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30/05/2019 11:37 AM IST | Updated 30/05/2019 2:28 PM IST

IRCTC ‘Wrecked’ A Man Complaining About Obscene Ads On Twitter—But Was He Justified?

IRCTC’s response was hailed on Twitter, but although the initial complaint might have been unreasonable, the rail ticket booking agency’s response wasn’t much better.

SCREENSHOT/ TWITTER

Twitter users are quick to celebrate savage schooling of people, but a man who complained about ads on IRCTC and became a laughing-stock, might actually have made a valid point before being drown out by jeers.

On Wednesday, a man tweeted to railways ticket booking platform IRCTC complaining about “obscene and vulgar ads” on the booking app. He said it was embarrassing and irritating, and asked the Railways Ministry, and current minister Piyush Goyal to look into the matter.

The ads in question were for an online apparel store showing lingerie; for a news app that mentions a story in Hindi about why women form relationships with men outside marriage; and for a health app called DocsApp that mentioned consultation for baldness and erectile dysfunction, again in Hindi.

SCREENSHOT/ TWITTER
The tweet that started it all.

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IRCTC’s customer support account ‘wrecked’ the man in response, by tweeting “IRCTC uses Google’s ad serving tool ADX for serving ads. These ads uses [sic] cookies to target the user. Based on user history and browsing behavior ads are shown. Pl clean and delete all browser cookies and history to avoid such ads.”

Ever since the tweet on Wednesday night, Twitter users have been laughing at the ‘savage burn’ and praising IRCTC for shutting down a ‘bhakt’.

And looking at the man’s Twitter account, it’s easy to see why sympathy for him is hard to come by. His bio explains that he has a fight against the ‘Khan Market Gang’, he wants to boycott Amazon because of Patanjali founder Ramdev, and he shared tweets about why Gauri Lankesh—an Indian journalist turned activist who was murdered in 2017, an act linked to Hindutva outfits—should be hated.

So you see tweets like this one, on the ‘savage takedown of a Bhakt’, and comments about how “models in lingerie for a lingerie store is haw haw for this dude. I’m sure he doesn’t go to markets/malls lest he passes by a La Senza store.”

There’s several people tweeting that the person handling the IRCTC twitter account deserves a raise. Others joined in the chorus explaining that such kind of ad targeting is called re-marketing, and it’s done not just by IRCTC but by other platforms serving ads via Google’s network too.

However, is there a case to be made for the tweet that launched a thousand memes?

A few voices pointed out that Google allows platforms to blacklist advertisers and limit the content that is shown to visitors. In that case, as a government service, should IRCTC simply be able to shoot back in the way it did rather than actually doing something?

Part of the problem is that Google makes fairly broad buckets about Indian interests, which was reflected by the risqué content that filled up YouTube and Google Play, and even Google’s keyboard app Gboard automatically suggested obscenities in autocomplete until it was flagged to the company.

But IRCTC is the biggest transactional platform in the country, with over 2 million site visitors every day. And it knows Indian users very well—it’s generated over 100 terabytes of passenger data each year. If, despite its mind-boggling scale, the site simply makes fun of a user because he’s uncomfortable with lingerie ads, then it’s not actually doing a great job. No matter how entertaining the tweets are.