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Dealing with the troll brigade

By Shekhar Gupta
September 27, 2016 17:39 IST
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Abusers on social media will be rewarded if you just got intimidated or even minimally distracted. If you don’t let the noise make you do either, you are winning, without even fighting the battle, says Shekhar Gupta.

Until about four years ago, I wasn’t aware of the real meaning of the word “trolling”. I thought trolls were some imaginary, not very nice looking but sort of cute -- since Hamleys would display a range of troll-dolls -- dwarf characters who lived in dark caves.

It is only when I rose in stature adequately to become a worthy target for one-way electronic warfare that I first heard the word trolling as it is employed in the internet age. The incomparably brilliant Urban Dictionary has the best description: “Being a prick on the internet because you can. Typically unleashing one or more cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent bystander, because it’s the internet and, hey, you can.”

This, “yes, let’s do it because we can” is an apt marching tune for the troll brigade. 

Abuse -- or the trendier, if less honourable, trolling -- is now very much an accepted, and expected feature of discourse around the world. India does even better because we have such linguistic diversity of abuse. Pimp, somehow, does not have the same zing as ‘dalaal’ and dog is really an apology when you really want to call the other guy a ‘kutta’.

Then it goes on, up the escalatory ladder of what would have been unprintable just five years ago, with a choice of multiple languages and metaphors to send compliments to the other guy’s mother and sisters, what we would describe in Punjabi  as somebody’s ‘mother-sister karna’. 

Some kind of trolling has always existed in our political and larger public debate. The internet, particularly social media, has now taken it mainstream and also made it respectable. So now people holding positions of high stature, from that of the chief of the world’s fourth-largest army to those holding high, elected constitutional offices like chief minister of a state, a cabinet minister etc can freely use this weapon.

If you are familiar with wrestling, politics was earlier like the Greco-Roman style, where only holds above the waist are permitted. Now, it is more like a free-for-all mayhem where you begin by striking below the belt and keep your focus there.

Should this worry anybody if you were called a dalaal or a kutta or a maa-this behen-that? I have had to deal with unions which were always angry and particularly so on Friday afternoons when they knew I would be writing my column National Interest. They’d collect in an open parking place right under my window and shout ‘murdabad’ (death to you), usually to the beat of drums and sometimes nastier percussion weapons.

I fretted to our manager with lifelong experience of dealing with unions. He said, don’t worry. Just think that each time they shout murdabad, it will add a day to your life. It was tough advice, but useful and I believe now I carry quite a few days, in fact months’ bonus to my life. 

The other difference is, social media has made trolling public. Nobody who’s been in public debate is unfamiliar with abuse, usually made in person, so it remained between two people. Of the many I dealt with, my favourite is still Arjun Singh, perennially annoyed by my paper, calling me one morning to say, you know what, if the man in whose name you run this paper (Ramnath Goenka) was alive I would’ve made sure you won’t last a week in your job. All I had to say was, sir, we miss him as much as you do. But he can’t come back now. 

These conversations were unpleasant, yet private. Better, they never led to a breakdown of communication. You could still ask Arjun Singh for time and he would chat. Or when Mulayam Singh Yadav called to threaten that he wasn’t to be held responsible if our columnist Tavleen Singh’s legs were broken and after a sharp exchange on the phone called back within minutes to apologise.

It could even be fun, like Balasaheb Thackeray calling on a day when I had described him as a mafioso to say, “Of all the people who abuse me, you write most delightfully. So can I offer you dinner at my home?” And then it went into what I ate or drank or didn’t. He indulged me later, on his 80th birthday, with his most comprehensive and newsy television interview ever, over a bottle of white wine. 

One reason gaalis and professional relationships could go on was that it wasn’t public. Things were said in the heat of the moment, mostly forgiveness sought, and granted, or even if the recipient of abuse was genuinely at fault, he made amends too. Once it is done publicly, as on social media now, it makes the aftermath more complicated, personal and messier.

Do you, then, stop talking to the one that hurled abuse at you, or hit back in kind, or take a position contrary and critical to his, no matter what he is doing in public life?

However thick-skinned, journalists are humans, not rhinos. There is also an expectation from the audiences, or rather, spectators, of retaliation. How can you let gaalis pass? How can you deny the rest of the world the great joy of a slanging match?

Professionally, however, there is a more formidable question: Should you let the degree of abusiveness in somebody’s trolling determine your editorial view towards him, or his politics? The tempting answer is, yes of course. The correct one is, no, because you aren’t a combatant as long as you don’t join the combat.

Abusers are what they are, like the angry unions shouting murdabad below your window on the day you wrote. They don’t want to see you dead.  They’d be rewarded if you just got intimidated or, even minimally, you got distracted and lost your train of thought. If you don’t let the noise make you do either, you are winning, without even fighting the battle. It isn’t the Gandhian other cheek, but a firm tactical response.

Bansi Lal was one of our roughest politicians. I wonder how people like him would have conducted themselves on the internet and social media? Would they have gone berserk? Probably not, because many of them were truly nasty characters who, if they wanted to harm you, would do so while charmingly smiling at you rather than make their intentions public and leave an evidence trail.

I was, however, eyewitness as a student, to an electricity board workers’ group greeting (trolling?) Bansi Lal with black flags at one of his rallies. “Bhaiyo,” Mr Lal responded, “When I was born, my mother was draped in a black ghaghra made of 12 yards of cloth. I wasn’t scared of that then; you think your jhandis (little flags) would worry me?” You could take a leaf out of his book today.

Fundamentally, trolling and abuse aren't substantive. It’s not nice, particularly early in the morning as you wake up to negativity. Even a flea-bite isn’t nice, but the itch will pass. On the other hand, if what brought you the abuse was just the point highlighting government apathy to the raging chikungunya and dengue epidemic in your capital, and jolted all warring, and some abusive stake-holders into action, and therefore saved even a couple of lives and thousands more from being bitten and spending weeks in agony, missing work, you know that you have won.

Never mind the flea-bite. You can scratch, maybe curse privately, and move on. 

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