"Every year, I have at least five fake IDs in my name."

Abuse threats violence Why social media is the devil actor Vinodhini Vaidyanathan writesScreenshot/ Youtube
Voices Social media Tuesday, April 04, 2017 - 15:51

Vinodhini Vaidyanathan

Enough has been said about how social media heralds the end of civilisation as we know it. I am sure this was the common refrain when the first vacuum tubes were invented in the 1900s, leading to the invention of the radio, television and analog computers much later.

The objection then might have been a fear of life being taken over by machines. But we’ve learned the hard way that machines pose a smaller problem when compared to the larger devil - the faceless masses that populate what is called social media (though there is really nothing sociable about it); anonymous trolls that run a sort of abuse mafia unleashing terror of the psychological kind.

Do celebrities make for soft targets?

Starting to work in mainstream cinema in 2011, I panicked the first time a fake Facebook profile was created in my name. I reported it, as did a lot of friends that I enlisted on my behalf. That account was shut down.

Every year since then, I have had at least five fake IDs in my name, the links of which are sent to me by friends who say that they had received a friend request and they were sure it wasn’t me and would I look into it. One was called “Kavitha Iyer”, another decided to call me “Yamuna Manohar”. The person who started it might have been inspired by the films in which I had acted.

Some of these profiles even add on common friends and chat with them, impersonating me. They all use photos of me that are available online, and have more “friends” in their lists than I have in my original profile.

A female friend of mine who is a popular television personality started a Twitter account. Things were going fine until some random person decided that he liked this new “Aunty” (simply because she was over 30 and married). And so he tweeted and retweeted her Twitter handle and ensured that all his sleazy friends did so, all in a matter of 24 hours, and after much mental trauma, she shut the account down. She didn’t want to be ‘trending” just because a bunch of delusional neanderthals decided that she had to.

From panicking to being completely nonchalant about fake IDs, morphed pictures and prank calls, I have come a long way. But every time an actress or a public figure or a woman is trolled, I worry.

Take for instance the actress who had to retract her original (whether her account was really hacked, one may never know) statement about jallikattu because the troll mafia decided to shower their wrath upon her - questioning her ethics, indulging in character assassination, abusing her verbally, and all because she held a view contrary to the one riding the popularity wave at that time.

Or the actress who was harassed and physically attacked in a moving vehicle, that led to the masses clamoring for videos of the attack.

A “tantalizing” offer of “leaked videos of actresses” broke the internet for a couple of days, a director who boasted of having unloaded his entire craftsmanship into his film became an object of mirth for months, an actor-politician had a 1000 memes made about him, an actor who kept mum (as he well had the right to) in a political crisis (??!!) was abused by his ‘disappointed” fans.

Or is everyone fair game?

One would suppose that only celebrities are being attacked. But I wonder if the bubble has burst.

The recent Tamil television show where girls of “marriageable age” unabashedly sought “dowry” from their own parents and the subsequent backlash they received has proven that no one is safe from online trolling.

In fact, one of the girls who appeared on the show demanding that her groom must arrive in a helicopter, mournfully admitted later that she herself had perpetrated troll memes on many occasions but that when she found herself to be at the receiving end, she was traumatized to the extent that she found it difficult to go to college and resume her regular routine.

An old bank employee counting cash painfully slowly, the innocuous middle-aged couple bathing in a river, the teenager making a dubsmash video – trolls attack everyone without bias, not just celebrities.

Also, never before has humanity been more willing to make perfect cakes of themselves by trying to find their own few moments of glory with that one video, that one selfie, that one status message that is supposed to instantly shoot them to fame. So anything that anyone might put out on the public domain can be pulled out of context and construed as funny/derogatory/insulting/whatever but above all, troll-worthy.

So is it fair to say that when people are willing enough to “go viral”, they better well be willing to become a meme? That celebrity-dom comes at a cost and one must take the bouquets with the brickbats?

