As the reach of social media grows by leaps and bounds, so does the viciousness of trollers, who revel in leaving behind a venomous trail. Votaries of freedom of speech may differ, but a law to curb social media is just what India needs to keep abusive and damaging trolls in check. 

LED by the twitter-happy Prime Minister it wouldn’t be surprising if tweeting were to be declared India’s national pastime. Judging by the astounding response to the three badshahs of Twitter — Big B, SRK and Modi — it would seem we are a tweeting generation. But more than tweeting some of us are happier trolling and leaving behind a trail of hate and venom. The little birdie is pecking with a reach that is as penetrating as devastating and playing havoc with the lives of those inhabiting the virtual space.

Actually, why single out Twitter alone, social media has become the new hub of vile and vitriol. It’s where reputations are torn to shreds, salacious information shared without verification and rebuttals are never ever short of spite, malice and menace. In short, slander now has a new name. It’s called trolling and is defined as the art of deliberately, cleverly and secretly annoying people, usually via the internet. Amratya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian has transformed, and how, into the unpleasant digital Indian, to put it mildly and politely.

Of course, the new virtual rather virulent Indian is anything but well-behaved. Enraged at the slightest pretext, often without provocation, this species takes offence at all and sundry. From celebs to ordinary mortals his barbs laced with acid spare none. Be it Abhishek Bachchan’s open demonstration of affection for his star wife Aishwarya or public display of affection of ordinary mortals or even the simple act of pasting pictures (because good girls don’t seek attention)….anything could upset’ this new geek. A supposedly well-meaning campaign about cherishing daughters turns into a crusade against dissenters. Those differing with selfie with daughter brainwave are not just endlessly trolled but even abused by men like TV actor Alok Nath. And this is the most frightening aspect of Internet diatribe. It doesn’t come from uneducated conglomerate of masses which we believe have no manners. Trollers, one rightly assumes, have at least some degree of education. Yet the trolling tribe not only slaps sexist remarks each time they encounter a woman with a mind of her own but even issue threats among which rape by the way is the least intimidating. A litany of abuses they unfurl would put the most uncivilised to shame. Surprisingly, while, as the Internet Democracy Project substantiates, more women are at the receiving end of Internet hate, the troller needn’t always be the male of the species. Shruti Seth the actor who dared to question the selfie campaign and was relentlessly trolled for 48 hours writes, Men and women alike said the most vile things about me, stripping me of all my dignity as someone’s daughter, wife and mother and, most importantly, a woman.” Clearly women add to the toxic environment as much as men. So who can stop them? Troll target themselves can block them out. But the trollers have more than proverbial nine lives and resurface with alarming regularity with fresh addresses and new twitter handles.Can a law keep them in check? Countries like New Zealand think so. More recently, the Paradise of the Pacific has come up with The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015. With fines up to £85,000 against publishers of offending webpages and up to £21,000 or two years imprisonment against individuals, the Kiwis believe the digital platform can be purged of hate-filled comments. In India, where cyber bullying is rampant and laws are rather ambiguous, did away with the contentious Section 66A that punished offensive messaging. The Supreme Court which struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that empowers the police to make arrests over social media posts felt the law violates people’s fundamental right to speech and expression. Yet in a classic change of heart, the apex court only the other day asked Parliament to frame a new law to curb social media. Votaries of freedom of speech might cry hoarse over this turnaround there can be no disputing that trollers, rather abusers, need to be reined in.

While the emotion of hate certainly was not created online it has got a fresh lease of life in virtual space. Raised by the power of anonymity, it has the potential to cut people to the quick and leave permanent scars. Psychologists are unanimous that cyber bullying has serious ramifications and can undermine self-confidence, trigger suicide and vitiate an already divided society. Choicest of abuses, derogatory remarks….all is fair in internet war where the target is visible but not the one who is on the other side, firing volleys of spite. Should they be caught and put behind bars? Maybe not but they need to be unmasked. Besides, repeat offenders can certainly be barred. Blogger and virulent troll Charles C. Johnson has been permanently banned from the social media site and was not allowed to bounce back with new handles. In fact, Twitter has a new policy on harassment which includes threats of violence against others or promoting violence against others.” Its security team can now lock accounts deemed abusive for specific periods of time or permanently.

In India, however, the spate of attacks especially against those who beg to differ with the tweeting PM proves it’s not easy to ward off hostility that has roots in prejudice and partisanship. Since most victims don’t know what cyber crime means, since most law ‑enforcing authorities don’t know how to tackle it, offenders thriving under the umbrella of anonymity have a field day and invariably go scot-free. Unlike in the West where actors such as Hollywood heroine Ashley Judd pressed charges for an online backlash, in India most women let it go or are happy with removal of objectionable material. Some even delete the original tweet that caused consternation in the first place. Even gutsy Seth, while standing by her point of view, erased the tweet that whipped up an unwanted storm.

In a free country with 33 million Twitter users, who can stop them? But someone, who else but the law, has to draw the line between free and hate speech firm and crystal clear. Parliament will need functioning and let’s hope it can find time to restrain the digital Maoists”, as Jaron Lanier calls them or Twitter mob” as singer Sonu Nigam, the latest victim of trolling, dubs them. Right now the troller is all set to pounce, most likely on words of sagacity more than ludicrous comments

Originally published in The Tribune.