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The psyche and the power of a 'Smart Troll'

Author: Vivek Agnihotri
Publication: DNA India
Date: July 15, 2015
URL:   http://www.dnaindia.com/india/comment-the-psyche-and-the-power-of-a-smart-troll-2104891

Last Sunday was a busy one. On Twitter, at least. The sudden surge in activity on an otherwise lazy Twitter day, was all about the anatomy of Internet trolls – an article by novelist Chetan Bhagat. A few weeks before this, a senior celebrity journalist, a favourite of Internet Trolls, had also written an article on the same subject. In the last few months, or should we say since the advent of a brand called NaMo, the discussion on trolls has moved from private conversations to mainstream media. And of course, on social media, it’s omnipresent.

It kept me wondering, why are we fighting for such an inane issue when India has much bigger challenges? A little research gave me some insight into the minds of trolls and those who claim to be trolled.

First, who is a troll? I asked this on Twitter and received hundreds of replies. Here are a few, in no particular order:

-    A user with fewer followers, who persists on giving unsolicited, contrarian views to a user with more followers.
 -    Has come to mean a cheap abuse in India. Genuine Internet trolls however are very knowledgeable and cool people.
 -    Any speech from anyone I dislike.
 -    TROLL = watchdog.
 -    Showing a mirror and embarrassing them with facts and figures is trolling.
 -    Anyone who talks sense that is nonsense to others is a troll
 -    Everybody is somebody else's troll.
 -    For a left liberal, whoever calls his/her bluff is a troll
 -    A Hindu who questions the facts? A Hindu who doesn’t let them spin facts? A Hindu who is equipped with facts and exposes their hypocrisy.
 -    If you disagree with me, or lose a debate, you are trolling.
 -    Begaani shaadi mein abdullah deewana :)

There are mostly two kinds of trolls. One - abusive, frustrated trolls whose idea is just to insult you. They do it in their colleges, at the bus-stop, at local paan-shops or on social media. They go after film stars, they go after girls, they go after anyone who is celebrated. They suffer from an identity crisis or are victims of schadenfreude. I am constantly trolled, abused by them. I believe they are not even trolls, they are losers. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them. If they get worse, block them or report them. But I want to talk about the other kind of trolls. The ones that journalists, columnists and politicians constantly complain about - the Smart Trolls.

The Smart Trolls go after journalists, media handles, opinion-leaders, influencers, politicians, novelists, socio-political commentators and so on. A common thread is that their victims are from the media and politics background and belong to the elite class. Out there, it’s not just trolling…it’s war. A war between the haves and the have-nots. Between citizens who are entitled and those who are deprived. It’s about who will decide the narrative. It’s identity politics originating from hundreds of years of a strategic class divide.

Kings used to have courts for the intelligentsia, artists, academicians and scholars, because a King surrounded by peasants didn’t look good. The condition for entry into this club was singing the King’s praises. This gave them position, power and protection, which in return gave them influence, money and women. Exploitation was their way of trolling. They trolled the underprivileged. They trolled dalits. They trolled people who didn’t agree with them. They trolled those who were a threat to their incompetence. They trolled women. And they could do all this as they had the King’s protection.

India was divided between the King’s men (elite class) and the masses. The masses lived in fear of the elites and had no idea what was going on inside the court. Sometimes, someone came out and made announcements. No one questioned it. It was a one-way street of knowledge and information. The King was 'great’ because the elites said so. The elites influenced the psyche of the masses because they had information.

Then the British arrived and they had clubs too. Dogs and Browns were not allowed unless one happened to be competent to serve tea or ready to wag one's tail. The same families who had been in the King's courts, joined the club. The divide between the elites and masses continued.

When the British left India, these clubs were taken over by the ruling Congress.

