Picture this. You are sitting at home and a rank stranger, with his face covered, lands up outside your gate; screams the choicest invectives and abuses you, uses vulgar language about your family, mocks your religion, levels baseless allegations and even threatens you with violence. The trigger is your views on some contentious issue on a public platform. Will you tolerate the verbal onslaught and take it in your stride in the name of ‘free speech’? The legal maxim ‘you cannot do indirectly what you cannot do directly’ must apply to the social media. If people dare not attempt in person what I’ve just narrated, what makes them go utterly berserk on their twitter handles? 

hideand tweet

Emboldened by the cloak of anonymity that the medium provides, they play a grossly defamatory game of  ‘hide and tweet’, launching sniper attacks on soft targets, usually celebrities. In the Indian Penal Code, when five or more robbers commit an offence conjointly, they are called dacoits. In the social media, these vituperative handles hunt in packs just like wolves. They call themselves ‘trolls’. Some troll for sadistic pleasure, some are paid and some are probably in desperate need of help from a shrink. If research points to innocuous selfies being a sign of a form of depression, I wonder what trolling is! I’ve often heard the specious argument that ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’. But don’t kitchens have exhaust fans to blow out the bad air?

Sanjay Pinto Black Shirt

“On twitter, you need the skin of a rhino. You are either out there for public scrutiny and ridicule or go into shell by ‘protecting your tweets’, which defeats the purpose of the medium itself” – Sanjay Pinto

You cannot restrict foul mouthed blighters from gatecrashing into your discussion. There is no preventive measure, only a reactionary step like reporting spam or blocking a handle. But how many will you keep blocking? They can mutate! Some even flaunt the fact that they have been blocked by celebrities! Is that a badge of honour? Perhaps twitter can put out a periodic ‘hall of shame’ of handles that have been blocked by a certain number of users?

Another disturbing trend is of rank amateurs catapulting themselves into a make believe world of expertise just because they have a handle to spout. For instance, 5 minutes into a movie, you may see a tweet review “this film is crap”, marking the actors too! There’s complete disregard for the effort that would have gone into the making of that work. Not to speak of the lack of patience to at least wait till the intermission when presumably popcorn may trigger better judgment!

What is beyond my ken is why even seemingly educated people cannot realise that free speech is not ‘free for all’, that Art. 19(1)(a) on freedom of expression comes with ‘reasonable restrictions’, that dissent need not be countered with abuse, that there are apolitical folks out there just interested in having no more than an intellectual discourse and who are neither bhakts nor baiters of A or B. Why does the Bush doctrine ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’, have to come into play? Why can’t they disagree without being disagreeable? Constructive criticism is fine, vituperation is not. It’s a pity that many are eager to be seen as politically correct. Frankly, I feel there was ‘manufactured outrage’ against the now scrapped Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. Yes, it was a poorly drafted section with ridiculous terms like ‘inconvenience’ and ‘annoyance’ that gave any hypersensitive prickly pear a shot at criminal prosecution. But the wrong cases got highlighted. Like two young girls in Mumbai for posting a legitimate comment on facebook about a shutdown in Mumbai and the other merely liking it. Much worse has and continues to be put out on the social media. That’s one big reason the Centre is not keen to decriminalise defamation. There are several sections in the Indian Penal Code, even aside of defamation to rein in merchants of abuse. Like Sec 295 A that deals with insults to religious beliefs, Sec.294 that punishes obscene utterances or Sec. 504 on insults to provoke breach of peace.

Why doesn’t twitter make it mandatory for users to reveal their real identities to start a handle, with a basic verification mechanism? To start a magazine or newspaper you need to sign a declaration before the local Magistrate. To start a tv channel or radio station, you need a licence. To have a vehicle you need a registration. To even get a mobile sim card, you need to provide proof of identity and address. But to have a twitter handle with the potential to sully reputations and indulge in character assassination or worse, post inflammatory content, you don’t even need to reveal your real name? Twitter, are you serious?

Whisper the word ‘regulation’ and you will be instantaneously trolled and labelled ‘undemocratic’, ‘intolerant’ and even a ‘tyrant’. Self Regulation is evidently a misnomer. Every profession has a regulatory body. Lawyers have the Bar Council, doctors have the Medical Council, Advertisers have the Advertising Standards Council of India, Insurance companies have the Insurance Regulatory Development Authority, Banks have Ombudsmen, Educational Institutions have the University Grants Commission, the Print Media has the Press Council, TV Channels have the National Broadcasters Association. The Social Media has what? The conscience of users?

When there are twitter handles like @bloodaid that use the platform to help with donors and many similar accounts that use the force multiplier effect of the social media for constructive purposes, why can’t we have good trolls; groups of right thinking people who can counter the negativity and abuse of trolls in their present avatar?

If trolls don’t have a conscience, let them listen to this Voltaire gem: “I disagree with you but will defend to death your right to say it.” Till that happens, let trolls keep missing their appointments with psychologists. And their prey can use twitter as grandma’s remedy for low blood pressure!