work advocates healthy counter speech and knowing how to maintain your privacy and dignity online. This move by the government is highly appreciated as it is a definite need of the hour. The online space is severely under-represented by women, and cases such as these will only serve to discourage women from making their opinions public. We wish this initiative all the best, and urge all aggrieved women to take solid action against cyber crime immediately.
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