Twitter is the fast lane on the information highway, sending data across the world — 140 characters at a time — way quicker than the speed of thought. These days, people tweet more frequently than they think, and most of us, let’s face it, don’t think before we tweet. Cole Porter’s words in Anything Goes, written in the 1930s, may have lost their Jazz-Age sheen, but by no means has their relevance been lost to our world today:

“If driving fast cars you like,

If low bars you like,

If old hymns you like,

If Mae West you like,

Or me undressed you like,

Just tweet about it.”

Actually, that last line doesn’t come from Porter, but the point here is that it could well have. Consider also Porter’s extremely prescient use of, and repeated emphasis on, the word “like” — perhaps the best-known and most-used word in our Internet era. A word most used though least understood, hollowed out of all its actual meanings. On the contrary, there’s another word — a near opposite of like — that seems to be doing just fine; kept alive and afloat in the virtual firmament by a wide cross section of dedicated internet trolls. Replace every “like” in the verse quoted above with “hate” and you’ll be much closer to capturing the spirit of the Twittersphere or Twitterverse (both these terms, by the way, have long been inducted in the Oxford English Dictionary).

On Twitter, trolling is passé both as concept and practice. It belongs to the forgotten past, of dialup modems and internet forums. There was an endearing quality to an internet troll of yore, which his modern counterpart — a humourless, snarling malcontent — can never match. While trolling once meant poking fun at an unfortunate target, in its contemporary form it has gained in magnitude and has grown the claws and wings of full-scale abuse.

Examples abound. It’s likely that past victims of Twitter abuse are now posting on your timeline, or even more likely that they have stopped posting there. A case in point is the British comedian and actor Stephen Fry, who was among Twitter’s first grand celebrity hauls, and who still boasts over 10 million Twitter followers (that’s seven million more than President Obama), being hounded by relentless abuse on Twitter. “Think I may have to give up on Twitter,” Fry wrote on his timeline in October 2009, “Too much aggression and unkindness around. Pity. Well, it’s been fun.” Fry’s Twitter holiday turned out to be just that — a holiday. He was soon back and it was thanks in part to Twitter’s own security enhancement tools that the tech firm had made available to its users.

But Fry or no Fry, the hate machine continues its churn on Twitter: mudslinging campaigns, threat messages and personal abuse are rampant on the social media platform. The most recent case in India was that of the television actress Shruti Seth. The backlash followed Seth’s comment on the government’s #SelfieWithDaughter campaign, which didn’t impress her. “Men and women alike said the most vile things about me, stripping me of all my dignity as someone’s daughter, wife and mother, and most importantly a woman,” she wrote in an open letter, titled “A little note to India”, which she posted after being subjected to a barrage of abuse on Twitter. This was her way, she later said, of facing down the haters. “I have been on Twitter for quite a few years and it was never this ugly. Thankfully, there’s this beautiful option of hitting the word ‘BLOCK’,” Seth told Guardian20 in a telephonic interview.

Seth’s open letter is not so much a clarification or assertion of a political line as an eloquent statement of resistance. It was a pledge she took with herself after the fact — to not stand such abuse whether it comes online or in the real world. “I thought if I stay quiet now,” she said, “I may just perpetuate it. I said no! I won’t stand this. No matter how mild the abuse, no matter how easily it can be dealt with. I decided to tell those guys that I won’t take their abuse, and that they have no right to say these things to me. Which is why I lashed out.”

One is reminded of a phrase the American writer Joyce Carol Oates — another victim of Twitter abuse — used in this context. In an interview with Salon magazine, Oates invoked the phrase “lynch mob” in relation to the hostile strain of discourse that runs through social media today. Oates talked of “the sort of lynch mob mentality among some people on Twitter and they rush after somebody — they rush in this direction; they rush over there; they’re kind of rushing around the landscape of news — and this goes on a lot on Twitter”.

