Trolling: Answers To 13 Questions You Might Have About It
Trolls are a public menace. We need to find better strategies to deal with them.
There is a secret and seemingly organised force in the Indian public sphere that dictates the behaviour of several actors, from citizens to corporations to the media. This force is staffed by thousands of voluntary and paid trolls.
These trolls form a spectrum. At one end are ‘timepassers’ and loosely-organised volunteers. And at the other end are people with jobs or posts within political parties.
Trolls are everywhere. Their latest campaign forced the Tata group to withdraw a Tanishq ad that celebrated a family of Hindus and Muslims. They show up at almost every turn of the news, whether it is the Hathras rape, the death of Sushant Singh Rajput or the anti-CAA protests.
Trolls hunt in packs; they bully and they poison the discourse, and unfortunately, they’re not going anywhere.
We may not all have been affected directly by trolls, but our lives have been influenced by them, and it is useful to know more about them.
Here are answers to 13 questions that you might have about trolls. I use material from Swati Chaturvedi’s 2016 book, I Am A Troll, which is an investigation. Chaturvedi herself was a victim of trolls until she decided to figure out more for herself.
1. What is trolling?
Trolling is one of the worst forms of abuse online. Trolls use a variety of tactics such as harassment and bullying. They deliberately post offensive or inflammatory content online. The targets of trolls can be individuals, corporations, NGOs and communities.
Their weapons that trolls use include rape and death threats, the more vicious the better. Or exhortations to boycott, ban, or attack somebody or the other.
2. Who are trolls?
The word ‘troll’ comes from Scandinavian folklore. Trolls are usually described as dim-witted, foul-smelling, big, angry, dangerous, and evil. They are to be found in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
In real life, a troll is very likely to be a male. Imagine an angry, jobless and directionless person. This image that I found on the web (which I will not link to out of deference to the anonymity of the poster) sums it up well:
Swati Chaturvedi calls them the “goons of the online world.” In her book, they are described as “exclusively male” with “weak communication skills” who have an inferiority complex. In India, they also tend to have a “near visceral hatred for Muslims.” They are to be found everywhere, both in the big metropolises of India and smaller cities and towns.
3. Whom do trolls target?
Anyone and everyone, whether they are individuals or groups of people. Women are extremely frequent targets, especially those who speak their mind. Actors such as Swara Bhaskar and journalists like Rana Ayyub have got some of the worst abuse online. Yet, they have not backed down, which says more about their courage and less about the support they ought to have received.
Indeed, there is a clear link to be drawn between misogyny and trolling.
4. Why is trolling harmful?
On an individual level, trolling takes a huge mental, emotional and physical toll on their targets. On the group level, trolling changes what can or cannot be discussed in public. Important debates, from the economy to crime, are hijacked by trolling. Trolling is also deployed to distract from real issues. Trolls are also used to enforce rigid cultural and social customs and guidelines. Online trolling can lead to offline action.
In short, trolling is extremely poisonous.
5. Why is it a problem today?
Organised trolling was never much of a thing before the age of instant communication and social media, simply because it was difficult to bring together vast numbers of people to act together. In other words, it was difficult to weaponize people’s hatred and fear of the other at a mass level.
But Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter make trolling easier. Tech platforms are trying to fix the issue, but it’s nearly not enough. Facebook Pages and Groups are used to bring together trolls, who are in several cases, paid to post offensive material online. Twitter trends are generated by getting people to tweet using hashtags against a person or group. As Swati Chaturvedi’s investigation shows, trolls are paid, and sometimes, even companies outside India can be employed to troll targets.
6. Are trolls really organised?
If trolling wasn’t organised, it wouldn’t be such a problem. Chaturvedi interviewed a few individual trolls for her book. The first person she interviews says that trolling is easy “because ordinary people don’t know that it’s an organized attack and it shocks people.”
That’s not to say random individuals don’t troll people. Organised trolling also tends to attract unorganised individuals who latch on to attacks. It’s a bit like the long tail of a comet.
