The new democratic space is being overrun by a viciousness which threatens its very nature.
Social media, if anything, is the largest amplifier on earth. It can take the softest of whispers and magnify its acoustics to reverberate all over the world. Not yet a teenager, social media is now punching well above its weight as one of the most important influences in the world. Unlike traditional media, where there are known gatekeepers of information and its flows, there is no such structure in social media. It is impossible to predict which voice, when, how, where and by whom will be amplified, becoming powerful in ways which bewilder everyone.
What has not been acknowledged enough, beyond individual cases, is how social media is amplifying regressive and oppressive voices and making it easy to get away with violence. Prejudice and hate are becoming ever more pervasive on social media. False pictures and news are circulated to whip up violence in the real world, as we have seen in India many times in the past few years. People who express dissenting views are often the target of unimaginably vile abuse and threats. For those who have not seen this with their own eyes, it may appear surreal, but graphic threats of rape, physical attacks on the person and her/his family, the most filthy abuse, circulation of morphed pictures of the person under attack, etc, are all too common. When hundreds of people, sometimes thousands, participate in such attacks, the consequences go beyond merely attacking freedom of expression. It can damage the person so attacked, have a chilling effect on participation by others and can be a real threat to life and liberty too.
Women face the brunt of such attacks given how deep-rooted patriarchy is in our societies. However, whether men or women, people become victims when they are seen to question, subvert or challenge entrenched structures of power, the dominant social and cultural institutions, the hegemonic race or caste, or even popular clubs, personages and political parties.
By now there is a fair recognition that social media—the ability of a person with an internet connection to communicate with other people all over the world and share not just words but pictures and videos—has radically changed the way people interact and the way politics and markets work. Sometimes it has been compared to a radically new public sphere which is truly global, drawing in people across countries and languages into one conversation.
Who are these people—trolls—who abuse others on social media? A large number of them seem to be regular men (and some women too) who come face to face with strong contrary opinions for the first time. Unlike newspapers, magazines and television channels, where access to opinions and personages are mediated and at a remove, social media provides direct and immediate access. A person may mutter in anger while reading an aggravating opinion in the newspaper, but on social media he can immediately direct his anger towards the one giving the offensive opinion; and the simplicity of social media encourages this.
While there is this sociological foundation to such anger and its expression as abuse and threats of violence, what is even more dangerous is its deliberate cultivation by right-wing political organisations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s troll army, which attacked people opposing him on social media and amplified his propaganda in the run-up to last year’s general elections, is perhaps the best example in India. His election campaign depended heavily on this troll army “spreading his message” and “dominating the social media discourse” by shutting down opposing voices through abuse and vilification. While Narendra Modi’s campaign was the first to use this in India, such tactics are common in most countries.
Such methods do not even need deliberate organisational backing anymore; the lessons of organised trolling have been learnt and now troll armies gather to abuse and attack anyone who questions entrenched power and privilege. This is today reaching proportions where it spreads fear among people about expressing opinion on social media. It appears that the right wing—the defenders of entrenched power and privilege—has recovered from their initial defeats that social media inflicted on them. States and internet companies which run social media did not take social media abuse seriously when it was still a manageable problem. Today it has perhaps become too big to break and has embedded itself into a common sense of the right wing, so that it does not even need organised efforts to strike down dissenting voices.
Social media abuse is not a law and order problem. It is the political voice of everything that is oppressive and exploitative and its agenda is to degrade the democratic potential of social media till it is reduced to banal exchange of dinner recipes and cat pictures.