Some may call this an overstatement. We all understand the import of a lynch-mob mentality; we know that a lynch mob is after ultimate goals — it disperses into a crowd of human individuals only after extinguishing a life. But online abuse doesn’t take such extreme — or “concrete”, in legal speak — forms often (although it does so more often than it should). There’s something more subtle at play here, a quieter impulse. Shruti Seth talked about “the sense of power” a person must feel after abusing public figures and celebrities on Twitter. “Those people must be thinking, why should I not use this power to make this person — his target — feel that she is just as mortal as he is, you know? People get a kick out of it. It’s the kind of thing you use to give your ego a massage. But frankly, I’d like to tell them, there are much nicer ways to feel good about yourself.”

When we call the internet the virtual world, we’re suggesting segregation between the online and “offline” spheres within which we spend most of our days. But in dealing with cases of internet abuse, such theories of segmentation don’t help the cause. Indeed, they seem to make the case for the perpetrators, many of who clearly believe that abuses hurled at someone on social media can’t be equated with real-life aspersions cast from, say, a street corner. But now, as our virtual and real personas coalesce more and more, it’s becoming an established fact that online abuse can indeed cause real trauma.

The hate machine continues its churn on Twitter: mudslinging campaigns, threat messages and personal abuse are rampant on the social media platform. The most recent case in India was that of the television actress Shruti Seth. The backlash followed Seth’s comment on the government’s #SelfieWithDaughter campaign, which didn’t impress her.

Dr Anya Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project has spent years researching the subject of online abuse, and, as she told Guardian20, she herself has been at the receiving end a number of times. “I mean, I get comments every now and then. But never anything severe,” she said. Kovacs has published some highly detailed studies on the phenomenon of “hate speech” on the internet and has suggested in her paper ways of “battling” internet abuse while protecting an individual’s right to free expression. According to her, regulating the internet is not an option so much as implementing the credo of self-regulation is. “You know, part of the solution to this problem is going to be every single one of us. As a society, we have to take a stand against it. Actually, big politicians, religious leaders should come out and say that it’s not okay to abuse women online,” Kovacs said.

As an example of how the community itself can address the problem of internet abuse, Kovacs cited the name of a popular application called “Block Together”. It’s an innovative platform that allows users to not just block an errant Twitter handle, but also to have their own community of followers block that same offender. A form of social media ostracism. “This app lets you block those handles that are known to be harassers. You then spread the word around, and have other people on Twitter block that particular account. This ensures that these handles don’t get enough traction,” Kovacs said. 

The word “regulation” has to be used with much caution in this context. The internet is useful so long as it remains free. And the recent squashing of the notorious Section 66(A) of the IT Act by the Supreme Court of India was seen by the online community as a minor victory over censorship. So whenever one starts thinking of regulating the Internet — even if only those corridors of freewheeling abuse that run through this massive structure — it triggers some very sour memories indeed. The fight for a free internet is being fought the world over and it is perhaps the defining struggle of our generation.

So when we asked Dr Kovacs whether regulating the net can be a solution, it was a relief to hear her respond thus: “The question is, does it need to be regulated? I know a lot of people immediately say regulation. We need to take a step back, though. If you want to have a democratic society, you need to have a fairly high threshold before something can be criminalised.” And so, online threats that are concrete and immediate may need to be acted upon. But if we’re being called names or made fun of, it may be a good idea to just ignore the offending remarks, or may be sign up for “Block Together”.

Parody, of course, is the lifeblood of the internet. Where would we be without those Bruce Wayne memes (clearly offensive to Bruce Wayne) or those trolling sessions that invariably ended with “owning” (later more esoterically called “pwning”) the poseurs? The undisputed master of parody on Twitter as of now is a handle called @RushdieExplains. The account is famed for its 140-character-long putdowns of a political nature. A recent sample, alluding to the so-called Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh: “You can’t name a state Madhya Pradesh and expect it not to teem with middlemen.” This is good stuff; this is politically aware, incisive, old-school internet humour.

