It is too much of a coincidence. Mid May 2016, Co-Founder and Executive Co-Chairperson of the tainted NDTV, Prannoy Roy asked a question to Arun Jaitley, asking whether ‘disgusting toxic trolls’ could be controlled. Around the same time, NDTV journalist Sunetra Choudhury cooked up a quote claiming it was said by Maneka Gandhi:
It seems the statement which was never said then, has eventually been said by Maneka Gandhi. The Women and Child Development minister has come up with a plan which would put most hare-brained schemes to shame:
Are you a woman who is trolled or abused? Inform me at email@example.com.
— Maneka Gandhi (@Manekagandhibjp) July 5, 2016
And if media sources are to be believed, this is also in the works:
Menaka Gandhi constitutes separate cell in her ministry to check trolls menace
— IndiaTodayFLASH (@IndiaTodayFLASH) July 8, 2016
Yes Maneka Gandhi wants to take it upon herself and her ministry to clean the internet of “trolls and abusers”. Now this is not a clear cut bad idea from the word go. But, it does exhibit a poor understanding of how things work online.
There is no denying that a section of people use social media to post abusive messages, issue threats, engage in defamation, indulge in targetted harassment, and even cyber-stalking of women. But the problem here is clubbing “trolls” with these offenders, by simple calling them “abusers”.
Trolling is a very vague term. A user saying “Lol loser” can be called a troll, so also a person who calls out bunkum of another user (often a “celebrity”) can also be a troll. A troll can also be someone who cracks jokes on some celebrity online, possibly by tagging that person. Yes, most of our stand-up comics can be called trolls and even the comics from older generation like Johnny Lever and Raju Srivastava would also fit in this definition of trolls, for spoofing so many celebrities (although their medium is different and there is no way of “tagging” the target).
“RealHistoryPic” is a popular troll account on Twitter. It has targetted many celebrities humorously in the past. In the above image, the target of “trolling” is a woman. Further, the Delhi CM and AAP Supremo Arvind Kejriwal has Re-tweeted the above tweet. So are the Troll Account and the Delhi CM indulging in trolling a woman? Is this “being mean“?
Is this the kind of “trolling” which will be targeted by Maneka Gandhi? In her tweet she makes it clear that she is only here to serve women being trolled, by virtue of being the WCD Minister. So if a female celebrity, puts up something wrong or some other reader objects to what is posted, and decides to voice his opinion freely, is he a troll? Is a Central Government ministry actually so jobless to go behind such people? Well, that is the fear that has been created online. Many are already likening this move to a back-door entry to the draconian Section 66A which as wielded by UPA.
Even the “abusers” category can be argued upon. Ideally abusive language should not be used on a public forum, online or offline, but can it be covered under “freedom of expression”? Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago when we were arguing that abuses in Udta Punjab should not be censored? Or a year ago when the AIB roast was attacked for being, among other things, abusive? Is Maneka Gandhi going to tutor mature adults on how they should speak on social media? Is this the mandate of a WCD Minister? Or is this some cultural regimentation?
And why is the WCD Minister trying to re-invent the wheel? Social media already has enough inbuilt tools to deal with “trolls” as described above, or the abusive lot. On Twitter for example, at first you can “Mute” an account, hiding all its activity from you. Next you can “Block” the account, denying that person access to your account. You can go one step ahead and even “Report” the user to Twitter for being “abusive or harmful”. These 3 steps are good enough to take care of the above cases.
Where Maneka Gandhi needs to focus instead is real crimes happening on social media. A threat to a person in real life counts as a crime. Logically this should extend to social media as well. But here the system fails. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have no mechanisms to take action against people who threaten with a crime. Sure they could suspend the account, but they can do nothing to ensure a crime doesn’t take place. Obviously, they are not expected to do so and here the law enforcement agencies step in. Unfortunately, the local police station also may not be of much help. Cops are often misogynistic, and to add to this, technologically illiterate. Explaining and convincing them about a threat on social media to a woman could be a herculean task.
THIS is exactly where WCD Ministry should step in. Credible threats of violence, especially against women, need to be addressed as soon as possible. Any ministry is well within its rights to act against a crime or the possibility of occurrence of a crime. A very simple thing which the ministry can do is educate and empower the local police stations on this issue. Have a system to monitor these cases. As soon as a woman feels threatened online, she should be able to take up the matter with the WCD, which can judge whether the complaint is reasonable, and then get on to work to coordinate with police and trace the criminal.
This of course needs real work to be done on the ground, unlike a cozy meeting with Twitter honchos in an AC cabin.
Fortunately, Maneka Gandhi seems to have begun to realise the errors of her ideas. There has been some back-tracking and this has been made clear via some tweets from her account. She claims that the internet will not be “patrolled” but only complains received from women via emails will be taken up. The key words used are “abusive behaviour”, “harassment” and “hateful conduct”. But then she also claims that “all trolling” and usage of “abusive language” is wrong, ending with a sermon that we should not be mean on social media. One hopes this article criticising her is not considered “mean” and we aren’t booked for “trolling”