Trolls are people who post rude, offensive and often abusive messages all over the Web - on websites, blogs and
social networking sites. Trolls have been around in other countries such as the US for years; now they’re making their presence felt in Indian cyberspace too. How on earth does one deal with them? (And why the *#@&* do they do it?)
A few months back, director Karan Johar posted a message to his two-and-a-half lakh plus followers on micro-blogging site, Twitter. “While most tweets are objective, frank and warm… the ones that are constantly making tactless statements about my personal life are upsetting,” wrote Johar. “Critical appraisal and analysis is more than welcome… but insinuations and comments about my life, choices and orientation are NOT….”
Within minutes, Johar’s tweet was picked up and retweeted thousands of times.
“Block them all, Karan,” tweeted actress and fellow tweeter Sonam Kapoor. “Block them on your Twitter account, they are haters who are just jealous.”Johar may not know it, but he just got walloped by ‘trolls.’ And by that, we don’t mean he got clubbed by the fat, hairy, ugly, smelly, goat-eating monsters that feature regularly in children’s tales (Remember the first Harry Potter book?). Instead, ‘troll’ is the official internet lingo for these ‘haters’ who disrupt online conversation by hurling abuse and posting rude and offensive comments all over cyberspace – in forums, chat rooms, news websites, social networking sites and blogs. The term was first adopted by internet users in the United States in the late 1980s, when most of the Web consisted of little more than newsgroups.
Early trolling was relatively innocuous, taking place inside of small, single-topic forums. The goal was simple – wreaking havoc in a perfectly peaceful internet community. For example:
Troll (posting in a sports discussion forum): “I think the FIFA sucks and the World Cup was a ******* event!”
Sports aficionados would immediately pounce and soon, the board would be filled with an intense, raging debate. From a troll’s point of view, this was Mission Accomplished.
The internet of today, however is much more than esoteric discussion forums. With the rise of social networking sites, it has become a mass medium for defining who we are to ourselves and others. And as our emotional investment in the internet has grown, the stakes for trolling – provoking strangers online – have just gone up.
In a world where everyone is just a click away from everyone else (and since Twitter exploded on the scene, celebs have been no exception), it is easy to troll pretty much anyone you want to. Comments can range from the relatively mild (but snarky) “@chetan_bhagat: Do you know that your last tweet was better than your last book?” to the downright obscene: “@juniorbachchan: I don’t know what the f*** you were smoking, dude, but I wish I could b****-slap you for doing that f***-all Raavan movie!! (sic).” Still others will simply spam the comment thread with irrelevant links and other junk.
Now you might imagine that trolls are bespectacled internet nerds, college kids who have nothing better to do than sit in the dark in front of their monitors, smug grins plastered across their faces as they watch their keystrokes raising hackles in the online world. But you couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, trolls are normal people like you and I – students, writers, computer professionals, lawyers and bankers – with a penchant for letting their dark side out once they get online.
“Oh, there are a lot of jerks on the internet,” says social media consultant Priyanka Sachar, “they abuse the anonymity that they get online. But my point is, just because you are anonymous doesn’t give you the right to say anything you want to say!”
So why do trolls troll? There are as many reasons as there are trolls. Many trolls are just practical jokers attempting to amuse themselves and their audience. Some have genuine animosity toward a particular group or individual that they believe has done them wrong. And some others are just contemptible hooligans bent on disrupting peaceful exchange of useful information for their own perverted pleasure.
“I think the virtual world is a more relaxed space than the real world,” says actor Riteish Deshmukh (@RiteishD on Twitter), who admits that he gets his share of nasty comments on the site, “and what happens is that people tend to let their guard down a little and display their dark side. You’re moving into a space you in which you feel that no one is watching you. So it’s like an I-am-the-king-of-the-world kind of a feeling,” he adds.
Dark side is right. When Anita Deb, a journalist from Pune, started a blog where she presented her quirky take on all things newsy, she didn’t expect it to become as popular as it did.
Then came a point the discussions got ugly. What used to start off as innocuous debates quickly evolved into serious mud-slinging and name-calling matches. “Any intervention on my part would fan the flames even more,” says Deb. At one point, she found herself spending hours moderating comments. Two years back, Deb shut down her blog.
Trolls, believes Deb are people who are highly narcissistic and attention seeking. “From my experience with my blog, I can say that all a troll wants is an ego trip, nothing more.”
A nose for news
If you thought that that certain topics attract more trolls than others, you’re right. News portals, which are constantly being updated with stories about religion, government policies, reservations and recently released movies among other things find themselves under a constant barrage of attacks from everyone with an opposing point of view. Newspapers, many of which own their own news portals often find themselves in a strange position. Traditionally, people wanting to have a letter to the editor printed in the paper have been required to provide their name, address, and a phone number. Yet, on the websites owned by the same newspapers, all it usually takes to be handed a perpetual soapbox is an active email address.
“Most important stories get such nasty comments that I am shocked!” says Pallav Nayak, editor (news) at Ibnlive.com. “You know, one would expect the young, urban, net-savvy people who crowd sites like Facebook to be very liberal and open-minded. But I am aghast to see their extreme views and opinions.”
But don’t major commercials sites have ways to deal with this nonsense? “Of course,” says Nayak. To deal with the menace, a team of moderators looks at every comment that comes in before it goes live on the site. Expletives are automatically flagged (they show up as bright crimson so moderators can easily weed them out). “But if somebody, say, swears in Hindi, our systems don’t understand that,” says Nayak. Unless a moderator spots these comments and deletes them manually, they manage to slip through the systems.
