By Sidharth Bhatia
Jul 21, 2014
It is not enough to have cyber cells, the police has to be trained in how to handle the digital universe and the public needs to be given confidence that any genuine complaint will be followed up
Even a casual user of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter would have come across nasty elements who spew abuse and sometimes, threats. On Facebook, only those who you admit as friends can see what you write; Twitter is more public and seems to attract the vilest kind of people who get their jollies only by being abusive.
Everyone is fair game to them, but women (not surprisingly, given all the misogyny around) are their favourite targets.
Broadly speaking there are three kinds of trolls. There are those who hit back at any critic of their favourite political leader or film star; in other words, die-hard devotees who may even be ready to sacrifice their lives for their hero. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inspires this kind of worship — his valiant trolls, popularly called “Bhakts” are an organised regiment who have a clear objective — put down anyone who dares to come in his way. During the election campaign, even senior BJP leaders who expressed reservations about Mr Modi’s elevation were subjected to a torrent of criticism. Post elections, this vigilant army has gone after one-time fellow supporters who are now Modi sceptics. Other politicians can only envy this level of cult worship. Even film stars inspire that kind of devotion — reviewers routinely get abused if they pan a film or a performance. Then there are others who descend to abuse the moment their argument is challenged. These are part-time trolls, who try and sound reasonable for a while but then give up the struggle. The third category is the worst — sick minds who are in it to not just write obscene tweets but who also descend to outright threats rapidly.
Most regulars understand that this is an unfortunate part of the social media and deal with it by either ignoring it or simply blocking the abuser. Getting an offensive message can be disconcerting but a quick block ensures that no more come from that person. This will not necessarily stop the determined, since they could just come at you from another Twitter handle, but it is a fairly effective measure.
Public figures, (not celebrities, who have PR professionals doing their tweeting) are particularly vulnerable because fans feel they have untrammelled access to a well-known person with whom they can engage in casual conversation; when no reply comes they get foul and spiteful. Occasionally this gets out of hand and takes on a menacing dimension — then firm steps have to be taken, as one tweeter did recently.
She says she was used to getting messages laden with sexual innuendo and profanities, which, while disturbing, could be blocked. But when someone tweeted saying he would rape her, she got really angry. She decided to teach him a lesson. Her friends said she should ignore it, since such people are “mentally ill” but she was not going to let this person get away.
She complained to Twitter, which after a while blocked the abuser’s account. She also declared openly that she would be approaching the cyber crime division. But soon he was back under another name — he sent off messages to some of her friends, stating, in truly foul language, that he would get back at her.
After making her account private, which closes off access and visibility to all except those she wants to, she took the matter to the cyber crime division in her Delhi neighbourhood. Her experience was no different from anyone else’s who attempts to brave the Byzantine bureaucracy and inefficiency of the police whenever they try to file a complaint: ignorance, sloth, apathy and an interminable wait. One cop tried to explain to her what constituted the crime of rape, since her stalker had said he would sexually assault her. There is little clarity among policemen about the law concerning cyber crimes and online hate speech. (Though when it comes to tracking down young kids who write innocuous posts on Facebook about politicians, the police can be remarkably swift). Even if they do begin investigating, what can they do? Finding the IP address can help in tracking down a culprit, but what if he lives outside the country?
Here Twitter can help, but what are its policies? In the US, even hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, but Indian laws are different. Does Twitter apply American laws all over the world? And in any case, does abuse and a threat, even if implied be treated as free speech? Twitter has an online complaint mechanism, but that can at best block an account — legal measures are necessary to ensure that wrongdoers are brought to justice. It is not enough to have cyber cells — the police, at the constable level, has to be trained in how to handle the digital universe and the public needs to be given confidence that any genuine complaint will be followed up. Many victims shrug their shoulders and move on — some even shut down their Twitter account, unable to deal with the hostility and the nastiness.
Twitter is a platform for robust debate, entertainment and information, advertising and marketing and increasingly, breaking news. No wonder argumentative Indians have taken to it in a big way. The government too wants to use it spread its message — it can only grow in the coming years. It is imperative therefore that, social media platforms are seen as safe environments where everyone, women and men, young and old can feel part of.