The rise and rise of trolls


It took us thousands of years to figure out how to live with one another. Laws and social norms, developed slowly and painfully, enabling us to form societies. Armed with rulebooks, and a list of do’s and don’ts, we try and exist in relative peace. Unfortunately, this is true only for the real world. The online space is still a jungle.

The world-wide web might have started as a lofty idea, a medium for the free flow of information and exchange of ideas. But it wasn’t long before the more bestial nature of man began to creep in. Bullies have always existed, antagonising and hurting those around. But the internet gave them wings.

The rise and rise of trolls has been well documented. The digital space gives us access and anonymity. It is a lethal combination for those looking to make trouble. There was a time when trolls and their vitriol was contained within niche chatrooms and group forums. But the arrival of social media, unleashed them right into our lives. Now they are everywhere. Their presence is increasingly getting normalised.

The range of troll behaviour is vast. From harmless jokes and memes, to calling names, and goading children into suicide. Politicians, Bollywood superstars, sportsmen, celebrities, activists, journalists have all been targeted at some point or the other. It is not just individuals, companies, events and communities have been also been attacked. Everyone and everything is fair game.

They entertain us, amuse us, and shock us. They are politically powerful, they get celebrities to apologise, and companies to backtrack. Trolls lurk in every digital corner, and the numbers are only growing. They are ferocious when demanding their pound of flesh – and increasingly, they seem to be getting it. The latest is Tata owned Tanishq jewellery that had to withdraw its advertisement featuring a hindu-muslim marriage, after severe backlash on social media.

Emotion is the best way to getting attention, and there are studies that show fear and anger work really well in getting people to engage. Trolls reproduce and amplify conflicts between different groups. They grow bigger, uniting those with similar ideologies and dividing society along the way. Tanishq is a perfect example.

‘Controversial’ is certainly not what comes to mind if you watch the commercial. It is a feel good, fuzzy, warm, let us live happily kind of story. But controversial is it has become, for venturing into sensitive territory.

The Indian chapter of the International Advertising Association has called it ‘very unfortunate’. That is putting it mildly. Every incident like this, has big repercussions, that spill over to the real world.

Not wanting to take chances, a tanishq store in Gujarat stuck an apology at the door. That was an obvious reaction, taken in response to a direct threat. But what of the countless others?

There will be many brand managers and companies who will re-evaluate their messaging and marketing content keeping this incident in mind. Who will really have the courage (and the resources) to risk depicting love between two fragile communities, when there are safer options.

The self-censorship is not just restricted to tv commercials, or religious narratives. Imagine the scale of online abuse today. Trolls are increasingly dominating and shaping public discourse, in every sphere.

Every single day, in the vast wild internet, women, minorities, people of colour and the LGBTQ community are abused, harassed, and threatened. The disproportionate targeting of these groups reflects an underlying social and cultural tensions. The term ‘troll’ is nowadays inextricably mixed up with identity, religion and politics, that snowballs into a larger, more vicious force.

Trolls can be terrifying. They hunt in packs, altering social cohesion and bullying others into submission. There are many who choose to drop out of the conversation. We are already seeing a slow erosion of public discourse – we hesitate to put out our views on a sensitive subject, or a picture in shorts. 40% of indian women fear online trolls when they access the internet (Nielson). Everyday we hear of high profile dropouts, and people being swept away by algorithms and hate talk.

Will trolls be shaping the internet culture. Is this going to be the new normal?

It is only been a few years since the birth of the internet, and we are still in the process of navigating, managing and understanding how it works. There are no rules, not yet. Law enforcement agencies across the world are struggling to adapt. And any attempt to control or moderate is not an easy task. Social norms in the digital space is still evolving. There has to be a way to keep us connected and talking. It took time for us to get civilised in the real world. Hopefully we will learn much faster online.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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