On October 26, Tamil Playback Singer Chinmayi Sripada wrote on her blog about the constant stream of vitriolic abuse that she was receiving on twitter. In a post titled “Facing Abuse and a Backlash of Rumours“, Chinmayi gave a detailed account of the harassment that was being meted out to her by some trolls on the social networking site right from January 2011. The abuse was directed against her due to her stand on the Tamil Fishermen issue among various other irrelevant and personal details. She was threatened of rape, murder and kidnapping.
Earlier, Meena Kandaswamy, a prominent dalit feminist poet and writer, was subjected to similar stream of abuse on twitter, following her stand and support to the beef festival organized on the premises of the Osmania University in Hyderabad on April 15. She too was threatened of rape, murder, kidnapping as well as of an attack with acid to scar her face for the rest of her life.
There are countless such incidents where people on Social Networking sites have been threatened of grave consequences by often anonymous and right wing ‘trolls’ who tweet or comment outrageous personal libel to evoke an emotional response. Of late, there has been a particular species of trolls which has come under fire due to their enormous and organized presence, ideological coherence and tactics of abuse. The ‘Internet Hindu‘ has been a matter of much talk and comment not only in the social media but also in the mainstream media because it threatens to jeopardize the right of freedom of speech and expression in the country.
The spread of Social Media coupled with the increasing reach of the Internet in distant part of the country has provided everyone with a platform where one could air his/her views in an often unconventional, informal and relatively freer manner as compared to the wider circulated mainstream media. However, the abuse of this platform provided by the social media by these trolls, particularly the ‘Internet Hindus‘ has become a matter of grave concern as it has provided the Indian government with the fodder to regulate a nascent platform and enforce its will.
Who are the Internet Hindus?
Ramchandra Guha, in his book Patriots and Partisans gives us a fair idea about the ‘Sociological Construct‘ of these trolls. He writes: “The sociological background of the Hindutva hate-mailer can be partially reconstructed from his name and background. His ideology is more directly manifested in his mails. This rests on a deep suspicion of and hostility towards those Indians who are not Hindus by religious background. Christians and especially Muslims come in for special animosity. And yet, as the historian Dharma Kumar once pointed out, the philosophy of Hindutva only mimics and reproduces the ideology of its major adversary. Its unacknowledged model is the Islamic state, where those who do not belong to the ruling faith are tolerated if they are obedient and subservient, but attacked if they seek to assert the rights of equal citizenship.”
Lakshmi Choudhary, writing in Firstpost, lays out the ‘fatal weakness of the Hindutva Troll’. According to her: “However loud and angry, he inevitably stops being scary. Ugly rhetoric loses its power through constant repetition. People start to tune out. They stop reading, and start blocking. Soon, the trolls are only talking to each other, or warring with trolls from the opposing camp. The wild-eyed rightwing hater, therefore, does greatest disservice to his own cause — reducing himself and his politics to caricature and often driving away even those who may be on his side of the argument.”
Namita Bhandare, writing in Hindustan Times, says: “The worst are guided by a vile ideology of hate, hunting in packs, venomous in their rants and secure behind their anonymity. They follow each other, call out to each other and encourage each other to collectively attack a common ‘enemy’. The aptly named Devil Heart (“Congies and Muzzie appeasers stay away”), who I had to block very early in my Twitter experience, openly spells out his strategy — “We need to find some muzzies to bash – everyone find out Muzzies & seculars & follow them.? His co-followers include such characters as Krodhit Hindu (self-described as ‘Muslim kicker, Christian basher’) currently tweeting in a new avatar after an earlier one was suspended by Twitter. Other trolls are simply incensed by any attempt to criticise a well-ordered world view (India can do no wrong, there is no child sex abuse in our country, women do not get beaten up, etc). And then there’s a minority that is plain annoying. Like a child desperate for attention, he or she will make caustic remarks about anything you tweet — even if it’s just the weather.”
Underlying each of these observations is the common character shared by all the trolls: that of low self esteem. These right wing hate spewing internet trolls are none other than the self pitying intellectually paralyzed never-been-kissed type frustrated beings who believe in trolling as their only way of getting their five minutes of fame. These people know that their grammatically incorrect and logically unsound arguments based on glorification of certain values, religious symbols or political leaders would not find space even in the Letters to the Editor section of any mainstream newspaper and therefore, rather than debate on the merits and content of one’s argument, these trolls believe in painting a writer or critic with the same paint for all of his/her writings just because of either his/her personal background, offline activity or recent body of work. One of the major factors behind their venom spewing agenda is either the criticism or the lack of coverage of their political or religious preferences which is widely observed online in the high decibel presence of the Narendra Modi brigade. By abusing the instantaneous nature of the social media, these trolls stoke their own low self worth as a daily ritual to make themselves feel better about the pathetic lives they live and are elated when they find someone of their own kind to share the poison with. Additionally, most often, the Homo Indicus Hindutvawadi, as Guha calls them, is a north Indian upper caste male with a deep disdain for the rights of the lower castes of his own religion and a pent up misogynist hatred which is so blatantly evident from the Chinmayi Sripada and Meena Kandaswamy episode. Masters of pontification, these trolls are such hypocrites that in real life they would not dare to profess such thoughts for the fear of being tied, gagged and driven away to a mental asylum for an instant shock therapy, but would happily wear the cloak of anonymity online to thump their chest and take pride in their repulsive utterances.
