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Why Virushka need to be careful

July 20, 2018 12:01 IST

'While they do -- and should -- speak up for causes close to their heart, the couple should be mindful of the nature of social media and how even the best intentions can quickly degenerate into rancour if the issue is not approached with nuance and caution,' says Vikram Johri.

Anushka Sharma and Virat Kohli. Photograph: Kind courtesy Virat Kohli/Instagram

On June 16, Virat Kohli posted a video on Twitter in which his wife, actor Anushka Sharma, is seen admonishing a man for throwing plastic on the street.

The post quickly went viral, and the man at the receiving end of the fracas came out with his own social media post denouncing Sharma and Kohli both for the manner in which he was chastised and the subsequent online posting of the video of the incident that Kohli recorded.

As always, the matter grew more incendiary. The man's mother wrote on Instagram, saying she was worried about her son's safety, and criticised the celebrity couple for what she called a 'publicity stunt'.

Central minister Kiren Rijiju came out in support of Sharma and Kohli with the argument that they craved privacy, not publicity.

It is true that, notwithstanding Swachh Bharat, many Indians find nothing amiss in littering the streets.

It is also true that such people should perhaps be given an earful if caught in the act.

Even so, the personal shaming -- which would have been of little concern if it were a private, non-videotaped matter between Sharma and the man in question -- did seem out of place when Kohli decided to make the interaction public.

While Rijiju is right that Sharma and Kohli are in no need of publicity, the manner of their evangelism leaves a lot to be desired.

 

Keeping the streets clean is a laudable aim, and the fact that the man was driving a luxury car seems to have particularly irked Kohli who mentioned this fact in his tweet.

What hope is there if reasonable, educated people, as suggested by the nature and geo-location of the vehicle of the offending party, will not keep the country clean?

Yet, the niggling question of whether social-media shaming is the right approach remains moot.

What is surprising is that Kohli and Sharma should choose to go down this route when they have themselves been victims of social-media shaming in the past.

In 2015, Sharma was attacked on social media after Kohli performed dismally in the World Cup semi-final against Australia.

So vicious and personal were these attacks that Kohli was forced to make a statement defending Sharma.

Commentators also came out in support of the couple, and the incident was chalked up as another in a long list of social media brawls that devolve into toxicity due to the mix of anonymity and spontaneity that platforms like Twitter and Facebook offer.

Is there, then, a template that a celebrity couple can use to channel their power in the service of a greater good?

One thing that Kohli could have done is morph the face of the man in question, so that his identity would not have leaked.

Throwing garbage on the street may seem like an indefensible crime to some, but it does not merit broadcast on a platform where the issue can quickly dissipate into needless, not to mention nasty, booing.

Two, should social media be used at all for shaming of any kind?

The government regularly celebrates its cleanliness drive with success stories from the hinterland.

Pictures of panchayat leaders building toilets or of volunteers cleaning Mumbai's beaches are shared with gusto on the Twitter feed of Swachh Bharat.

These stories do far more to inspire people to adopt cleanliness than a video in which the offender is blamed and shamed.

In this regard, the incident reiterates the benefits of nudging rather than shaming in bringing about changes in behaviour as deeply entrenched in the social psyche as a disregard for public cleanliness arguably is.

For example, apart from village- and city-level projects, the government can consider more targeted campaigns and involve celebs like Kohli and Sharma as has been successfully done with Pulse Polio with Amitabh Bachchan.

These adverts can be aimed at, say, getting people to refrain from tossing a loose wrapper or the skin of a fruit out of a moving vehicle, which does not merely dirty the roads but is also a real danger for pedestrians.

Another lamentable habit is the refusal to slow down when driving into a puddle of water and thus splashing mud and germs on the passerby.

Between them, Kohli and Sharma have millions of social media followers, some of whom are only too eager to take their cue from the star couple.

While they do -- and should -- speak up for causes close to their heart, the couple should be mindful of the nature of social media and how even the best intentions can quickly degenerate into rancour if the issue is not approached with nuance and caution.

Viikram Johri
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