Humans, not technology, can be bilious

Why blame Twitter for our arrogance ignorance and stupidity
Voices Opinion Monday, July 18, 2016 - 08:55

So some very vocal people in India are deeply disturbed about abuse and threats on twitter. From the left to the right and in between the drift is uniform. Every day brings a new invective, new scatological descriptions and body shaming in the most vulgar language. Responsibility is scant and abuse is plenty.

Politicians, famous people and some journalists are asking whose abuse is worse and who started it all with all arguing to have the last word. It’s a very Indian thing – last word even if it sounds stupid. Ironically all twitter warriors are united by one and one sentiment only – that of overarching victimhood. Everybody is a victim, all are equally outraged and everyone is a journalist breaking news by the minute. Twitter has served to democratized bile – the more you have it, the more you spew. Oh, and everybody feels threatened.

Some weeks ago I was asked if I have been threatened. When I said I was, the very well-meaning person said she had not heard about it. I told her that was because the threat was perceived and decoded as real. It is common for journalists to be threatened whether by the owners of their news organisations, politicians, hooligans or people who graze in posh salons and settings. Every generation has its own technology and language to threaten people who stand up to power. Abuse did not start will social media and it will certainly not end when the next tool comes along.

Social media has not made people more vicious, ugly or vile. In fact, it is the other way around. What you see and read of people on Facebook and Twitter are reflections of themselves and not the subject or object of their derision. This technology is neutral. That said, there are distinct categories of tweeters in India, a country I know best. Among them:

The self-promoters: As I said, as I had predicted, as I had said in this tweet, as I, as I as I. Me and my colleague - this me-mine and myself people are all over the social media and they are also amongst the most obtrusive dying to make their point any which way wherever they can. They are happy to continue their self-promoting conversation on other people’s time-lines without an iota of embarrassment for themselves and respect for others. They live in the mistaken hope that twitter fame is real.

The ones who never read: Trust me on this one – a headline is enough for this group to spew venom and never apologise when caught out. Sorry? What does that mean? Recently, The News Minute was at the receiving end of some colourful language. We were accused of misreporting data. I asked the angry tweeter how he had managed to read a 1000-word piece in 7 seconds and draw his vicious conclusions? I insisted on getting a response because he had (and still does) a photo of himself and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as his DP. He promised to send a rebuttal. A year has gone by.

Much the same can be said for tweeters who think they are more important than the cause they espouse. A piece I wrote on the Idea of India led a Communist functionary to ask if we would publish a rebuttal. We agreed readily and I am so glad we did. She made fun of me including making personal remarks. So much for substance! It always works – stay calm, give people a rope, they will ask for a longer one sooner than you think.

Don’t touch my leader: This group comes closest to being called organised chamchas. Some are paid most are not, at least not in obvious ways. Their job is to defend their leaders even when there has been no accusation or a suggestion of bad work. This group is probably the largest and most hilarious on twitter because they think they are playing a sophisticated game when all the while their wig is flying off. My leader can do no wrong, s/he is a victim of baseless and malicious charges, by extension I am also a victim and my father-in-law too was abused in the lift. The so-called left and the so-called right in India – both sides have their star performers.

I am not racist, I have black friends: Yes, that’s how comical it gets. Replace black with Muslim, Hindu, Dalit and the stupidity is the same. Why blame twitter for our dim wit?

In America (or Timbuktu): In America this happens, in America that happens is another group that happily jumps sides depending on the winds. America has no morals, they are vulgar, they let their old parents die on streets, they smoke and have sex before they are teens and money is their only god. My son works for a company in Boston and the younger one is trying to get into Caltech. They are vegetarians. Say it all in one breath.

Competitive quick fix: We encountered this while we were reporting on the murder of Swati in Chennai. Just about everyone had a theory, a strategy, a story and ‘facts’. It’s at times like these that I curse twitter – everyone is reporting without concern for the family, work of journalists, police and other authorities. As Swati’s family was performing traditional rituals, journalists barged into the ceremony looking to interview the parents. There’s a reason people are angry with the media, but how fair is it to tarnish all with one brush just because twitter affords an opportunity?

We the journalists: This is a tough one. Looking inwards always is. I read twitter media in four languages. Two things bother me. Unlike in India, mainstream media and journalists in other democracies do not, as an unwritten rule, double-guess their governments’ operations whether they be military, counter-insurgency or against terrorists. There’s been a terrible spate of the last in the past few months. Journalists have preferred to err on the side of caution. There will always be time to add and to interpret actions – there will never be time to save people and soldiers who died because we were irresponsible. The ambulance-chasing possibility that twitter makes possible needs to be monitored by us, for us and with us.  

Over this weekend, French journalists are discussing the Nice attack last week and the Bataclan massacre before. They are trying to find holes in the government’s work with a view to strengthening official response without needless accusation. Evidence is now emerging that the Bataclan killers tortured their victims – how would it have helped the families to know it then? Can the French government be accused of suppressing information? Was it trying to protect families from more shock? These are not issues that can be settled in 140 characters. In its role as a public good, journalists are required to weigh the pros and cons of their words and footage. Who are they helping if not people?

Secondo – and this has come as a major shock – I am struck by just how low some of us have fallen in pursuit of fleeting glory. Nothing is sacred or sacrosanct anymore and all rules can be broken as long as we in the media are doing it. If people hit back on twitter, we whine in groups and gangs. If there are twitter gangs outside the media, there are also journalists’ gangs propelled not in search of excellence but excited by mediocrity. The glib one-liners, the seemingly innocent questions and the pretended innocence – all have a language that is not lost on anyone.

Finally, there are people who spend entire days on twitter. Sometimes I get the sense that they wake up in the morning and decide who will be targeted. Journalists and people in the media are often first port of abuse call. We make mistakes, there’s no denying that but this much I will say – most tweeters who find fault with journalists will not survive an instant in a responsible and credible news room. Their ego would come in the way. To those who have a view on everything, my advice is this -troll moll ké boll or measure your words. It’s a life’s lesson. Don’t blame technology for your arrogance or was it ignorance?

 

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

 

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