But we forget - today it is someone else who is being trolled, abused, receiving a rape threat, tomorrow it may be me, and the next you.

And then who is to blame, once the damage is done? When a slur on your character is made, that can’t be revoked, when your friends call you up to tell you not to go online because you are suddenly “trending” for all the wrong reasons, the way in which people will nudge each other and point at you in public spaces, feeling fake sympathy for you but all the while telling themselves that there is “no smoke without fire”. And feeling mighty relieved that it is not them in your shoes.

What do we do?

So should celebrities avoid social media if they want to feel safe? Is shutting off one’s Facebook or Twitter account the only solution? Or alternately, shutting down the abusive profiles? But the monster is huge and invisible. You shut down a few, hundreds will crop up.

I feel that we are just scratching the surface when we try to tackle this demon. The violence in thought and speech that is expressed online is the effect of a much deeper disease that lies closer home. Our social media personas only reflect what we are in reality.

And what are we but commodified products of a consumerist capitalistic state that really has no interest in our physical or mental well-being. We are dehumanized at every step, right from being a roll number in school to an ID number in an office, a tax-paying statistic to the government and the enmeshed funding corporates.

And in this sick scenario, actors, musicians, writers or other people in the public eye are more dehumanized than most, perceived by the public as mere commodities who can be stared at, judged, possessed, and abused if they don’t uniformly please.

I was at a store the other day and heard two people talking right in front of me, a few feet away: “She’s that lady who comes as the Inspector in Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam”. I went up to them and said, “Hi, I can hear you”. They didn’t have the grace to even blush. Instead, they grinned and said, “You know, you look much fatter on screen”.

Or the time I was stepping off the airport and a guy just in front of me, waiting to pick up his luggage, very coolly took a selfie with himself in the foreground and me in the background. I might well have been the Eiffel Tower, for all he cared.

What gives a set of complete strangers the idea that an actor is someone who is not even a person, let alone a woman, but some two dimensional walking, talking bot that is there just to entertain them? Or respond to their inanities?

No wonder then that most actors/actresses I work with, including myself, when shooting in public places, avoid the public altogether, shutting ourselves off in our caravans or turning thankfully to our phones in between shots. Because who knows when a “fan” might decide that your polite smile at him/her is an invitation to chat/stroke your skin/pinch/hit you/harass you/all of these.

And there are those who feel enraged because sometimes, just maybe sometimes, (being a human, you see) a person in the public eye is tired and has to shut down the public persona. Then all hell breaks loose because - how dare they, their favourite celebrity, not smile and laugh and be charming always? As expected of a puppet or a toy?

Putting the ‘civil’ back in civilisation

But is all this even surprising? Our cinema (which is really the only thing that the tens of thousands of unemployed, or I should say, unemployable, youth in Tamil Nadu really care about) is caught up in its own economics and commercial successes to really care about the larger mess that the world is in.

Our mainstream films glorify violence, misogyny and perversion, perpetrate patriarchy and heteronormative values, objectify women and stereotype gender roles. It’s a vicious cycle.

Our children prefer gadgets and passive entertainment to literature, there are not enough public spaces to engage in “tea kadai” dialogue like in the ‘70s and ‘80s anymore, there is no incentive or support for youngsters to pursue sports or the performing arts, nepotism in every field is rampant and there are very few schools that are committed to character building.

I keep telling people that Mark Zuckerberg (and not Hitler) is the real anti-Christ. People think I am joking. Maybe I am. But, the day is not far off when the evils of social media will far outweigh the positives, when people will find that connections come at the cost of loss of dignity and peace, that we are simply inside a web of apathy, that seemingly connects but only separates us more and more.

But until then, we simply can’t take the trolls lying down. Each of us has a duty to the other, whether it is your colleague at work or a friend or a celebrity, to raise a voice wherever unjust trolling is done, refuse to cooperate with it oneself, report abuse, educate our young, tackle the demon, one step at a time, doing whatever it takes, in the hope that some time in the future, we will put the civil back in civilisation.

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