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Trolls online

Social media like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are acting not merely as attention-grabbing tools for fighting gender violence and furthering other social causes but in a fast-moving communication era, they have become tools for cyber stalking or trolling.

A K Ghosh |

There was a storm in the teacup. Rupankar Bagchi shared his opinion that singer KK, who died recently after performing a live show, might be a wonderful singer, but there are better vocalists than him. “Who is KK?”, he exclaimed, and he was severely trolled on social media. Rapper Badshah posted an Instagram tribute to KK, and he received a message from a troll that read: “Tu Kub Marega?” (When will you die?) 

The number is not small. Pakistan singer Shae Gill came under severe online criticism for condoling the death of singer Sidhu Moosa Wala. Alia Bhatt had a hard time when she said that Prithviraj Chauhan is the PM of India. She had to face trolls on social media. Lisa Haydon, the Bollywood celebrity was trolled with disgusting comments for her platinum blonde tresses and her underwater pictures. 

So, trolling can become a serious form of social bullying. A few years ago, a Ranchi court granted bail to a girl who had been accused of sharing on Face- book a series of hate messages on the condition that she distributes copies of the Quran Sharif to some select hands. Among the many aspects of human interaction that are being transformed by social networking sites, the effect of social media on social relationships certainly demands some serious thought. 

As victims of a consumerist society, we are witnessing the predictions of the future. We are likely to be hooked to the cell- phone that invades our privacy making it a pseudo drug. Initially configured as a working tool for executives, it has evolved into an appliance that serves as an equaliser on the social ladder. 

From its initial purpose of managing voice messages, it has expanded its services to become a small pocket computer and an entertainment device: voice communication and writing, take- and-transmit images, video, games, internet and radio. The technological revolution is having direct social effects on us. 

Social media like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are acting not merely as attention-grabbing tools for fighting gender violence and furthering other social causes but in a fast-moving communication era, they have become tools for cyber stalking or trolling. Laws seem to be inadequate and ambiguous, which was exposed in the case of the Ranchi girl. 

Netizens make a beeline for Facebook and WhatsApp to see what friends are up to or tweet their emotions and thoughts. But social media also offers much more than good-natured frivolity, has become a platform to speak out on both important and silly issues of the day. A hashtag, which takes off and gets people to come forward to reflect on a topic, becomes even more powerful. Nancy Schwartzman, a NewYork based film-maker and activist ran The Line Campaign to lead a movement that could use film, social media, or a blog to help end violence against women. But good sense alone has not endeared the social networking platforms to users who now number millions. Trolls are all around the Internet. India is estimated to have 750 million smartphone users. Facebook’s monthly active user base is approximately 329.65 million whereas YouTube’s is 467 million. 

Several other distinguishing attributes help social media to revolutionise the art of social communication and leave a smart imprint on the sphere of culture and politics. It has played a role in facilitating social revolutions that have ushered in political change by dismantling the walls set up by despotic regimes, the Arab Spring being a case in point which heralded the advent of the social media as a potential weapon of mass mobilisation. 

One may recall the events of the Iraq War of 1991 when the US caused the GPS and computers of the Iraqi Army to malfunction. The result was a rout of the Iraqi Army. Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption was marked by the innovative use of social networking sites to mobilise the youth for a social cause. 

Social media has proved to be a powerful tool for diplomacy. Cyber diplomacy can facilitate creating goodwill and shaping the international political and social environment. 

In 2015, it was cyber diplomacy that paved the way for the eventual meeting of US President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro. The Israeli foreign ministry has used cyber diplomacy aggressively to advance its global interests. Russia has the “KremlinTroll Army” of bloggers to fight negative propaganda against the country. China formed its “50 Cent Army”, which worked un- der the guidance of the ministry of cultural affairs. Different embassies and consulates are found active on social media platforms, especially on Twitter to spread their messages. Hillary Clinton had made digital diplomacy an important part of US foreign policy. 

Unfortunately, the widespread use of this technological marvel among generations born almost with the device in hand starts to worry social guardians of the day for its widespread influence. WhatsApp became the influential medium for propagating communal hatred and triggering riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 leaving 62 people dead. 

In 2015, Mohammed Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh became a victim of lynching when WhatsApp messages created confusion regarding his involvement in killing a calf for its meat. Fake allegations of anything like cattle slaughtering have become common on social media. 

With more than 487 million active users in India, WhatsApp has somehow been legitimised as a platform for improving public service. The technology allows people to create many groups of users and to add any user to a group. 

The group administrators are not always allowed to moderate posts from members but are legally responsible for the content shared on their group. 

Ambiguity is there as to how messaging tools like WhatsApp can be regulated in our country, especially with an archaic Information Technology Act of 2011. Prying into encrypted communication might be a violation of the user’s right to privacy. 

So the trollers may have the freedom to indulge in hate-mongering, which may not be taken as an offence. Even cyberstalking is not covered under the India IT Act (Section 354 D IPC, which was incorporated after the Delhi rape and murder of 2012). It may be mentioned that though limited protection is applicable under Section 500 IPC, the provision of cyber defamation is not clearly covered under IT laws. 

So, we do not have any specific law that directly addresses this growing concern, but we have a few sections in different laws such as the IPC and IT (Amendment) Act which makes trolling a criminal act. IPC 1860 and Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008 make making trolling punishable by law. 

However, the fact remains that a person engaging in Internet trolling is supposed to be committing an offence under the Malicious Communication Act. Under current anti-harassment laws, internet trollers could be put in prison for two years for online harassment. 

Organisations such as ISEA, a division of CDAC, End Now Foundation, Cyber Girl, Cyber Jagruthi and others, are, of course, working hard to educate people to fight online trolling and give advice on digital well-being, internet ethics and cyber safety. 

There is a silver lining in the government’s recent concern that regulations be brought in to keep a check on social media to ensure there is no intrusion of privacy. If electronic and print media are regulated, similar regulations may be brought in for social media.