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From Rushdie Twitter-fights to Facebook breakups: Social media goes toxic

By Sandip Roy

This week 22-year-old IIM-Bangalore student Malini Murmu hanged herself after her boyfriend Abhishek Dhan broke up with her and then bragged about it on Facebook.

Feeling cool today. Dumped my girlfriend. Happy independence day.

Her devastated parents understandably want someone held accountable.The boyfriend has been booked under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code for abetment of suicide.

But sadly, being a cad is not a criminal offence.  Otherwise a lot more of us would be in jail.

It's not a crime to break up with someone. (And Murmu is not the first person to kill herself because a break up felt like the end of the world). It's reprehensible, but not a crime, to then announce the breakup on Facebook. But just because it's not a crime doesn't mean it's not a problem.

Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie. AFP

Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie are exchanging insults over twitter. AFP

I wonder how Dhan's friends reacted to his status. How many Likes were there from people who thought it was a studly joke? Somewhere along the line the combination of cad and Facebook has turned a social networking tool into something far more toxic — a circus for public humiliation, not just friendly sharing.

The Internet has always been the arena of the virtual bully, a playground of casual cruelty, its anonymity allowing us to turn on our bile spigot at full force. Any online site, this one included, has its share of comment-trollers who say things from behind the mask of email-IDs that they'd never dare to say face-to-face. (At least one hopes not. If they did then we have a far graver problem on hand that Internet ranters.)

It's as if the virtual worlds of Facebook and Twitter give us a pass from normal rules of social engagement, from remembering that out there in cyberspace the world is still filled with real people with real emotions not emoticons, who are having good days and bad days and really lousy days.

So a Dhan blithely posts his status update, perhaps relieved it's over, or just patting himself on the back about dumping his girlfriend. A girlfriend who while dumped in real life, is still his "friend" in Facebook life and can read his status, a virtual update that arrives exactly at the wrong time in a real person's life. A status update that in that instant becomes the only prism through which she views the world, a broken relationship, and her future.

Not that long ago there was the case of  Dharun Ravi, the desi teen in New Jersey who thought it would be fun to secretly stream his college roommate's gay encounter on the Internet as a free peep-show for the whole world to see. That roommate jumped off a bridge, leaving his suicide note on where else, but Facebook.

In America, the National Crime Prevention Council says almost half of all American teens have been cyber-bullied. Megan Meier, a thirteen year old school girl from Missouri with weight problems, killed herself after a series of hoax messages on MySpace from an online friend suddenly turned vicious. It turned out the online friend was not a boy, but a fake account created by the mother of a friend she had had a falling out with.

It's too easy to blame Abhishek Dhan. And it's too easy to blame Facebook. It gives the rest of us a pass about what we have allowed the social networks to do to us and to our social relations with each other. We forget that MySpace is really OurSpace  and saying something on Facebook or Twitter is pretty much the same as shouting it out in a crowded room. Would Abhishek Dhan have said what he said to a room filled with all those friends, including his ex-girlfriend, in real life?

This thing of darkness, we don't want to acknowledge as ours. But it is ours. It encourages us to act out. It lets us slip our basest instincts off-leash. It allows our inner bully to strut around the virtual world. Most of all it cheapens our tongues, even those of the high priests of our culture.

Once upon a time directors Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen warred with each other through the Letters to the Editor section of The Statesman.

Paul Theroux wrote an entire book dissing VS Naipaul. Gore Vidal sneered at Norman Mailer. Mailer punched Vidal. That was then.

Now  Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin are micro-clawing each other in Twitterland.

"Be aware of Salman Rushdie! He wants to get girls in his 'whipped cream' range", tweeted Nasrin.

Rushdie tweeted back, "Somewhere in the distance I hear the envious miaow of #Taslima-Nasreen being catty about me. Tut, tut, Taslima. #Shame #Lajja."

The mighty have not fallen. They have just shrunk down to hashtags.

The fast and furious world of social media with their entourage of followers has allowed a Salman Rushdie and a Taslima Nasrin to make a spectacle of themselves, hurling virtual spitballs at each other. And the rest of us Twitterati smirk, and pretend not to notice as each tweet from our public intellectuals cheapens the status of our public discourse even further.

Whipped cream, indeed. Dumped my girlfriend, indeed. The #Lajja. The #Shame.