Trolls are a threat to free speech

How do bullies operate? They target individuals and when their antics are resisted, they call out to their associates who then gang up and pounce on hapless souls. In real life, such criminals are called gangsters and their modus operandi has its consequences. In the virtual world, they are called trolls, who attack users on Ttwitter with impunity under the cover of anonymity. It’s one thing to have groups of like-minded people with a common ideology and by logical extension, even common foes. It’s quite another to exist only for the purpose of lashing out at anyone who has a different point of view, with specious arguments, derogatory below-the-belt references and scurrilous remarks.

In India, people may not be too open about their political leanings. Even on Ffacebook, most users prefer not to reveal their political views. On Ttwitter, they seem to break free. For instance, the pro-Sangh Parivar brigade called ‘Sanghis’ takes on the pro-Congress users nicknamed ‘Congis’, and vice versa, at every opportunity. Trolls don’t believe in putting out their real names, opting for pseudonyms, which only for an illustrative purpose, may be ‘the patriot’ or ‘real citizen’ or ‘true blue Indian’. The only giveaway is an occasional mention of the leader or party they owe allegiance to. What’s worse, they even christen their adversaries with acerbic titles such as like ‘Visha Kanya’ — conferred on a leader of a party. In this polarised environment, collateral damage accrues to just about anyone who may not belong or subscribe to either of the ideologies but even unwittingly expresses an opinion that doesn’t tie in with their line of thinking.

So when I come across tweets such as like “Why do people get upset on twitter? If you don’t like what someone is tweeting, Unfollow or Block. Simple. Stop complaining. Twitter is fun” recently posted by an international cricketer, I cannot help retorting that inflammatory, defamatory and intimidating ory tweets are not fun. Cricketers may be accustomed to sledging. Not everyone is. I know of cases where victims have gone into depression, even attempted suicide. Because of someone’s “fun”. And if you block one offender, a hundred other handles can mutate like viruses. There was another tweet likening twitter to “Parliament where different groups engage with each other”. Parliament may have privilege. Trolls must understand that Ttwitter can offer no such immunity. Our cyber cells may be short staffed, but Indian laws are aplenty to deal with online onslaught. From defamation to hurting religious sentiments to criminal intimidation, the Indian Penal Code stares offenders in the face. Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act is another provision for the cops to invoke. And like most criminals, culprits here too invariably leave behind a trail. There are clues from their tweets — a website, a linkedin URL, a mobile phone number, interaction with others, their followers, the list can be quite long. Chennai Police Commissioner S. George has rightly indicated: ‘if you torment innocent people, we'll get you’.

The social media is most definitely a great embodiment of freedom of expression. But it obviously cannot be unbridled, offering a carte blanche to users to let loose, enter any discussion and vitiate the atmosphere. Just like the Indian Constitution has hemmed in ‘reasonable restrictions’, this right is also not absolute in the American law. The First Amendment does not protect free speech if there is a ‘clear and present danger’ of it leading to ‘imminent lawless action’. In this context, trolls have no legitimate space as they not merely reflect intolerance but also constitute a threat to free speech.

Remember the college cultural event – ‘Block & Tackle’? It’s a contest where the participant has to defend and oppose a proposition at the mention of ‘block’ or ‘tackle’. You can’t be expected to play a Jekyll and Hyde on the social media. And the prophylactic suggestion of ‘Block’ or ‘Unfollow’, that entails very high privacy settings will defeat the purpose of your presence on the social media. It is like saying ‘if you fall ill, don’t fuss, pop antibiotics’. Ignore the source of infection? This platform is getting bigger. Facebook recently revealed that India has 6.5 crore active users; an eight-fold jump in the last two years. We cannot allow misdirected fringes to run amok and pollute an arena meant for free, fair and mature discourse.

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