How do Internet Hindus constitute a threat to Freedom of Speech?
Sanjay Pinto, writing in The Hindu, says: “The social media is most definitely a great embodiment of freedom of expression. But it obviously cannot be unbridled, offering a carte blanche to users to let loose, enter any discussion and vitiate the atmosphere. Just like the Indian Constitution has hemmed in ‘reasonable restrictions’, this right is also not absolute in the American law. The First Amendment does not protect free speech if there is a ‘clear and present danger’ of it leading to ‘imminent lawless action’. In this context, trolls have no legitimate space as they not merely reflect intolerance but also constitute a threat to free speech.”
I too am not a votary of the right to absolute freedom of speech and expression and like Mr. Pinto, believe that some ‘reasonable restrictions‘ must be placed in order to maintain a sense of decency and coherence in debates whether online or offline. However, I do not trust the Indian government to take a reasonable and clearly well thought stand on the matter of regulation of online content because of their past track record of blunders and technological illiteracy when it comes to anything about the Social Media.
Consider this: In 2008, the Indian Government passed the Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008 which included the much decried Section 66A despite vociferous protests by the active sections of the online media and the civil society. The act contains words like “grossly offensive”, “menacing character”, “causing annoyance” etc. which are totally open to subjective interpretation and are a disgraceful fall from the careful wording of the Constitution that legal luminaries like B.N. Rau paid heed to while it was being drafted. Recently, this was the specific section that was invoked by Karti Chidambaram, son of the finance minister Mr. P. Chidambaram, to put a small scale industrialist behind the bars for tweeting criticism of him and his father’s government.
On 7 December 2011, the Times of India reported that Google had received 358 requests from the Government for the removal of content from its sites out of which 255 related to government criticism and were in no way “grossly offensive”. Between 18th and 21st August 2012, in the aftermath of the North East exodus following the Assam riots, the government banned more than 300 specific URLs which included articles, groups, twitter handles, videos etc. Articles from prominent websites such as Al-Jazeera, Firstpost, The Times of India and The Daily Telegraph were blocked. Twitter handles of prominent mainstream journalists like Kanchan Gupta and Shiv Aroor were also blocked. This blunder was supposedly committed to contain rumour mongering which was considered to be the major factor behind the North East exodus. For a person who was viewing these developments with keen interest, the whole episode sounded like the government having taken the gun, loaded it with bullets, carefully pointed it towards the enemy but with the barrel facing itself and then shot itself in the head.
What was more, in September this year, the Indian government went ahead to propose the United Nations General Assembly to form a 50-member United Nations Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) to “regulate” the internet. Following the ear splitting outcry from various sections of the media, civil society and other stakeholders, the government had to back away but not before getting its face blackened in the criticism that the proposal sparked.
These are just a representative sample of the numerous gaffes that the Indian government has committed in the sphere of Internet governance and free speech. By indulging in a riot of unrestrained abusive and hate speech on the internet, whether it be on the Social Networking sites, discussion forums or chat rooms and by passing objectionable and defamatory remarks against people occupying elected offices, the trolls not only embolden the Indian Government to pursue such ridiculous pieces of “proposals” with its snot faced skulduggery not so cleverly hidden behind the veil of “good intentions“, but they also weaken the case of free speech activists when they decry the regulation of these platforms. Due to their own irresponsible behaviour, this tribe of desperate attention seekers puts the right of a whole community of responsible, information sharing, serious, level headed bright debaters on the internet to risk.
What lies in the future?
With Social Media increasing its presence rapidly across the internet through integration with every major and minor application available on the internet and with the increasing penetration of internet in India with more and more people getting access to the online world of instantaneous information sharing, the risk of trolls spreading their wings and sharpening their fangs looms large ahead in the future. One cannot simply rely on the measures of ‘block/unfollow‘, as Mr. Pinto rightly points out in his article in the Hindu, as it would be a “prophylactic” reaction to the disease without curing its root cause.
Online communities and the civil society of the internet in India would have to apply its mind and deeply ponder over the issue of rooting out this menace or they must risk ceding ground to the government on the issue of free speech on the internet and allow it to commit more faux passes. The victim in that case, would be the ordinary netizen who would see the fall of online media in the same manner like that of the mainstream media.[box bg="#fdf78c" color="#000"]About the author: Anshul Kumar Pandey is studying Political Science in University of Delhi. He blogs at http://anshulkumarpandey.