Popular fiction-writer Chetan Bhagat's column last week in a mainstream newspaper caused considerable heartburn among hardline right-wing social media fanatics, frequently christened as #ModiBhakts. What set them off was Bhagat's explicit expostulation of the Internet Hindu's predilection for abusive, offensive language; he even attempted to define their socio-psychological-behavioural profile. Many were offended. They easily are. #ModiBhakts are egregiously hypersensitive. One word against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and you have perpetrated sacrilege. Expect a deluge of diatribe, an avalanche of abuse.
When Modi attempted the public relations stunt called #SelfieWithDaughter, many protested against the synthetic attempt to showcase concern for the social menace of gender discrimination. Actress Shruti Seth made no bones about her cynicism of the cheesy call; social activist Kavita Krishnan joined in. Promptly, they were subjected to a Twitter assault, bordering on perversion. Earlier, Nandita Das was similarly ridiculed. Right-wing trolls are brilliantly organised, with a sharp sense for collective hunting. Their vicious outbursts are also instantaneous. Once they #hashtag you, then you must trend. After that it is like a Talibanesque public execution; all are cordially invited to attend the grand finale. Bloodletting runs in their veins. Modi's cautionary advice to his beloved fans must be seen in this context - it is just a cosmetic ruse. Modi himself has followed many such damaged, lily-livered bullies.
"Right-wing trolls are brilliantly organised, with a sharp sense for collective hunting. "
About a year ago, Hasiba Amin, President of the NSUI, Goa unit, and face of an advertisement (part of the Congress party campaign for elections 2014) was subjected to mindless slander and wicked slurs, all with an unambiguous intent to hurt. On social media, reputational capital dissipates like salt in water. It is like a cold monstrous machine that surgically invades your world with remorseless resolve, oblivious to your protestations. It has successfully devastated many victims, some who have vowed never to return. Twitter exchanges have become scatological. It is sad.
Many well-known personalities ranging from TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai, Congressman Dr Shashi Tharoor, actor Shah Rukh Khan et al have been subjected to acidic assaults. Actor Salman Khan recently expressed his anguish on the constant attempt of his fans to denigrate SRK and Aamir Khan. He even threatened to quit social media if their insane intimidation continued.
Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra quit Twitter a few years ago after being mercilessly attacked, later returning and at last count boasting more than 10 million followers. Sometime ago well-known TV anchor Sagarika Ghose also faced unspeakable vitriol on Twitter, with trolls not-so-subtly threatening to harm her teenage daughter. Barkha Dutt of NDTV has been subjected to equally harsh treatment; the list is endless.
So what makes Twitter so rife with diabolical activity? Why the vile abuse, the nasty character assassinations? There are some straightforward explanations -- access to otherwise elusive celebrities, deliberate provocation to attract attention, pent-up anger on matters of religion, ideology and faith, or maybe just a different viewpoint one is obsessive about. Twitter anger is also caused by an incessant desire to be connected and also the need to be heard; it is like an obsessive compulsive disorder. If not careful, both the follower and the followed are dragged into the ugly black hole. I personally rarely block abusers, barring odd instances when the insults and threats extend to family members or long-deceased ancestors -- that infuriates.
"I personally feel that those who abuse on Twitter have not yet experienced pain or human suffering or loss."
What Twitter is tragically missing is a cheeky, wacky, delectable sense of humour, those sharp observations that slice you into delicious bits but still leave a lingering smile. Instead what you see is vehemence, virulence and vituperative attacks. Conversations turn into verbal brawls. Social media becomes anti-social.
To a great extent , the answer lies in our demographic social media profile -- young, educated, restless, middle-class, tech-savvy , conservative, self-centered, drawn to showmanship and sound bytes, and above all, macho nationalism. Political parties know the segments that are susceptible to extreme propaganda, where anger can be skillfully manufactured. Even in the late 1980s, supporting the right-wing patriotic jazz of the saffron kind was considered cool. The hate brigade is strident, intolerant and prides in circulating unalloyed religious connotations in its discourse. There is savage pleasure, bordering on sadism, in tearing down others. There is black and white, no 50 shades of gray here.
But if Twitter loses that fine sense of conversational chit-chat, it will plateau before an unavoidable fall, as embitterment and ennui will combine to deliver that coup de grace lethal punch. No social media is an endless phenomenon, it needs nursing. Facebook has survived because it got personal, Twitter is in a no-man's land, and can leave you cold. Too many tech-roughnecks freely abound. But freedom of expression must find its own self-regulator.
Celebrities jumped on to the bandwagon to give their fans carefully doled out peeks into their hallowed lives, but even a fan following can be a treacherous invasion. You end up at the receiving end. Celebrities too need to stop gloating about their followers' list -- in a sense they inadvertently or sometimes furtively court the trouble-makers.
So will the Twitter-anger ever dissipate, or will it only get further aggravated? I personally feel that those who abuse on Twitter have not yet experienced pain or human suffering or loss. After all 75% of the users of social media are below the age of 30, when the world appears to be in one's supreme command and a dazzling future awaits. But the "hi bro" generation will one day inevitably experience the vicissitudes of life; they teach you something. They will find that these can alter you in ways one can't imagine. It happens to all of us, beginning with the loss of a loved one, usually our parents. Nothing is ever the same again. Loss teaches you empathy. You feel the pain of others. It is good to smother the hate, it gets us nowhere. Even on an impersonal platform like Twitter, you realize the futility of humiliating and hurting anyone. Everything in life is transitory.
"A quiet moment of introspection or a little consideration may help. Or knowing that when you threaten her with physical intimidation that Sagarika Ghose is a mother of two children."
As you experience the pain of loss, you stand isolated as the world whizzes past you in its rhythmic deliriousness, essentially disinterested in your anguish. And then at that moment, all that terrible hate, mindless abuse, ill-tempered talk and nasty campaigns become so irrelevant. Nothing binds us more to our fellow-beings than the transitory nature of human existence. Our fragility, our vulnerability is our common bond. No matter how different our thoughts, don't we all need to somewhere fight a troubled conscience? Finally aren't we all bound by our mortality? Does that hate really get us anywhere?
A quiet moment of introspection or a little consideration may help. Or knowing that when you threaten her with physical intimidation that Sagarika Ghose is a mother of two children. Or that young Hasiba Amin is just doing her best. Or that Shruti Seth and Kavita Krishnan are the contemporary modern intelligent and brave women who manifest a new India. With or without a selfie.