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Triumph of the trolls: Online bullying isn't 'free speech'

by Lakshmi Chaudhry  Apr 24, 2013 15:59 IST

#Internet trolls   #ThatsJustWrong  

"My timeline suggests little space for healthy debate/discussion on twitter. So will no longer raise any political issues on the medium," tweeted CNN-IBN head Rajdeep Sardesai earlier this week, announcing his decision to withdraw from Twitter as a political commentator. "Will continue to write in print/speak on tv. But will no longer seek twitter as a medium for public debate. Had hoped to interact; failed."

While a number of prominent members of the Twitterati rued this sudden decision, there were plenty others who rejoiced, likely the very people whose incessant invective triggered the decision. By the end of the day, there was a mountain of evidence that affirmed Sardesai's claim that his" integrity/credibility" has been "abused on this medium for too long by unknown people."

In his last recorded tweet  in January, Shah Rukh Khan also bade a similar farewell: "Sad, i read so much judgements, jingoism, religious intolerance on the net & i use to think this platform wl change narrowmindedness, but no!"

Agencies.

Agencies.

The trolls are winning big these days, and not just in India. Singer Adele quit Twitter after death threats issued to her newborn son, as did Irish news anchor Claire Byrne following online abuse that greeted news of her engagement. Buzzfeed tech editor John Herman was the proud leader of a #BlockShia bullying campaign that successfully forced the actor Shia LeBeouf off Twitter within 12 hours.

But does any of this matter? Celebrities and their careers walk away unscathed and the Twitter bandwagon moves on. Besides, as online free speech nazis will tell you, there's no room in this brave, new world for shrinking violets or thin-skinned VIPs -- be it on social media or comment boards. You either put up or shut up. Besides, this is what democracy looks like, baby! Online speech may be ugly but hallelujah it's free.

Complaints are all the less welcome when they come from journalists who are quickly dismissed as elitist and out-of-touch. "The angst of journalists born before the internet age is like that of Rajputs in Rajasthan who rue that whilst they were the ruling elite of their land once upon a time, their stature and respect has diminished," writes Shivam Vij on Rediff.com, arguing that hate speech is often used as an excuse to squelch genuine criticism.

And that certainly has been the modus operandi of the Kapil Sibal model of internet censorship. But is state-sponsored gagging the only kind we ought to worry about? Vij doesn't acknowledge that hostile, abusive speech is just as effective in censoring the rest of us. As Chetan Bhagat pointed out:

"Announcement by @sardesairajdeep about not tweeting about national issues anymore is sad. Another twitter negativity casualty. Good for nothing trolls on twitter do nothing but cast aspersions and doubt everyone's intention, hurting people so much they withdraw. Meanwhile, Twitter loses out to wonderful people who will never come on twitter or open up because of the filth a few people put out."

We now have a venom-spewing army which can literally hijack and monopolise online public spaces, pushing people out, or worse, discouraging others from entering at all. The unspoken rule that only those who can endure unfettered abuse -- aimed at their moral character, family, appearance -- have earned the right to speak is no less undemocratic and unfree. The victims include not just journalists or personalities, but also the average, hapless commenter or Twitter user who invites the rage of the mob.

Behaviour that would never be tolerated in real-world is now common online: defacing Facebook memorials for the dead, slut-shaming young girls, issuing death threats… And that's just the extreme end of the spectrum, the kind of behaviour that may get you in actual trouble, as with the teenager who was arrested for telling diver Tom Daley: “I’m going to find you and I’m going to drown you in the pool…”

In the freest society, there are rules of public engagement, basic boundaries of civil behaviour that must be observed. On the Internet, however, we act like there are none. Criticism against trolling or hate speech evokes howls of outrage over censorship. As Australian communications minister Stephen Conroy noted, we have bought into an absurd view of "the Internet [as] some mystical creation that no laws should apply to."

We wring our hands over the safety of women on the streets but the constant harassment of women online is treated as routine and unremarkable. Imagine a heckling mob, casting aspersions about your wife, insulting your integrity and intelligence, questioning your sexual character as you stand on a street corner. Imagine being stranded in public view, trying to defend yourself from a barrage of abuse as the whole world looks on. Imagine someone butting into an open discussion in a roomful of strangers to call you an idiot or worse.

If people behaved like this in the real world, society would ground to a halt, but we dismiss it as "routine" trolling just because it happens online. "Anything that is illegal in the real world ought to be illegal online," clarifies Shivam Vij when I call him. Vij argues, for example, the best way to crackdown on online misogyny is to make an example of its perpetrators: "File an FIR for harassment, throw them in jail for six months. I'll loudly support it."

The reality is that we ourselves don't do enough to fight the trolls. We don't complain, file reports or even speak up when others are targeted. We allow a virulent minority to hijack our public spaces and debate. We prefer instead to retreat, either entirely or into small social media pockets, huddling in little corners while the shrillest, angriest, nastiest among us spew unfettered. We allow the most democratic medium in human history to become instead a weapon of mass intimidation. And then we label it "free speech".