Friday, February 11, 2011

The ‘anarchy’ of online abuse

Friday, February 11, 2011 Share: Digg Technorati Delicious StumbleUpon Facebook

Note: This post has been in the works for a while now. For some reason or the other, I never got around to organizing some of my observations over the years, but here it is.

Every once in a while, the Indian internet scene comes alive with accusations, counter-accusations and justifications of abuse and trolling. While trolling can be considered subjective and a (valid?) tactic for disrupting a message, abuse and personal attacks have different implications. An incident erupted recently, when twitter users who owe allegiance to the BJP-RSS-Hindutva groups took offence at one of Mr.B.Raman’s articles (see his blogpost about the incident). Not surprisingly, this post was discussed, debated with the usual condemnations, arguments, outrage and possibly, hashtags. However, 4 arguments are relevant.

1. The ‘freedom of expression’ argument:
I believe everyone has a right to their opinion and must have the space to express it. I also believe that freedom of expression has to be used responsibly. The question to ask would be “Is there malicious intent?”, but this is a gray area, it is subjective and this freedom deserves to be protected from those who wish to suppress it and also from ourselves. When this freedom is perceived to be (and is) abused, as was in the case of @ramanthink, we come to the:

2. The ‘If you don't like it, ignore/block/move on’ argument:
It is a fair point and works in most cases, but for more clarity, it is important to break down how the abuse is delivered (using my handle as the ‘abused’ and weak imagined insults):

  • @person1 to @person2 you know what, the comic project is an !@#AS#@(
    This conversation takes place without me knowing about it. It is public, all of @person1 and @person2’s friends can see this and can choose to ignore or ask @person1 and @person2 to take this off their timelines. The abuse is there, but I probably will have no knowledge of it.
    This happens ALL the time (I see it in my timeline) but can be ignored easily.
  • @person1 to @person2 you know @thecomicproject is an !@#AS#@(
    Now I know I am being abused. I am in the middle of it and as the abuse gets nastier, how I react will depend on my own ability to withstand an abusive reference. In the physical world, this is akin to 2 people abusing me loudly and everyone within an earshot can see this happening.
  • @person1 to @thecomicproject you are an !@#AS#@(
    This is abuse directed at me – @person1 is “telling me” who I am, in public but maybe to a smaller group of people.
  • @person1: you are an !@#AS#@( @thecomicproject
    This is a broadcast. @person1 wants all his friends to know that he or she said this.

There could be variations to get this message across, but the point is that this abuse is personal and some of us are able to react to it – by ignoring, with humour, logic or even abuse – but the ability to withstand or handle this abuse is not the same. It is not very different from the physical world where my ability to respond to a physical attack in public depends on my size, weight, martial arts training and the stomach for a fight. But I was out on the street shopping, not looking for a fight. Why then is a fight being foisted on me? And what am I to do if I can’t fight back? I can go to the cops, but there’s no equivalent in the online world. Which brings me to:

3. The “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” argument:
While the domain is public, the kitchen is mine and while conversations behind my back can be ignored, no one has the right to invade my personal space. Not even under the cover of ‘freedom of expression’. Which then begs the question, is the abuse so widespread as to merit so much attention? And this leads me to:

4. The “This is a fringe group” argument:
Today, no conversation is possible without being interrupted because someone thought they are being victimized, only their brand of patriotism, their religion, their opinion must stand and the rest are traitors or Hindu-haters or pseudo-<you pick the term>. This group is large enough and noisy enough to be considered more than a fringe. Politically speaking, the Indian internet scene has been BJP-RSS-Hindutva domain from the time I have been observing it (2004-2005). Lest someone beat their chests for numbers, let me clarify that these are observations but as I heard someone say, if elections were held on the internet, BJP would win it hands down. It is, of course, unfair to generalize that all BJP-RSS-Hindutva supporters are abusive (there are some Congress supporters too), but it is not unreasonable to conclude that most of the abuse originates from BJP-RSS-Hindutva supporters.

