The anonymity of the internet is one of its biggest strengths. As a reverse rule, this is also one of its most exploitable loopholes and weaknesses.
The internet – and in particular, social media – can be a very scary place for those not acquainted with its murky waters and its even murkier creatures. From ruthlessly trolling to racial abuse to intensely personal attacks on other people, netizens often have their worst on display in this supposedly ‘safe and free haven’.
As a tool, the internet and social media (in particular, Facebook) is highly valued and useful among students in campuses across India. Unfortunately, in the past few years, it has also become synonymous with inciting violence across campuses in India – and one needs to understand this phenomena better in order to figure out how to combat this cross-sectional violence across social media and real life.
In a University Grants Commission project that I worked on in my college days, we found out that nearly half of the students interviewed across various universities in Bengal had faced some form of verbal (not limited to face-to-face interactions) and sexual abuse. A closer scrutiny in the form of one-to-one interviews revealed the close link between the two. Not surprisingly, in nearly three-fourths of the cases, verbal abuse and threats over Facebook and Whatsapp later led to incidents of violence, often of a sexual nature.
It was further revealed that reporting the matter to the police or the relevant authorities on social media was quite futile. As it transpired, in nearly two-thirds of the cases of reported violence and abuse, no action was taken. In the meantime, many of the survivors either developed serious ailments, or had their careers irreparably damaged.
The project followed closely on the heels of one of the watershed moments in students’ movements history in India – the Hokkolorob movement. In retrospect, in the midst of all the euphoria on championing gender justice issues, the significant issue of how the toxic and violent nature of social media discourse, especially over Facebook and Whatsapp, influenced the popular discourse and opinion, got severely overlooked.
From rape threats, death threats to open calls for a public beating, things had taken a very gory turn indeed. What was worse was the fact that this had even invaded personal spaces to the extent we had even normalised and attuned our ways of thinking to accommodate this.
To give an example, in one of the numerous general body meetings held, a certain student had openly and strongly attacked the government for its handling of the situation back then. The event had been recorded and made its way to Facebook where it was posted, shared, liked and disliked. In a short time, the inevitable comment thread appeared, with its usual mixture of healthy arguments, swear words, personal attacks, etc.
However, unknown to us, things had already progressed a step further. The next day, we came to know that the person concerned had already been made the subject of numerous offensive and insulting memes on Facebook. If things had been limited to this, perhaps, things could have been countered effectively. As it turns out, by then, the opposing camp had already circulated leaflets and posters in and around areas close to universities (in Kolkata) labelling the person as a Maoist and even offering a bounty on the person’s head.
Consequently – and this was the frightening ‘normalcy’ of it all in those days – the person continued to appear in the meetings within the safe spaces of the campus and spoke and reasoned fiercely and rationally throughout the course of the movement. However, when it came to other spaces (virtual or public), they literally went into hiding. It made for a weird observation – how pressured and free can a person be, simultaneously, that they have to appear only at a specific location? Unfortunately, for a substantial period following the incident, the person could not spread Hokkolorob’s message on Facebook, WhatsApp or the TV.
It should be noted that this was not the only instance of such a planned social media execution. People who appeared on TV defending the stance of the students also found themselves at the receiving end of nasty memes, offensive comments, morphed pictures on Facebook and beyond. Even worse were the unflinchingly sweeping parallels and stereotypes people harboured about the institution itself. Descriptions and labels of Jadavpur University being a den of rape, drugs, ‘sluts’ and immoral, disrespectful people regularly made the rounds on Facebook and even on some TV news outlets.
In my opinion, intimidation was one of the chief tactics that our detractors used to subdue us on social media, TV and beyond. If that is indeed the case, I would like to remember Hokkolorob as a movement which disproved Newton’s law of equal action and reaction.
1. It is my belief that the detractors made the grave mistake of underestimating our political maturity and intimidating us, instead of engaging in healthy and effective dialogues. If there’s one thing that Hokkolorob made me believe in (throughout its duration), it was in the strength of the masses and the collectives – whether in online spaces or on the ground.
More relevantly, Hokkolorob taught us the power of collectives on Facebook. For several people, these were avenues where they could speak up like never before, by throwing off the shackles of continuously being subdued.
Despite the visible differences in ideologies and our opinions on how the movement should proceed, groups (public and private) and collectives were formed overnight on Facebook. These groups and collectives played some very important roles during the course of the movement – protective, sympathetic, organisational and discursive.
These form one of the most endearing legacies of the movement. In fact, there were several initiatives to create an open archive of the discussions and discourses that emerged on Facebook and other online fora.
2. These groups and channels of communications also allowed us to garner much-needed international support throughout the course of the movement. Using the open-ended nature of Facebook, we were able to inform students around the world regarding what was happening on the ground, and get much-needed support and energy, especially during the tough times when we were drawing flak left and right from all sides.
3. Even in the world of Facebook, wit and intelligence come to your aid in times of crisis. Hokkolorob was a sobering experience in controlling ourselves from falling into the ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ trap. It’s possible that in the war on Facebook, we may have garnered more popular support had we resorted to issuing counter threats and flexing our muscles. It’s also possible that it could have led to an uneasy stalemate.
However, what was highly refreshing to notice was that people simply refused to respond in kind (that is, violently), even on Facebook. Instead, students innovatively subverted the disgraceful comments, insults and comparisons by interacting with the content rather than outright denying them. For instance, a dig stating Jadavpur University to be a den of drugs would be countered with an invitation to actually participate in it or an image showing some medical properties of the drugs in question.
The remarkable aspect in all this was that people rarely forgot the insults and threats that were issued on Facebook or elsewhere. The responses to these, however, were not just limited to the confines of Facebook. People and students drew witty repartees to allegations on walls across the university buildings. They composed sly songs speaking of the follies and celebrating the need to counter them with wit and reason, instead of anger and violence.
In effect, this turned out to be a carnival of youth, creativity and a celebration of the refusal to bow down even in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. The writing was on the wall for one and all, and it showed effectively how wit and humour can bring about effective social change on social media and beyond.
4. The concept of the collective, in ways more than one, seemingly protected our stances from falling prey to the adverse reality around us. This, however, doesn’t mean that individual voices were drowned during the course of the movement.
In fact, ever since Hokkolorob, the discourse seems to have shifted from the ‘collective statement’ to ‘individual experiences’. At the risk of dividing students and professors alike, these narratives (especially on Facebook) have even started heated conversations and become rallying points for asking for justice. This is especially true in light of the several narratives and allegations of sexual and behavioural misconduct against powerful people and even teachers, that have emerged recently.
If Hokkolorob was the spark and the liberatory experience that allowed these people and students to come forward with their experiences, the very fact that such oppression and harassment/abuse still exists is the reason why this fire is still being sustained.
It is my opinion that if we are assailed with the fire of online hate, we need to counter it with a sustained and prolonged flame which embodies a healthy culture of protest. For this, strategy, wit, humour, unification (but not assimilation) and boldness are vital ingredients. People would do well to remember and utilise these lessons from Hokkolorob on Facebook/social media and beyond, whenever the occasion arises.