Yesterday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a “town hall” meeting at the headquarters of Facebook in Menlo Park, California. At the event, Modi answered pre-screened queries from the audience and Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Facebook. During this conversation, the prime minister heralded the power of social media as a vehicle for democracy and good governence, before adding that it “allows for accountability instantly.” Modi declared, “I ask all world leaders not to avoid social media and to connect to it.” However, in his eulogy to the power of the internet, the prime minister appeared to have forgotten about an aspect of social media that doesn’t lend itself to either a functional democracy or accountability. It is a spectre that has been haunting journalists in India: that of internet trolls.
The internet is no stranger to trolls—users who post inflammatory, threatening or disruptive messages—with Twitter itself having admitted to not having proper policies in place to protect its users from harassment. The Indian Twitter troll, however, is an oddly specific creature. This troll belongs to a motley digital mob comprised of Hindutva converts, misogynists, minorities, Congress baiters and “sickular”—a pejorative portmanteau coined for those percieved as having a secular point of view—haters, all united by their atavistic chest-thumping bhakti—devotion—for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Trolling has become such a problem that many find the daily abuse impossible to stomach and opt to remain offline. For instance, NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar, who anchors Prime Time—one of the most successful news shows across Hindi news networks that is broadcast at 9 pm—has recently ceased using both his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Previously a frequent tweeter, Kumar’s last tweet was on 22 August. He told me that posts such as the one below had become routine:
Kumar, whose twitter following was close to two and a half lakh as of yesterday, said, “I have been given hell by trolls ever since I did programmes related to Yakub Memon’s hanging. Each time I am told [sic], why is this or that guest not given time to speak; you should have asked this question; why didn’t you do it; why is this particular guest there on your show. I have lost mental peace. My family members are being abused day and night.” The abuse isn’t limited to foulmouthed tweets directed at the anchor; he also received phone calls that threatened his wife and his daughter. Kumar has even been forced to ask his relatives to delete their Facebook accounts so that they are not be harassed by proxy. He described the behaviour as “gundagardi”—thuggish behaviour—“plain and simple. People suggest I take security, which of course is ridiculous,” Kumar said.