Some of this abuse and noise is admittedly a result of real frustration at the state of affairs, but a lot of it is a result of hatred, malice and intolerance cultivated over a period of time. While I do not yet believe that the abuse is organized or part of a plan, the emerging pattern points to a thought that if there is enough noise and abuse, reasonable people will be driven away from the scene or at least, be wary of expressing their opinions as openly.

In conclusion, while ignoring is still the best option available, the simple message is -
To the hordes: Get out of my kitchen.
To reasonable people: Do not cede ground. Do not let the abuse and the disruptions end meaningful conversations.
To the BJP-RSS-Hindutva thought leaders: I hope you show more awareness of the impact of your words. Eloquence and obfuscation may give you plausible deniability but you only have to look at the people standing behind you to realise that you are not fooling anyone. These are your hordes. Rein them in before someone gets hurt. The “Jinnah is secular” and “I regret the demolition” arguments were used up a long time ago.


What's in a name? said...

**Not intended to start a flame war**

If it's like this on the net/twitter, imagine what it is like when the state machinery comes at you.

A scenario in which 1) the consequences are real (world) 2)There is no blocking option.

Let me try and illustrate this with examples:

1) The Somashekar commission report - recommends the use of the Goonda's act against a person who provided testimony to the commission on attacks on churches. The argument is that the content of his submission is "blasphemous" (Personally, I did not know that critiquing the state is blasphemous. AND as somebody once said - one would think that it is something every conscientious citizen would do)
Source for "blasphemous" : Churchwise Report : Somashekar Commission [Page 18]

2) A journalist who exposed a mass grave in Gujrat has been slapped with sedition charges.

3) In Orissa - 5 journalists have been slapped with sedition charges in the last five years for writing pieces that are critical of the state.
Source for (2) and (3) is

While on the Internet - the knee jerk response is swarming in large packs - in the real world - state machinery seems to be kicking in every time one tries to express oneself against a certain communal line of thought.

The above said, the debate can get tricky. Do I, for example, support a ban on organisations such as the Bajrang Dal? I have a militant posture on this and would say - no way - they can not be banned because. The right to association is universal. Someone can only be punished if they act criminally and in violation of the law.

I endorse their right to express themselves without me having to agree with what they have to say. Unfortunately, (by and large) this universal principle is not being reciprocated.
In the real world, this lack of reciprocation, takes the form of dragnet legislations.

Anonymous said...

"the Indian internet scene comes alive with accusations, counter-accusations and justifications of abuse and trolling. "

This is all over the Internet, not just in India.. Just go through youtube or even sports columns.. you;ll find a lot.. Just ignore and move ahead, block them if you find it too distracting..


too much generalized aginst BJP/RSS

u didnt see media ppl abusing twitterers ?

InternetHindu said...

I remember your sick joke on Ayodhya verdict day when you said Hindu Mahasabha in the middle while Sunni Wakf Board f@#*s from behind and Nirmohi Akhara from the front. Now what kind of sick Indian can take this joke. If you can take this as a joke, then shame on you fellow Indians. Why cannot I now call you one amongst the kaangressi journos?

vimoh said...

The hordes are an obstacle, yes. But holding the BJP-RSS-Hindutva thought leaders responsible for their actions isn't valid. Twitter is Twitter because it is distributed. You admit as much when you say you admit "I do not yet believe that the abuse is organized or part of a plan".

People who move away from a discussion because the hordes scare them do so of their own volition. Unless someone is holding a gun to your head, it does not count as forceful.

The point is that Twitter is not a studio, it's a jungle (like much of the WWW is).

Deshdaaz said...

What you have failed is a hypothesis of how would twitter/social media look like if BJP was in power with equal or more number of scams and frustrated common men...Who would make your punching bag then? INC/Nehruvian Indians? Would they be better/worst then the lot we have today?

You also failed to point out most of the abuse, (which I STRONGLY condemn and urge everyone to desist from) is actually triggered by such events...