Very strangely, the intelligentsia, academia and media that was supposed to educate, enlighten, inspire, empower and therefore, bridge the gap, didn’t do any such thing. India was further divided between people with information and people without information. Like in Arvind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, where he talks about Dark India and Lit India. Dark India believed in the printed word. It believed in pictures. In Film Divison’s documentaries. News was news. Its trustworthiness was never questioned. People believed that one joins this thankless, poorly paying profession of journalism for integrity and service to the society. The image was of a khadi-clad, jhola type person in Bata chappals. It didn’t change until the advent of modern TV journalism.

This was when the agendas behind news and opinions, the motives behind alignments and advocacies started becoming apparent. Thus was revealed a nexus between politicians, media, industrialists and the ‘mutual-benefits’ club. Post liberalisation, the media became big business. Yes, business. Journalists became entrepreneurs and in the process, industry leaders. Some, became extremely wealthy, with free access to the corridors of real power. This was a paradigm shift for Dark India.

The nexus was flourishing until the advent of Social Media. Twitter, specifically. It became a powerful tool for citizen journalism. This empowered Dark India. They got information and a platform to share information. The young generation didn’t just stop at reading the news. They started researching it, only to find that very often, the original news wasn’t based on genuine facts. It was an interpretation of news and in most cases, just the opinion of the reporter, based on his political or commercial alignment. They realised that in Elite India, the buck never stopped anywhere. So Dark India questioned things on Twitter. They exposed media spins. They figured out hit-jobs and revealed them. The dirty games became visible. They simplified the complex web of half-truths and white lies. Twitter became an equal platform for the unequal.

This Dark India, consisting of educated and empowered youth, with access to modern technology and global awareness, formed a virtual country with their own constitution, where you can’t spin news, distort or misquote. Like Lit India didn’t let them enter the elite clubs for years, they are not letting you enter this virtual world with your lies. With your elitism. With your hypocrisy.

They are aware, alert and quick. Minutes after the article on the anatomy of trolls started being discussed, these "Hindi-speaking, Hindu trolls" dug up the author’s timeline and shared his old tweets which ironically sounded like a Hinglish speaking, sexually frustrated troll. Thus, exposing the hypocrisy and winning a mini-battle. One must know that the major weapon with these trolls is ‘digital footprint’. They take screenshots, they catalogue every tweet and statement which helps them expose opportunism, agenda and hypocrisy. They read policy reports, analyse raw data and don’t let generalised, prejudiced theories flourish, like old times.

As I write this, a leading newspaper misquoted the BJP president’s speech. A senior journalist tweeted it with a taunt, without checking facts. Some of the Bhakts immediately got into action and dug up the original speech. By noon, the senior journalist had to take back his words with an apology.There are hundreds, maybe thousands of instances like this where these trolls have maintained checks and balances. Now that’s the power of Twitter. That’s the power of these Smart Trolls. Do not generalise and mix them up with abusive trolls. Simply put, do not underestimate them.

Someone once told me ‘They aren’t trolls. They are the R&D of social media’. They are doing what journalists are supposed to do. Most of them have humour, sarcasm, style and passion for finding the truth. They are the real watchdogs. They won’t let you spin, distort and misquote. They question your reports, your research, your analyses, your stands, your status and your integrity. They call a spade a spade. You call them Internet Hindus, they call you Adarsh Liberals. You call them Bhakts, they call you Libtards. You call them Sanghis, they call you AAPtards. This new, emerging, virtual India is not taking it lying down like their ancestors did. They aren’t guilty about their Hindu tilak. They aren’t embarrassed about their language or their identity. And they are here to stay. Learn to deal with them or quit Twitter.

PS: To assume they are all Hindi speaking is like assuming all MBAs are literary dumbos. To assume they are sexually frustrated is like assuming all pulp-fiction writers are part of a non-stop orgy. To assume they are all Hindus (meaning orthodox, fanatic) is like assuming all self-professed seculars are actually secular. 

- The author is a film-maker, writer and travel junkie. He tweets at @vivekagnihotri
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