Note: Some of the abuse examples may be offensive/disturbing to the reader
The BBC published an article titled ‘Why are Indian women being attacked on Social Media?‘ It featured television anchor Sagarika Ghose, politician Kavita Krishnan of the CPI (ML), and poet/activist Meena Kandaswamy. Having interviewed them, it seemingly drew the conclusion (voiced by Ms.Ghose) that women abused on Twitter in India tended to be “liberal and secular”, while the abusers were mainly “right wing” males. The article was slammed in various quarters for being sub-standard, partisan and reliant on unverified opinion. Blogger Sunanda Vashishta was upset enough to write a rebuttal titled ‘When it comes to online abuse, some victims don’t matter to BBC!’ She argued that cyber stalking and bullying of women was a reality for women across the ideological spectrum, and that the bullies had no ideology. She gave many examples to prove her point.
The debate that ensued highlighted once again the problem of online abuse. As discussion on the issue continues, it may be worthwhile to briefly examine the concept of abuse, and understand why people choose to abuse online. The aforementioned BBC article vaguely pinned the blame on a view that a “patriarchal mindset has pervaded the internet space”. However, given that online abuse is not merely an Indian preserve, it stands to reason that there is more to the issue.
Let us begin by understanding the word abuse. The term has been variously defined as the use of something for a bad purpose, an attempt to control the behaviour of another person, and the misuse of power. It could include the use of offensive language, humiliation, intimidation, threats of violence, making of false accusations, defamation and harassment.
Psychological reasons for online abuse:
One major factor in the prevalence of abuse online is disinhibition. The term refers to a state where people online shed the restrictions, which they would normally apply in regular face-to-face interactions in the real world. There are many reasons why people are less inhibited online. Psychologist John Suler enumerated them in his paper, The Psychology of Cyberspace.
The internet allows people to be anonymous. We may interact daily with a lot of people, but they don’t really know us. The amount of information available to them is strictly controlled, and they usually have no way of reaching us. This is especially true for those who use anonymous identities.
There is also a sense of being invisible. One may see a person’s real photo, but that is a very small window into his or her real world. This allows people to have online avatars that are older, younger, brighter, bolder and someone completely different from their offline self.
Then there is an advantage of delay on social media. We have the ability to post something at will, but there is no corresponding need to respond immediately, or in fact reply at all. Hence, the ball is always in our court, which is unlike interactions in the real world, where one usually needs to respond and close conversations. This benefit often allows people to do an emotional equivalent of a hit and run.
Besides, the virtual world is one of make belief to a large extent. Hence, it is very easy for people to delude themselves by thinking “this is a different world; therefore the rules that apply in my real world don’t apply here”.
Finally, in the real world, we are usually polite and try not to offend others, even if that means playacting a role sometimes. Not doing so would have consequences. We could get into fights with our neighbors, family members, employers or co-workers, and create unpleasantness and complications in our daily life. In the virtual world, the consequences of bad behaviour are often negligible.
Practical reasons for online abuse
Apart from the psychological reasons, abuse can also be a part of a calculated strategy. Twitter for instance is a battleground for winning mind space and perception. This battle can be fought on many levels, through various ways. Some examples of kosher, non-abusive ways include:
(i) Expressing strong opinions
(ii) Sharing information or links that support ones point of view
(iii) Rebutting statements or allegations with facts
(iv) Using equivalence to state a view or dilute an issue.
(v) Using sarcasm to make a point
(vi) Embroiling opponent in pointless arguments so that main issue gets obfuscated
In addition to the abovementioned methods, there is a time-tested tactic of wearing down or repulsing the opposition by bullying though abuse. While this strategy is also used in the real world, due to disinhibition it is more potent & used more frequently online.
Common practices of abuse include use of derogatory language, making vicious personal statements, character assassinations, posting untrue information in order to damage credibility, persistent trolling, and making direct threats of violence to a person or their loved ones. Here are some examples of abuse:
(i). Derogatory personal statements:
(ii). Making baseless allegations or spreading malicious mis-information:
This is the type of reaction that came in as Sunil Tripathi’s name was mistakenly linked to the Boston bombing-
This is what emerged later-
(iii). Harassment & bullying through persistent trolling
(iv). Making threats of violence to a person
(v). Riling people by making insulting comments that hurt their religious sentiments
As it has been demonstrated in an earlier section, there are a lot of appropriate, aggressive strategies to counter people. It is therefore unfortunate when people choose abuse as a way to shut down opposing views. Mature arguments are about giving as well as one gets, in a smart, effective, incisive manner. When abuse creeps in to the discourse, it indicates frustration. For a sore loser, it is tempting to slide into a petulant, juvenile, name-calling mode, once his or her arguments have failed. In the end, abuse is a sad comment on the failure of the abuser and not the victim. However, it should be noted that this kind of behaviour is visible on all sides of the political spectrum. BBC’s article implying that it was the preserve of one side is a deliberate misrepresentation.