About a month ago, I was invited to be on a panel at Kolkata Lit Meet: “Trolls and LOLs”, on the supposed pernicious menace of trolls. You can watch the video here, but let me summarize the crux of what I said there.
There is undeniably a notion of “bait and switch” when you ask those outraged by trolling to define it. “Oh trolling is the issuance of death and rape threats”, they say. This is obviously a red line, one that every half decent person regardless of political affiliation can agree with, and as incidents in Bangladesh have shown us, not something that can or should be taken lightly. Any threat of physical form, even those said in a supposed “yaar mazaak kar raha tha” way, should be treated with utmost seriousness, and there should be zero tolerance in dealing with such malignant filth.
The only problem is that only a small portion of what is deemed “trolling” by our political and media superclass passes of as such. Then what is it? Ask again and this time, the answer is “Oh it is abuse.” By abuse, they presumably mean gaalis, like the way there is in my latest book Sultan of Delhi: Ascension (clever plug). Gaalis are pervasive on social media, it is true, just as it is on a busy intersection during 8 am office-time rush, but one wonders why those who some of these media mavens who have no compunction in using the vilest of swear words at their opponents, are so sensitive when other people engage in the same behavior.
So what is trolling? And why is it so dangerous? Apparently we are told that a certain political party, okay the BJP, has an army of trolls, and some of them are, gasp, followed by Narendra Modi, which is the cause of the problem. But what exactly is the problem? Is it that they are coordinating their tweets? If that is the problem, why is it not a problem when fans of stars do it or social media companies do it to promote brands? Is it that people are being paid for what they are writing on social media? Then why do journalists get paid for their work? Or is the problem that we are responsible for the tweets of the people we follow? In which case I follow Ashutosh and I shudder to think what karmic retribution that will entail in my afterlife.
The question for me is not academic. It is very personal.
Because after the session, in an after-party the next day, a very prominent journalist(The reason I do not mention her name is because I do not want this piece to be about her, but about me), who had blocked me years ago on Twitter, came walked up to me and smilingly called me a troll. Again, half-facetiously, but she did call me a troll. To my face. My reaction was to brush it off, good-humoredly, and to even engage her in conversation on other topics. Not that I could not have responded, but I have been brought up not to, not like that, when we are both guests of someone else.
So let’s go over that again. Apparently I am a troll. Now I have, in all these years that I have been online, never used gaalis, never issued threats, never been anonymous, never done paid tweets or blogs, never tweeted off a script, never worked for a political party, am not followed by Narendra Modi, and have written a number of books, good enough to warrant a session in the same lit fest where said journalist had her session.
And yet I am a troll.
So what have I done? Since 2004, when I started this blog, I have spoken up against prevalent media narratives. I have also spoken against bad movies, bad IPL selections (Mashrafe Mortaza), bad anything, and criticizing movies brings the most impassioned hateful comments (be it a Sridevi movie or a SRK), but nothing quite invites the blowback that political blogging does. Whatever I have said or written, I have done so, without getting paid and with no expectation of getting something in return. And if I had any expectations of any benefit, I must suck badly at my manipulations for I have only suffered for my opinions, and I have said all that before, so won’t repeat it again.
Once again, what have I done? I have made fun of our media mavens, just like I have made fun of many other people and Himesh Reshammiya. I have pointed out the inconsistencies in their opinions over the years and their strategic silences and equally silent volubility through screenshots, snarky tweets, and blogposts, the magnetic depolarizations of their moral compass, and the tyranny of their selective distances, and the fluidity of their ink drying up at strategic times.
Yes. Guilty on that count.
So here is the thing.
The reason I am a troll is because trolling, once you get past the hand-waving and obfuscation, is actually about criticism. No one likes criticism. Even I don’t, and yes I am talking to you, those who give one-star reviews of my books on Goodreads. The only thing is because I do not have a news channel of my own, or a program on it, or speaking privileges in Parliament, saying bad things about me is not a national emergency. But criticizing the circle of politicians and mediamen is. One has the power of the law behind them, and the other the bullying power of their bully pulpit.
If you sit through videos of Thinkfests and ThoughtConClaves, which I do from time to time, you will see a recurrent theme emerging from the public pronouncements of our media mavens, a few general talking points.
- Journalists should hold truth to power, but everyone is scared of the government and corporate interests that control the media. Everyone except me, journalist like Sekhar Suman in Tridev fighting Bhujang while “paap se dhari phaati phaati, adharm se asmaan, Arnab Goswami se kaanpi insaaniyaat, raj kar rahe hai Haiwaan”.
- People need to stop calling us “presstitutes” or “sickulars” or “Congi agents” or “anti nationals”, because not all of us are bought, some of us are guided by our conscience and by the principles of good journalism. In other words, labels are bad.
- The present government is silencing the media. Which is why journalists are scared to ask inconvenient questions.
However, when a private citizen holds truth to their power, their entire argument is flipped on its head.
- Private citizens are actually the secret arm of the government, being employed to silence the media (apparently through the simple expedient of tweeting). Even though I make crores and have an opinion show on prime time and my evenings are spend rubbing shoulders with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, I am somehow the “weak”, that needs to be protected from random people who have to stand in line for 3 hours to get a driving license.
- Labels are good. These people criticizing me are all bought, none of them are guided by their conscience or by the principles of fact-finding, but are “Bhakts”, “Internet Hindus”, “patriarchal NRIs” and that catch-all “trolls”.
- Laws need to be passed to bring these people asking me inconvenient questions, and social media platforms should take steps to ban these people from using said platforms.
One more thing that I think I might have forgotten to mention during my talk, or I might have, it’s been long. It seems that trolls have a religion, and they have a party. When Zaira Wasim, a private citizen, was mercilessly and in most vile language, abused and threatened on social media, which led to her issuing an apology for her “behavior”, no one put a religion on the supposed-trolls, because that would be absolutely politically incorrect. Unless of course you use the term “Internet Hindu”, when it becomes part of the conversational zeitgeist. As to only one political party that engages in trolling aka BJP, it only appears so to our media influencers in the English media space because of their own perception bias. Since they are usually aligned against one particular party, the anti-establishment being actually anti-one-establishment, it stands to reason that principally supporters of that party will troll them. If you are a reviewer who gives 5 stars to every Shahrukh Khan film, it is highly unlikely you will get abused by SRK-ians, and because of that you will think that all trolls are fans of Bhai.
So how do I not become a troll? I can either sit on the fence and not comment on public forums, and maintain universal likeability. I can tweet praises of their books and their coverage of political events, even when they, as a whole media group, decide to shill for Akhilesh Yadav. I can choose not to compare their fawning over political figures in softball interviews with Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan as Guddi fluttering her eyelids at Dharmendra. I can align myself exclusively with one ideological camp, which means at least one side will rally behind me, and invite me to their clique jamborees. I need to do take care as not all ideological camps are born equal. Because of the slant of English media (Hindi media is slanted to the other side), planting your post in the “liberal” (note the quotes) camp drastically reduces the chance of celebrities calling you a troll to your face in a genteel after-party.
Which means I need to work on this. Not be called a troll.
But every time I try, a voice in my head says:
Beta, tumse yeh na ho paayega.