Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury writes on internet trolling

Jessica Laney, 16, was found hanged at her home in Hudson, Florida on a Sunday of December 2012. Friends say she suffered constant abuse from online bullies and ‘was pushed to the point where she couldn’t handle it anymore’, which her social media notes also testify. There were nine teenage suicides in 2012 in US which were linked to cyber-bullying on social network Ask.fm. In April, 2017, Arjun Bhardwaj, a Mumbai guy, suffering from depression due to cyber-bullying, committed suicide by jumping off the Mumbai’s Taj Hotel. Just before he attempted suicide, he went live on Facebook, recording a “tutorial about how to (commit) suicide”.

Recently the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has been the subject of offensive tweet-trolling following a passport row involving an interfaith couple. This comes after several years of sinister trolling of many opposition political activists, and lady journalists, specially Rana Ayub and Barkha Dutt, by the RW trolls; and of Smriti Irani from the other side.

TROLLING DEFINED: Its Myriad Forms:

Wikipedia defines trolling as:

“Someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

A troll will use shock value to promote arguments in conversations, commonly in Facebook threads and in public online discussions like Twitter. Named after the wicked troll creatures of children’s tales, an internet troll is someone who stirs up drama and abuses their online anonymity by purposely sowing hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny, or just simple bickering between others. Trolls like a big audience, so they frequent blog sites, news sites, discussion forums, and game chat.

The Sad Truths of Internet Trolls:

A study published by the University of Manitoba, in Canada, found trolls exhibit the personality traits of narcissists, psychopaths and sadists – taking pleasure in the suffering of others and lacking remorse or empathy for their victims. They have socio-pathic tendencies, and accordingly, they delight in other people having hurt feelings. Trolls, in general, consider themselves separate from the social order. They do not abide by etiquette or the rules of common courtesy. The only way to deal with an online troll is to ignore him or take away his ability to post online.

Every internet troll has a different back-story and therefore different reasons for feeling the need to troll a community or an individual on the internet. They may feel depressed, attention-starved, angry, sad, jealous, narcissistic or some other emotion. There can be paid trolling also from organized forces. What makes trolling so easy is that anyone can do it, and it can be done from a safe, isolated place behind a keyboard, as opposed to interacting with others in person. Trolling makes a lot of cowardly people feel stronger. It is a kind of power rush or ego trip to be a troll.

How to Combat Trolling? 

You cannot win with a troll. There are only 3 reliable ways to deal with trolls, all of which focus on removing their audience, removing their power, and depriving them of the attention they seek. For a casual or emergent online troll: completely ignore the person’s postings. While it is difficult for most users to let a troll have the last word, this tactic successfully takes the wind out of a casual troll’s sails. For repeating troll offenders: report them to the moderators of the system. If enough people report the toll, this will often prompt the moderators to take action. This will commonly mean that the troll is kicked from the system, or blocked by IP address. Even better is when the troll is allowed to continue posting, but all of his postings are deleted from everyone else’s view.

STATE Sponsored Trolling: 

report by the human rights lawyer Carly Nyst and Oxford University researcher Nick Monaco is an early attempt to study the phenomenon of state-sponsored trolling, or the digital harassment of regime critics. Thousands of social network accounts, both operated by humans and by bots, are used to amplify the attack on a person who dares to criticize a regime or a political figure. Invariably, the person is accused of being a foreign agent and a traitor. In the less authoritarian states, where voting is still meaningful, trolling operations often grow out of election campaigns. In India, leading parties maintain an “information technology cell,” with thousands of members who receive daily instructions on what topics to promote and whom to gang up on.

It’s difficult to understand why social media platforms do little, if anything, to stop the trolling campaigns. Twitter and Facebook will remove posts and comments containing death and rape threats, but not insults, treason accusations or suggestions that a journalist is on a hostile spy agency’s payroll. The more useful thing would be to empower the targets of abuse campaigns. For example, flagging a dozen similar abusive comments should result in special attention from the network. Users should also be able to turn off comments to specific posts and temporarily disable tagging, otherwise it’s too easy for trolls to take over a feed.

LEGAL Framework & Trolling: 

In India, Section 66A of The IT Act, 2000, notes that any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device, any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine. Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 was enacted to be a anti-stalking, anti-phishing and anti-spamming provision, today looks vague, ambiguous, easily abused and altered. If the troll writes something which is not offensive or the police feels so that it is not offensive, then Section 66A would not be applied.

The newly added Section 354A(iv) of the Indian Penal Code(IPC) says if any man (while trolling also) makes a “sexually  colored  remark” would be guilty of sexual harassment. He shall be punished with imprisonment of one year, or with fine, or both.

Trolling is the subset of crime of Online Abuse. Even though some may argue trolling is not a pure crime but the fine line coupled with consequences like drawing the victims to suicide due to the comments by trolls sometimes make it a grievous offence. Netizens’ need to understand and learn that the anonymity with which they do trolling can be detected and law when catches up, will only see them behind the bars.

Also, much of the media coverage about cyber bullying and suicide-related behaviour is focused on blame and criminal justice intervention rather than evidence-based, action-oriented prevention. Increased awareness about what we know, and what information is most helpful and applicable to prevent suicides is crucial to schools’ efforts to protect students from harm.

The final critical thing which needs to be done is that parents, guardians, teachers and friends need to take more responsibility to protect individuals who are young (and vulnerable) to ensure that they do not receive any abuse. Parents must accept that technology is here to stay and you cannot blame technology if something goes wrong with your child’s mental health; a parent needs to understand technology and if necessary engage your teenager through technology if they will not sit down and talk to you.

The author is the School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai; and former Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities. 

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