The vitriol that swamped external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s Twitter account following a controversy involving the grant of passports to an inter-faith couple is a dipstick of how dangerous a problem trolling has become. Swaraj, responding with signature maturity, flagged the particularly venomous tweets by ‘liking’ them—one Twitter-user had advised her husband to beat “sense” into her.
She next conducted a Twitter poll, asking users of the social media platform, “Friends: I have liked some tweets. This is happening for the last few days. Do you approve of such tweets ? Please RT”. The fact that an overwhelming 43% thought trolling was OK, and by implication, that she was fair game, should jolt the nation’s conscience. This means abuse, slander, rape/death threats, doxing (publishing someone’s private information/details online with malicious intent) are now par for the course, and even legitimate reactions to political/ideological differences.
The Swaraj instance is, of course, the latest in an ever-growing list of examples of why Twitter and other social media platforms should police abuse proactively. The ‘child-lifter’ lynchings that Whats app forwards have fanned is another. Indeed, Twitter, in May, announced key changes to its algorithm that would allow it to judge the quality of tweets, to check if a tweet is adding to a conversation or otherwise. The idea, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stated, was to “take the burden off the person receiving abuse or mob-like behaviour”. But, while Twitter et al work on the technological solutions to this, in the end, they are just amplifiers. What gets amplified is at the discretion of social media users. Differences of opinion, as Swaraj pointed out in a later tweet, are “but natural”; however, criticism is most effective if it is done with decency. Sage words, but what about the audience? If trolling gets the kind of support it did in the minister’s poll, then trolling is what will get normalised.