Dealing With Trolls and Other Beastly Tales From the Online World

The abuse on the internet often provides politicians an excuse to bring in stringent laws that can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression

Shaming film actor Anushka Sharma was par for the course for the mobs who now sadly dominate popular “discourse” in the country. Trolling, abusing, assaulting – all of these are elements of this morbid mainstream discourse today. Is this a case of real life aping remarks or remarks reflecting harsh reality? Which ever it may be, the mobs that descended to shame Anushka after Virat Kohli’s big victory against Australia in the recently concluded T20 World Cup were merciless.

Kohli couldn’t stay mum over the risible display of misogyny that seems to have mushroomed into a national pastime. His outburst on Instagram and Twitter was a slap in the face of those who call themselves cricket buffs but who are neither sporting not gentlemanly.

It’s not often that those at the receiving end are able to retaliate in the manner that Kohli did. Many celebrity, victims of trolling have even ended up deleting their Twitter accounts and given up on social media entirely. Spirited defences of the Kohli kind are a rarity. The classic admonition of those attacked on social media after all, has been “do not feed the trolls”. But Kohli is fortunately made of sterner stuff.

The Anushka-Virat episode had barely faded from public memory when actor Hrithik Roshan was next in the eye of a new storm regarding a public spat with his ex, Kangana Ranaut amid a flurry of legal notices. Hrithik upset a section of Christians with his now infamous tweet in which he denied his affair with Kangana but with a referemce to the Pope. So the Christian Secular Forum and its adherents sent a notice, demanding an apology from the actor for “insulting” the Pope.

For now the troll armies are lurking in their subterranean depths, waiting to emerge and attack their next victim for no ostensible reason other than that is what they do. Their existence seems to be solely for the purpose of upsetting others and causing negative reactions. The normal response would be to simply ignore them. That often works but anonymity often emboldens them to return to the battle. It’s the nature of this ugly new beast we have, in recent years, unleashed.


Attacking high-profile victims, especially women, is done with a motive of attention-seeking and unfortunately, very often, is also simply a kind of pleasure seeking. Many trolls, especially those not “professionally hired”, tend to take delight in what is often termed as vicarious sadism.

It is often argued that the social media and patterns of internet usage are merely extensions of what people do or would like to do in their real lives. Judging by the relative lack of repercussions for troll behavior, and the increasing realization that there are many like themselves, internet trolls are always ready to give vent to their instincts for bullying. Blocking works as a temporary deterrent. There are always others waiting in the wings.

In India, media stars, public figures and politicians have discovered that the phenomenon of abuse has got worse. The tone and tenor of political debate witnessed these days on social media is vituperative, with passionate armies of supporters of parties such as the BJP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party crossing, at various times, all bounds of normal behavior to demonize rivals and promote their own.

Political trolling is very often a paid-for activity. Global studies have shown that most troll packs spend more than two to three hours a day only commenting on others’ posts. Commenting, often viciously, is obviously much easier than creating. Creative content – even if it is pathetically imitative, flattering or merely fantastic – needs more work. Sadistic hate trolls display far greater imagination but are also slavishly imitative.

Troll activity is not confined to any one sex. But in general they are more likely, say the few academic studies available, to be young, male and, more dangerously, individuals with a tendency to be sadistic. Security agencies and those concerned with societal health need to be alert to troll attackers, who unleash from multiple accounts and could be deranged in real life too.

But trolling is also provides a ready made excuse to politicians seeking to bring in laws to ostensibly curb misconduct in cyberspace. New Zealand has just enacted an anti-trolling law, under which trolls can face up to two years of jail time. If it does deter them, then this type of law, combined with a world where Aadhar and a host of other similar pesky systems peer into your online persona, may eventually raise the bar on vicious online bully troops as other countries try to end cyber bullying of the troll variety.

Section 66A coming back?

The attempt to amend the Information Technology Act by the UPA government with the passage of the draconian Section 66 A was luckily shot down by the Supreme Court as “unconstitutional”. Even the New Zealand law has raised concerns that it is a threat to free speech. Similarly there is speculation the Narendra Modi government is working on a way to sneak around Section 66A. If that happens, it will no doubt be rushed through the backdoor in the guise of keeping the citizenry safe from internet offenders. Actions of wild troll armies give ammunition to wily politicians to enact draconian laws that curb our fundamental rights. Will more responsible Netizens now get together to ensure that these freedoms are not snatched away?

Policymaking by stealth in any area is fraught with pitfalls that eventually balloon into road bumps to citizen comfort. Netizens rejoiced when the Supreme Court struck down the previous attempt to foist unacceptable levels of control via Article 66A. Similar are again currently on in the same direction. Banning hurtful hate speech may be, at best, a societal delight but it’s not one that merits harsh laws that eventually curb free speech, a precious democratic right.

Dilip Cherian is Founding Partner at Perfect Relations and a columnist