7. Are trolls always on the side of one particular party?
Not always. According to Chaturvedi, the Aam Aadmi Party “gets nasty with journalists”. But she continues, “Yet there’s no question that right-wing representatives dominate India’s online political discourse and show more ugliness and violence than anyone else.”
What’s clear is that trolls are most easily activated by hatred. Among all of India’s fault lines such as caste, gender, language, region, and so on, it is religion that attracts the most extreme emotions, and which accounts for the most trolling. Here, it is the BJP that has the most to gain from political trolling.
“In the case of India, online trolls usually have Hindu right-wing views and are highly nationalist. They tend to attack anyone who appears to be against the government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the nation. Some have large followers. They usually have Hindu gods or the Twitter egg as their display pictures. Others have put up display pictures of beautiful women to increase their follower count. So you might see a user called ‘Sonam’ in a bikini tweeting hatred against Muslims. These trolls are mostly anonymous. Some, however, aren’t and they are occasionally followed by high-profile members of the BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
8. What proof do we have?
As Chaturvedi shows in her book, the Prime Minister of India follows several trolls on Twitter. They have even been felicitated by the government.
“Why does the PM of India alone among world leaders follow some of his country’s worst online abusers? Among the handles followed by Modi, twenty-six accounts routinely sexually harass, make death threats and abuse politicians from other parties and journalists, with special attention given to women, minorities and Dalits.”
9. What legal avenues do targets of trolling have?
Targets of trolling can seek redressal under several sections of the law that relate to criminal intimidation, sexual harassment, defamation, voyeurism, online stalking, and obscene content. The Indian Express has a piece that is useful, but the important thing to note here is that seeking legal redressal places the burden on the target.
10. How effective are these legal avenues?
When your attackers are anonymous, how can the law help you? Even when trolls are not anonymous, they can be associated with powerful outfits, such as political parties and quasi-political institutions.
Even when you seek relief under law, the petition has to find acceptance in the legal process. In other words, the police force and the state has to take trolling seriously, as do other institutions of the law. However, when members of these institutions operate under a culture of fear, legal redressal remains more of a theoretical concept than anything else.
“In the United States, which is a beacon for free speech laws, thousands are arrested each year—and the courts uphold these allegations as ‘actionable’—based on complaints from people who have received violent threats on social media. Hate speech, targeted harassment, threats of rape with graphic details of assault, incitement to violence—all this is ‘actionable’ too but our police does not act.”
11. Has anyone been prosecuted for trolling in India?
This has happened very rarely. Trolling in India is now more sophisticated and is characterised by group attacks and anonymity. Just a few years earlier though, trolls were not always anonymous.
Take the case of singer Abhijeet, a well-documented troll. His targets included Swati Chaturvedi but were not limited to her. Abhijeet was arrested in 2016 for abusing Chaturvedi and released on bail. His Twitter account was later suspended.
In 2017, a man was arrested for trolling the actor Parvathy under the Information Technology act.
However, it isn’t clear if anyone has been taken to trial and convicted for trolling.
12. Does this mean that in practice there is not much relief that can be got from trolling?
Unfortunately, yes. It seems like where tech platform-fuelled abuse and harassment is concerned, the focus is not so much on prevention and immunity but on seeking non-institutional ‘cures’.
Many targets of trolls focus instead on building healthy offline relationships with supportive family and friends.
13. Why should we care? And how can we show support?
Trolling is abuse and can be hate speech. It poisons the discourse. It leads us to censor ourselves. It creates a culture of fear.
It’s clear then, that we are all affected by trolling. At the very minimum, we all have a stake in ensuring a cleaner and healthier public square.
There are many ways to support the targets of trolls. Even if we don’t support the ideology and politics of those who are trolled, just declaring support can be helpful. We can do this on our own social media pages, or in online and offline chats with friends.
Also, next time there is a ‘public outcry’ over any issue, just think about whether there is any organised trolling involved.
Did you feel there was something missing in this Q&A? If so, please write to me, either in the comments or by replying. I intend to treat this piece as a wiki, and will update with better examples and more perspective. All changes will be reflected as well.