What makes the job so tough? More than 200 comments daily and up to five times more if a story is breaking, sensitive or controversial.
Earlier this year, British model Katie Price quit Twitter after saying that she was growing tired of the abusive messages on the site. Ever since she split up with her boyfriend, singer Peter Andre, Price was reportedly left upset by the flood of what she described as ‘mindless’ and ‘relentless’ comments.
Our desi stars aren’t exempt either. Says actress Mandira Bedi (@MandyBedi on Twitter): “I’m not going to lie and say I don’t get crap on Twitter. I have had my fair share of criticism from people who don’t like me. But frankly, the good comments outweigh the bad ones.”
Why does she think she gets picked upon? “I have realised that some people think that they can only get attention if they say bad things to well-known people in public.”
Does she reply to any nasty comments? “I do try and respond to the ones that are sarcastic and rude,” she says. “I tell them everyone has an opinion and they are entitled to theirs. But there are some that are so abusive that I just don’t feel like getting into a conversation with them. They are the ones that get blocked instantly!”
Journalist-turned-film producer Pritish Nandy (@PritishNandy on Twitter) says that he rarely gets offensive comments on Twitter and when he does, he ignores them. “I don’t think it’s worth wasting your time on such rubbish. I think people get a sense of power when they post such nonsense,” he quips.
Riteish Deshmukh, however, has a different take on the matter. “I can’t tell anyone how to behave online,” he says. “I think that as long as you don’t encroach on someone else’s space, it’s okay to be what you want to be on the internet. That said, I don’t think anyone will be able to say such rude things to me in real life!” he laughs.
Women as targets
Many people ‘hate’ Sagarika Ghose. At least that’s the impression one gets going through the stream of tweets directed at her on Twitter. “Shut ur (sic) trap, you’re in the pay of the Congress!” goes one. “Don’t you think you should be arrested for your views on Kashmir???” screams another. So much so, that the deputy editor of CNN-IBN says that she has even had death threats on Twitter! “I once received a tweet from someone who said he knew my route home from work and would despatch me to the same place as Jessica Lal simply because he hated my ‘pseudo-sickular’ views!” says Ghose.
According to Ghose, the particularly abusive group seems to be a sort of ‘anti-liberal’ male, whose hate objects are women and minorities. “The ‘liberal’ woman is their favourite hate object, because for them ‘pseudo secularism’ and being female appears to be a particularly loathsome combination,” says Ghose.
Barkha Dutt, group editor of English News at NDTV says she rarely blocks people, but when it gets abusive she feels no apology in blocking. “Why should anyone have to tolerate personal abuse?” she asks Usually, the subjects that evoke such offensive comments are the sort that polarise public opinion, says Dutt.
Adds Ghose, “What bewilders me most is that why these people waste so much energy abusing someone who is a complete stranger to them!”
The ugly truth
So does that mean internet trolls are a sick, evil, twisted and perverted tribe? Saad Akhtar, creator of the web comic Flyyoufools.com, who made the comics for this story, certainly doesn’t think so. “I don’t think you should judge internet norms with real life norms,” he says. “To say that trolls shouldn’t exist is like saying abusive people or ugly people shouldn’t exist in real life!”
In fact, Akhtar is of the opinion that trolls add spice to the otherwise bland world of pages, links and URLs. “Imagine a world where everyone is civilized and polite. That would be unreal,” he says. “So trolling makes the internet an interesting space. It adds colour to the otherwise dull landscape. And seriously, if you look at the levels of intelligence on some news sites, don't you feel better about yourself after that?” he laughs.
A key factor in troll-encouragement, feels Akhtar, is that fact that they think they have an audience. “The internet gives even a dumb person an audience. For instance, nobody cares about my views on the Commonwealth Games’ influence on Delhi’s wildlife, but I’ll still go and blame the pseudo-secular government for it (this doesn’t mean I’m dumb, I’m just giving an example!),” he says. “You feel like you’ve made a contribution to the society and got a medal for it – the medal obviously being follow-up comments from other trolls!”
So what’s the solution? Block, chop and moderate? Akthar gives his take in a single line: “The day all humans are saints in real life, internet trolls will disappear.”
Yeah yeah, life as a celeb is not all fame and glamour. Here are some actual tweets that these celebs received. How, oh how, do they cope?
@ Mallika Sherawat, Actress
B****, do you know this other s*** is giving you competition? @SherlynChopra
@ Hrithik Roshan, Actor
Can someone make fun of @iHrithik Roshan please? I can’t think of an insult stupid enough for him.
@ Karan Johar, Director
Can we please ask this bumbling idiot to stop giving more sh** to Indian cinema?
@Amitabh Bachchan, Actor
Yes, we know the Big B is getting on in his years. He doesn’t have to be on Twitter with his lame tweets to prove it!
@ Abhishek Bachchan, Actor
And that was the last 100 bucks I spent on any movie starring this joker. Period
@Shah Rukh Khan, Actor
When is this idiot going to shed some tears on screen again? Or get into a tub full of rose petals? Or something equally wimpy?
@ Sania Mirza, Tennis star
Good riddance to bad rubbish, that’s all that I have to say.
@ Chetan Bhagat, Author
You can’t write, you illiterate douchebag, so quit trying, I say!!!
@ Sherlyn Chopra, Actress
OMG! This s*** has taken to posting naked photos on Twitter!