Trolling as a collective online activity began with political name-calling. It began with boxing people into labels like libtard, Naxal, sickular — all pejorative terms to define anyone who stood for freedom of speech, for criticism of communal politics, of left-leaning, political and economic ideology. It began with many anonymous handles expressing frustration against appeasement politics, against dynasty politics, against status quo on economic and political agenda of the country — which for better part of its post-independence history, has been ruled by one family. Those were the days when hashtags like #pappu or #pappuism used to trend frequently. Always when Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi said something in his inimitable angry young man style or goofed up big time.
This was also the time which saw the emergence of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as the possible karta dharta of the country, as the chosen one who could give a voice and direction to those anonymous handles and their sense of frustration. The change they demanded did happen. Narendra Modi, came to power riding on what was called the Modi wave. The anonymous handles gained more power. Now they had the authority to brand people anti-national based on the political views and food habits of individuals. They also had the right to ask us to go to Pakistan.
All this while even the opposition learned the trick of the trade and trends like #jumlababu and #Feku became regular fodder on Twitter and Facebook. These trends referred to the promises made by Modi and the ones he didn’t keep like bringing back black money and putting Rs 15 lakh in all bank accounts. There are also some known trends to target Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal like #mufflerman.
Despite occasional meanness and frequent use of abusive language, it seemed like the activity of political trolling was becoming a potent tool for sharing and shaping views on political developments. It was after the BJP government was trolled massively for its porn ban that it had to revoke its decision.
This is perhaps why online trolling is tolerable/acceptable and not equivalent to online bullying that entails very personal remarks on someone’s physical aspects. But with time it has emerged that trolling as an activity is no more confined to political name-calling, the Pappu-Feku jokes. The nameless, faceless trolls have now started encroaching upon our private space.
They want to attack us for our very personal choices. Now they wish death for Saif and Kareena’s newborn just because the celebrity couple chose to name him Taimur, a Muslim opressor of Hindus. They can put down Kareena’s choice of marrying fellow Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan as love jihad and label the product of their marriage, baby Taimur as ‘jihadi.’ They can now publicly humiliate a cricketer of a certain faith for not asking his wife to wear a hijab. It doesn’t occur to them neither being a cricketer, nor a Muslim or a man or a husband for that matter gives Mohammad Shami the right to dictate his wife’s dress code.
Do you see the pattern here? Both radical Hindu and Muslim trolls think and behave alike. Nameless people who enjoy a weird and ever-increasing sense of entitlement. They believe they can intrude into anyone’s private space and shame them for completely private affairs.
Another case in point is the way Salman Khan’s fans trolled actor Twinkle Khanna for writing a blog recalling the court cases against him and the calling him the “oldest eligible bachelor”. Perhaps, apart from the feisty singer Sona Mahapatra, Khanna is the only person from Bollywood who dared to say something like that against Khan. As a result, she was badgered with misogynist messages on social media.
Many targeted her for being a bad actress. Khanna herself has admitted to being a horrible actor on many occasions. Knowing Khanna’s self-deprecating sense of humour, such attack on her acting skills wouldn’t hurt her. But trolls know very well how to hurt people in the most uncharitable way. They pulled out old news stories about actor Akshay Kumar’s affairs with former actresses in order to target her. Then they passed judgment on her for sticking to a man “who cheated on her”. Such online shaming of women with a mind of their own is nothing new.
Women journalists who are considered anti-Modi, like Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghosh, who coined the term “internet Hindu” have faced it since the beginning of phenomenon of online trolling in India. However, both Dutt and Ghosh were at the receiving end of trolling for their political views. Now, increasingly, the same treatment is being meted out to just about any woman who speaks her mind against a powerful man. The online eco-system has sort of institutionalised misogyny and bigotry and passed it on to realms beyond politics.
The fight is no more restricted to that of ideologies – the right-wing Internet Hindu vs a Left liberal. The mask of political activism, the veneer of fighting for a cause that the troll army usually takes on to justify abusive language is off now. They are merely a bunch of misogynistic and bigoted people (transcending political and ideological divide). The space for online chatter was initially created by the online wing of certain political ideologies. Now it has been overtaken by trained bullies who are ready to hurt you for your personal choices.
The worst facet of this trend is that there is no way out of it. Our belief in absolute freedom of speech doesn’t allow us to call for punitive actions against such personal attack. Lawsuits against nameless, faceless people is not a solution either. You can block one or two people. But blocking is not an effective mechanism to deal with an army of people who are essentially out to hurt you in the crudest manner. There is practically no protection against ill-meaning people.
The only way out against them is to constantly keep firing our politically incorrect tweets and facebook posts, giving a damn about trolls. Twinkle Khanna summed up this sentiment perfectly. In response to the massive trolling she received from Salman fans, she tweeted:
“I write social, political satire will not examine an ant & spare an elephant because I fear getting trampled by the herd #TrollProof #CarryOn”.
This perhaps is the only spirit that will help all free thinkers survive. This is the only way we can save the online space from being completely overtaken by people for whom resorting to pathological bigotry and sexism is a way of life.