Social media, trolls, dissent: Author Arnab Ray tackles convenient notions at Kolkata Lit Meet

Mainstream media is still the chief influencer but social media is increasingly challenging its hegemony. Laws are being rewritten, terms of engagement revised and rules of etiquette are undergoing a sea change due to a greater democratisation of voices. Social media is causing huge societal churning and some would cite Donald Trump's victory to argue that it is altering the course of history as well. For many though, it still remains an unknown beast.

While social media has been a great enabler, it has also been an equally potent disruptor. All of us have come across the term "trolls", that internet slang used loosely for agent provocateurs who are said to hunt in packs and subject their 'victims' to targeted abuse, attacks or incessant harangues. There have been divergent opinions about the usefulness of social media but almost near total convergence on "trolls" — that social media tools like Facebook or Twitter should find a way to limit their "nuisance".

And yet, questions remain.

Unlike the mainstream mediums, the new media is in a state of perpetual flux. These definitions, therefore, cannot be cast in stone and must be frequently challenged. Is social media a force for good, or evil? Do online behaviors require greater accountability? Are "trolls" — as Vir Sanghvi writes in Business Standard while reviewing a book on the subject — simply "lonely or socially dysfunctional men whose own sexual inadequacies lead them to be (often violently) misogynistic"? Do they exist only to abuse "famous people" and find an escape route from their "sad and solitary" existence?

 Social media, trolls, dissent: Author Arnab Ray tackles convenient notions at Kolkata Lit Meet

Arnab Ray at the Kolkata Literary Meet. Image courtesy: Twitter

Arnab Ray would disagree. The columnist and acclaimed author who has been traversing the social media universe for more than a decade and whose award-winning blog Random Thoughts of a Demented Mind is among India's most-read, believes that not all trolls are demented attention-seekers and some, in fact, are very intelligent people who have forced the "influencers" into placing a greater premium on facts. The phenomenon, he says during an interaction on Wednesday with food critic and blogger Poorna Banerjee at the ongoing Kolkata Literary Meet, is more pronounced in the context of Indian media.

"Most trolling is good," says Arnab, during the session titled Tweets, Trolls and LoLs held at the city's iconic Victoria Memorial. "They either point out your logical fallacies, inconsistencies in argument or errors of commission and omission." The point, says Arnab whose recent book Sultan of Delhi: Ascension has received rave reviews, is that while "many media mavens like to proclaim that they hold a mirror to power, they forget that media too is part of that power structure and a small subsection will hold a mirror to them. But they consider this as trolling."

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the "liberal" discourse has come to represent a specific political viewpoint and it enjoys a stifling monopoly in academia and mainstream media. However, with social media providing for a greater democratising of discourse, an alternative worldview has emerged. Questions are being asked and narratives are being challenged at every step. Assumptions are being contested and theories are facing greater scrutiny. Influencers, who are so used to talking down, are struggling to cope with the feedback. Many times, these discordant, disparate voices that lie at the intersection of free speech and democracy are simply termed "trolls" so that they may be dismissed from being taken seriously or bullied into silence.

In one of his past blogs on the subject (The Internet Hindus, Trolling And Other Matters), Ray writes: "I have always found it ironic to Ironman-levels that those who consider themselves “liberal” (and so by definition open to the “other”) are so pathologically opposed to alternative viewpoints polluting the ideological purity of the so-called moderate “world-view”. Anyone so much as suspected as having a saffron dot on their white shirt is shunted out, both in media organisations as well as in universities, particularly in the liberal arts."

But one must be careful about threats of a criminal nature. That is when dissent or argument crosses the line and becomes a criminal activity that must draw legal censure, says Ray. He has categorised these threats into different zones.

"For me, the bad kind of trolling is abuse. The kind you are subjected to if you mistakenly step onto someone's toes in a crowded bus. Those fall in what I call 'orange zone'. Death threats or rape threats fall in the 'red zone' and that becomes a law and order issue. It stops being trolling", he says.

Ray, who holds a PhD in Computer Science from State University of New York at Stony Brook and resides in the US, has closely followed the rise of Donald Trump. He calls the septuagenarian the world's first "social media President" because of the massive support he drew/continues to draw from the Alt-Right. While that has been partly made possible by the winds of change flowing across continents, Trump, he says, has manipulated masterfully the dissent against globalisation and has risen to power by telling people what they wanted to hear. Ironically, having benefited from American laws that protect free speech, Trump in his campaign had taken aim at the rights protected by First Amendment.

In India, though, the debate on free speech is stunted by the lack of legal heft in its favour, feels Ray. He dismisses the debate on 'intolerance'.

"Not intolerance, the problem in India is we don't have laws for free speech. Just by putting a lawsuit, anybody can stop someone from saying something. The rule of law has been subjugated by power."

Ray's analytical mind shines through. His courage in tackling convenient notions is a refreshing promise. We shall expect more from him.

Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 16:46:14 IST