This Twitter handle, with over 29,000 followers, is run by Rohit Chopra, who teaches media at the Santa Clara University in California. I reached out to him through email to ask about the thin line that runs between parody and insult, and how he manages to negotiate it. “One of my rules,” Chopra wrote to me, “is that parody, satire or critique should not be aimed at the vulnerable in any way. I have generally directed my satire at people who are powerful, self-important, and more often than not quite pompous. A second rule I follow is not to direct any satire at the family members of people I satirise. I think following these two principles ensures that the line between parody and insult is not crossed.”

Chopra believes that “nastiness online predates social media” platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “Unfortunately, it’s been part of the history of the internet, at least since the development and spread of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. To some extent, interactions on social media conform to patterns seen in this longer history. Seen, for example, in the fact that women disproportionately bear the brunt of online abuse. And the protections are not strong or effective enough.”

The onus also lies on the giant corporate firms — this oligopoly of IT business houses straddling the internet — to tweak their platforms for a more secure and civilised online user experience. When asked this, Chopra replied with a note of circumspection: “The firms will not regulate themselves adequately. We know that from a long history of companies resisting regulations, whether seat belts or tobacco warnings. But they can certainly do a lot more, like creating effective teams dedicated to proactively addressing online abuse, responding quickly and working with law enforcement. At the same time, enforcing laws is a challenge, and governments are tempted to use any opportunity they get to impose laws that can be draconian and susceptible to abuse. We saw this with the Section 66(A). I think stronger punishments for clear threats are warranted, though.”

In conclusion, Chopra talked about the need for a positive cultural change that has to spill over into the online space. In this he echoes Dr Kovacs’ statement above, when she said that every single internet user is part of the overall solution to the menace of online abuse. Change comes from within, goes the sanctimonious line. Yet to understand online abuse, we have no choice but to look within our minds. And so, curious for answers, we now turn to the science of psychiatry.

Dr Samir Parikh is the director and HoD of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare. During our brief conversation with him — psychiatrists are busy men — we repeatedly posed the question “why”. Why are people able to express the vilest of sentiments so easily online? And why now, when they don’t even have the cover of privacy to protect them? Dr Parikh began with the very basics: “What has changed over the years is that a lot of our communication now happens on social media. So rather than being face to face with someone, you’re communicating through your smartphone or computer, and not necessarily facing the person nor likely to be confronted by him or her. So what happens is that something you would earlier have hesitated to say or do face to face — since the person would have rejected it or counter charged you with something — you now would do so on social media. It’s almost a variant of being anonymous. An indirect form of anonymity.”

In other words, physical distance from the target of abuse always helps the abuser. And finding other people who are willing to head in the same direction makes the going even better, “reinforcing” (in Dr Parikh’s words) the original impulse to revile someone evidently vulnerable. Thus we explain the genesis of the “lynch-mob mentality” that Joyce Carol Oates identified in some Twitter users.

Dr Parikh, too, was unequivocal in his belief that regulating online abuse isn’t just a bad idea, but also an impossible task to carry out effectively. “There is no way to regulate it, unless we start becoming responsible,” he said. “I think we talk way too much about how things can be regulated but if the society doesn’t want to regulate itself, there is no end to it. A lot of it has to do with responsibility. With self-regulation.”

We finally ran some of these explanations — these theories, these prescriptions, these visions of a responsible society — by the TV actress Shruti Seth. Having faced the worst that the online world has to offer, where did she now stand in this ongoing debate about internet regulation and free speech? “I am a huge exponent of free speech. I think nobody should be able to decide what I can or cannot say. Since people are allowed to voice their opinions so vociferously and easily on the social media, we’re also learning how to be offended very easily,” she said. To hear this was heartening. If only your average Twitter user was as sensible, the Twitterverse would not have become such a dark, hostile and lonely place.

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