So your article at best is incomplete and unfairly drawing conclusions with missing critical information.

Write back to me on twitter @deshdaaz

For the record,I am a staunch BJP supporter and have no qualms about it. At the same time, I am one of many right leaning Indians on twitter who have never abused anyone.

Patrix said...

Good points all but then again genuine outrage or objections are often claimed as 'online abuse' by the self-professed victims. The example of a certain TV journalist springs to mind :) I agree that ad hominem attacks are not acceptable but if you dish them out, you should be able to take it as well. While we can ask people to be respectable and on topic, people cry foul when others disagree with them on issues.

jyoti said...


The Comic Project said...

@what's in a name: Lack of reciprocation is an issue and mostly, I'd be happy if someone just lets me be. But people wanting to stick their opinion in my face like bills on a wall because "they can"? beyond a point, it gets tiring. The internet is free, and must remain so. But if mobs force people to stop expressing opinions (even by regularly disrupting conversations), the free nature of the Internet comes into question. In the physical world, the challenges are different, there is a bigger chance of people getting physically hurt. Don't always agree with the state imposing itself on certain viewpoints but at some level, the state has a right to be a bully even if I hate that. Thanks for your comment

@anonymous: Agree. My point was about agenda and drivel and limited to India. A simple message laying out some options, analyzing some common arguments. I consider blocking an extreme step.
@suresh nakhua: Oh please! Have been observing this long enough to see what is happening. Some people choose to respond to abuse with abuse and it's their choice which I disagree with.

@internethindu: my exact words were different, even non-explicit if in bad taste. I am surprised how you made up that elaborate explicit image :)

@vimoh: I do not think it is organized and part of a plan but have seen a scary pattern emerging. Words are cleverly thrown about and people latch on to it in a parallel universe. We just don't realise it until it hits us in our face. We think it is spontaneous. Not forceful, but how long can someone stay in a place when there is muck flying around? Let's not blame the person who wants to be clean but I agree, it is a jungle. Some have navigated it well, some not.

@deshdaaz: Frustration increases abuse. Anyone observing the internet scene during the G.W.Bush era would know that democrats had a field day abusing republicans. Now, it's the republicans doing the same. If BJP comes to power in 3 years time, people would be ranting against BJP and I am sure there will be abuse flying around too. Let's cross that bridge when we get to that. that said, the BJP-RSS-Hindutva groups are better organized, more ideologically connected. Congress dudes? there are a few lurking around and they are at the fringe. Finally, I have no issues in who you support and believe your words re: abuse. My point still remains: not all BJP-RSS-Hindutva supporters are abusive, but most abusive tweets come from BJP-RSS-Hindutva supporters. And it's a noisy bunch.

@tap1981: could not find your comment. Will check if i have it in email later. Feel free to post again. I checked if I deleted it, but that's unlikely. I rarely delete comments, even the most abusive ones.

@patrix: Not all, but sometimes I go to the @replies of some of the journalists (call it an immunization of sorts or to understand the nature of the beast) and it is quite nasty. There are a few instances when i have seen journalists overreact and provoke too and in those cases we leave them to dig their own graves. But a lot of the attacks are ad hominem. I wrote this post because the "ignore, block and move on" meme was getting tiring. And because I wanted to highlight some patterns I had observed (rightly or wrongly). If the message gets through, great, if not, ignore and move on is still very effective.

@jyoti: freedom plus responsibility is the only way to sustain it.

InternetHindu said...

@thecomicproject Lets see if you can dig up your comment on the Ayodhya verdict. I am not as good with words like you but I can say it meant the same sick thing. Now can you explain or do seem to just laugh it off. Is that bad taste or not? Please answer my question

Sudhir said...

Nidhi Razdan abused me once. Without provocation. Just want to share that link here :)

Anonymous said...

@softykid This @debkanchan character used to follow me & I agree he is sick. Had to block him a long time ago @RaviKapoor


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