What You Can Do In An Age Where Trolls Are The New Censors

Posted by Fatima Aslam Khan in #NoPlace4Hate
October 14, 2017
Facebook logoEditor’s Note: With #NoPlace4Hate, Youth Ki Awaaz and Facebook have joined hands to help make the Internet a safer space for all. Watch this space for powerful stories of how young people are mobilising support and speaking out against online bullying.

Trolling initially started out as an aberration, gained rapid momentum and soon became a plague. Today, it stands as the number one epidemic that is slowly feeding off the brains of many humans.

If you’re remotely familiar with the workings of social media, you’ll know that trolling is the most basic, almost primordial facet of it, that has nearly become synonymous with the platform itself. But how much do we know what being trolled can do to the victim – and by extension, to his/her freedom of expression?

Only recently, Gurmehar Kaur, a 20-year-old student of English literature at Lady Sri Ram College was threatened with rape and assault for voicing her opinion against a certain student political organisation. Furthermore, she was infantilised by the minister of Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, who very patronisingly suggested that she didn’t have a mind or agency of her own. Later, she withdrew from the campaign because this was all that her ’20-year-old self could take’. This is how trolls work – they scare, intimidate and exhaust you.

Many of us, who’ve shared opinions on social media that are even slightly ‘unpopular’ in nature have witnessed what it’s like to be trolled. It is almost as if they’re snatching a part of you – a part that you’d always thought belonged to you – and are telling you, “This was never yours. This was always a favour bestowed upon you, which as of today, stands revoked.” Moreover, if you’re a girl, the onslaught wouldn’t be limited to just that. Before you know it, you’ve become what is commonly termed ‘randi‘.

However, this isn’t a phenomenon limited to Facebook or Twitter, only. Even online retailers such as Amazon aren’t spared by trolls who threaten writers by attempting to rob them of their dignity and also by trying to snatch their very livelihoods.

Barkha Dutt was one of the first victims of this strategy when her book, “This Unquiet Land”, was subjected to a well-planned campaign of negative reviews. An article on Scroll states that only 18 of 3,890 one-star reviews of Dutt’s book are by verified buyers.

A more recent and depressing case is that of Rana Ayyub’s self-published work of investigative journalism, “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up”. Less than two weeks after its release, the book had already gained 1,234 reviews on Amazon, 844 of them being one-star. Only three of the 844 one-star reviews of Ayyub’s book – and none of the nine reviews that bear two and three stars – are marked as ‘verified purchase’. And yet, right at the beginning of the page, the customer is informed that 1,234 people have given it an average rating of 2/5! (The ratings have changed now.)

On a smaller scale, many other books have been similarly trolled and deliberately forced into a poor fate.

Currently, there is no redressal mechanism on Amazon that applies to such highly methodical levels of trolling. Not much can be done to deal with reviews written with the intention of harming the traction of a book. This needs to change, now.

See, this isn’t about criticism – because criticism is a completely valid and legitimate form of using your freedom of expression to make a judgement. Your criticism doesn’t even need to be constructive, for that matter. But, when you tell me that you’re going to use your freedom of expression to curb mine, I have a problem with that. You can denounce my views and even dismiss them as being foolish – but the second you tell me that the way to redress that is by threatening to kill or rape me (if I continue speaking), you are scaring the world out of me.

How can I ever expect to opine my thoughts in the public domain ever again? And this works in such insidious ways that it often goes unnoticed. For example, every time you hesitate to click the share button on Facebook (because you’re worried they’ll question your nationalism, or in some cases, even your nationality), and each time you’re scared to voice your dissent or agreement to someone else’s opinion (because they’ll tell you how you’re a bitch for doing so), your freedom of speech is getting censored, right there.

A very popular counter to any argument that questions trolling is that you may have your freedom of expression, but you can’t escape from facing its consequences.

Well, yes – that is correct. However, what really matters is whether the consequences happen to be merely ‘incidental’ or ‘severe’ in nature.

