The reign of the trolls: Who’s your nemesis on social media?

  • Danish Raza, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 14, 2016 19:20 IST
Many users are taking time off Twitter citing negativity. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

On the afternoon of June 6, moments after filmmaker Anurag Kashyap posted a tweet saying he would take on the censor board for suggesting more than 90 cuts in his co-production Udta Punjab, the trolls were out. The tweets ranged from labelling him as an Aam Aadmi Party agent to elaborate ‘whataboutery’ (what about the time when his previous films were censored?).

Kashyap is just the latest celebrity to get viciously attacked on Twitter.

Last month, Congress party spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi received a tweet saying she should be raped and killed like Nirbhaya.

Earlier in May, senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai went off Twitter for a few days following continuous trolling.

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Read: Sonakshi Sinha shames man for asking creepy question on Twitter

In April, trolls hurled jibes at Congress leader Digvijay Singh, attributing the death of his youngest daughter Karnika to her father being married to a woman much younger than him.

These high-profile cases exemplify the change in the nature of conversations – for the worse – on Twitter. From a platform where users got a sense of belonging, it has now become a stage where one’s intentions, agenda, and political affiliations are constantly questioned. Conversation between two people is often interspersed with commentary by their followers. Moments of fun are few and far between. Abuses outnumber compliments. Context often becomes a casualty. And misogyny rules.

Read: Meet Bollywood’s most acerbic Twitter stars

Read: Twitter trolls do not affect me, says Sonakshi Sinha

“Earlier, I would take a swipe at prominent personalities and they would respond in a joking manner. Currently, I can’t imagine doing that. Now it is all about how others perceive you,” said Chaturvedi.

Wired to troll?

Twitter can mobilise like-minded people and contribute to building a revolution, like it did at Tahrir Square. It can generate funds for Chennai flood victims.

However, the anonymity it allows results in vitriolic attacks, stalking and rape threats. Twitter allows the creation of fake accounts; if someone knows your Twitter handle, he can tag you, and it is difficult for you to control who can see your tweets.

On social platforms like Facebook though, you can flag the kind of content or posts you don’t want to see; you can choose your friends and decide who should view your content and comment on your posts. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t have the kind of trolling problems you see on Twitter.

“Being a broadcast platform and thus unable to control the nature of engagement level, it [Twitter] has been comparatively more vulnerable to trolling, abusive and negative comments than any other social media network,” said Tarun Pathak, Senior Analyst, Counterpoint, a technology market research firm. “This can impact a critical set of target audience like celebrities and icons.”

What changed?

Far more people are online now than in 2006 when Twitter launched. India’s current Internet user base is projected to reach 402 million in December, putting India behind only China, according to report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB International. This, coupled with cheap smart phones, Internet data packs, and digital literacy means more and more people are accessing social media.

This also translates into more Twitter users than before. With 22.2 million users, India is projected to have the second largest Twitter population in Asia Pacific after Japan, according to a report by market research firm eMarketer.

Some believe that the negativity is part of the platform’s evolution. “With the growth of any media come the masses,” said Rajesh Lalwani, social media expert and CEO, Scenario

Consulting. “However, social media is different given its participatory nature – it doesn’t just let you consume, it also gives you the power to create, curate and share. As the medium proliferates and reaches the lowest common denominator, creative expression (of early adopters) gives way to profanities.”

Agrees Chinmayi Arun, Executive Director, Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi, “Twitter is more mainstream now. Those who choose to keep their tweets and profiles publicly visible have no way of predicting who may end up reading their tweets and how they might react,” she said.

The second reason is political. Those who joined Twitter early on and have been active since then, agree that politicisation of social media during the 2014 general election altered the nature of interactions. While political leaders use the platform to publicise various initiatives, their followers – many of whom are members of parties’ digital war rooms – often indulge in abuse.

Senior journalist Ravish Kumar who quit Twitter last year said, “Twitter has its merits but currently many political gangs are active on twitter. Expletives are often exchanged between members of rival gangs. On the other hand, there are gangs of political leaders, actors and news anchors. They are playing bodyline series online. This malaise on Twitter is legitimising hooliganism.”

Mumbai-based film journalist Harneet Singh remembers being part of a community which tweeted Dev Anand songs and dialogues within hours of the actor’s death in December 2011. Singh said

experiences like that are a thing of the past now. “No one is bothered about the context anymore. It all comes down to who do you vote for,” she said.

Fighting abuse

Devising a foolproof mechanism to tackle trolls is a constant challenge for Twitter. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” said former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo in February in an internal memo carried by the The Verge.

By the time Costolo acknowledged the issue, many international celebrities had bid goodbye to the platform, citing negativity, abuse and trolling.

Women are on the fringe when it comes to political conversations on Twitter. Out of all participants in political interactions, less than 8 per cent are women, shows a 2015 study by New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. Those who speak their minds, face stalking and sexual abuse.

In 2007, when it first made it possible to report abuse, Twitter offered users options of muting or blocking followers. In the backdrop of severe criticism for its weak response to violence threats, in December 2014, the San Francisco-based company upgraded this feature. Last month, it introduced another feature through which the complainant can attach multiple Tweets to a single report.

Other than using Twitter’ features to report abuse, one can get cases lodged under the Indian Penal Code for stalking, defamation, and outraging the modesty of a woman.

That the accused can go on harassing the complainant and find new targets while the trial continues, poses a challenge for the legal framework. “Under the current legal framework, the harasser can do a lot more damage by the time any action is taken against him or her,” said Priyanka Chaturvedi who has lodged a complaint with the Mumbai police, her second complaint of such a nature since August. “In both the cases, the Twitter handles in question are still active,” she said. In the first case, the person got bail and in the latest matter, the police is yet to make an arrest.

In the case of Swati Chaturvedi – perhaps the first woman in India to lodge a complaint against an internet troll – the handle was deleted but the person has not been arrested. “I have given a statement to the magistrate. Twitter has provided the IP address and all the documents. Yet the Delhi Police is dragging its feet. If he was arrested it would be a deterrent as it is a landmark case,” said Chaturvedi, an editor and author.

In an email interview with HT, Twitter acknowledged that online harassment and abuse is a difficult challenge. “This year we will implement technology to help us detect the use of repeat abusive accounts, make it much simpler to report multiple abusive Tweets or accounts, and give people simpler tools to curate and control their experience on Twitter,” said a Twitter spokesperson.

Meanwhile, do you live with it or quit? Whatever you do, the nature of the beast is unlikely to change.

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