‘Incidental’ consequences are what you would have expected ‘by virtue’ of your opinion being unpopular or cynical or even outrageous in nature. These consequences may often be unpleasant, but are completely understandable. The public at large might ostracise you, write op-eds denouncing you, call you dumb and so on and so forth. In my opinion, this is fair play. This is the least you can accord to a critic of your opinions. After all, he/she should have the right to access their freedom of speech.

However, ‘severe’ consequences are something else altogether. They include things such as throwing stones, inking the face of a speaker, gagging the person, threatening the subject’s very livelihood, etc. Recently, incidents in which professors were allegedly sacked because of holding certain opinions and signing certain petitions came to light at Ashoka University. How is any of this fair? How are you assuring me of my freedom of expression, when you’re putting forth such terrible examples of what happens when you express a not-so-popular opinion? How am I expected to be okay, knowing that I can either have my freedom of speech or my job?

Denouncing someone for their views is understandable. But intimidation and coercion, which threaten one’s rights to life, dignity, expression and livelihood, are nothing but acts of censorship.

A study published by the University of Manitoba in Canada, found that trolls exhibit the personality traits of narcissists, psychopaths, and sadists – namely taking pleasure in the suffering of others and lacking any remorse or empathy for their victims. However, it is also true that today, trolling has seemingly become a ‘profession’ where the only ‘qualification’ required is the ability to spend limitless hours, relentlessly indulging in any and every kind of slander that will work to benefit the ‘greater cause’.

Is there a solution to trolling? More importantly, is there a punishment for it?

According to this paper, until November 2014, there had been 113 registered cases of online abuse in Mumbai City alone for the year 2014, as compared to the 33 cases reported in 2013 – something which was discovered in a reply to a Right To Information (RTI) application filed with police authorities. In India, we can find two different sections in two different laws which can be applied to trolls – making trolling a criminal act, but only if there are a few mandatory features in the comments posted by trolls.

Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000, which sought to provide punishment for sending offensive messages through communication devices, stated that:

Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device –

1. Any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or

2. Any information which he/she knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,

3. Any electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages,

shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.

The law, however, appears to be vague and ambiguous. The terms used, such as ‘annoyance’ and ‘inconvenience’ do not convey a clear meaning in criminal law. If the troll writes something which the police feels is not offensive, then Section 66A would not be applicable – and vice versa. It’s no wonder therefore that the Supreme Court struck it down.

The newly-added Section 354A in the Indian Penal Code(IPC) says that if any man makes a ‘sexually-coloured remark’, he would be guilty of sexual harassment. In such a case, he can be imprisoned for up to one year, or be fined, or both. This is, however, a bailable offence.

Sadly, India doesn’t have a certified agency to monitor trolls, yet. As far as laws against cyber-bullying are concerned, every country has a different one. This makes things all the more complicated – even if the troll isn’t anonymous, the mechanisms to punish him/her will depend entirely on the laws of the country in which the troll resides, the laws in the victim’s country and the laws of the country where the host server is located.

Twitter keeps devising several mechanisms to combat abuse from time to time. Twitter said that it plans to keep banned users from creating multiple accounts, via a combination of human and algorithmic interventions. It will introduce a ‘safe search’ feature, that hides sensitive content from search results. However, users can choose to opt out of this. It will also hide low-quality responses, so that users don’t get incessantly pinged with abusive tweets. All of these are perennial attempts made to counter harassment. However, the efficacy of these measures remains disputed.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named ‘post-truth‘ as the word of the year. It was defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Many believe that we’ve successfully entered the ‘post-truth’ era. George Orwell would argue that we never left it. The sad reality, however, is, that we are undoubtedly living in a time, where facts, empirical data, arguments based on logic hold little or no water in front of relentless acts of trolling.

This is a world where it takes one slimy attack on a person’s identity, their clothes, their religion, their nationality, to negate all the arguments they make. I fear these attacks – and so do most of us. This fear acts as a major impediment in our freedom to express, it hampers our freedom to opine and it censors our freedom of speech – every day, every hour!