Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On Trolls and Democracy

This tweet from CNN-IBN chief Rajdeep Sardesai via TMC MP Derek O'Brien got me thinking. 

+1 Bless social media! Power with zero responsibility! Have a good day.

Millions use twitter for various reasons. Some want entertainment. Others want learning. Some want to keep up with the news, others want to make news. Many love debating, a few just like watching. That's us - people; society.

However, one group – the trolls - are a differennt beast (pun intended). Trolls don't just disagree with you. Disagreement is fine. I follow and interact with many Tweeple whom I openly disagree with. Trolls, add vicious abuse and sometimes, dire warnings to their dissent. And they do this anonymously.

By itself anonymity alone isn't bad. Many have valid reasons for staying anonymous: privacy and workplace rules are good examples. I have had conversations with such anonymous Tweeple off Twitter. Trolls however, hide behind the anonymity so they can never be tied to the opinions they express publicly. Worse still, their sole agenda isn't to improve the quality of debate but to identify people with opposing views and launch ad hominem attacks.

I block trolls for the same reason you’d slam the gate on a snarling dog. You’d rather not deal with it. They either get tired of snarling or find a new target to latch onto. I suspect it is these people who Rajdeep had in mind when he referred to "power without responsibility".

Rajdeep is right in that sense. Trolls have great power. They are blessed with the greatest of all freedoms – the right to expression. This freedom, more than any other, guarantees our democracy. Without a public space for dissent and disagreement, our Republic wouldn’t be one at all. Just look at China or Syria. Both, rather ironically, use the word ‘Republic’ in their official styling. But both throttle public dissent. Public affairs, then, become the privilege of the elite. 

And that brings me back to Twitter. I feel the word social media is a misnomer. Why? In the modern sense, the term ‘media’ is synonymous for ‘the Press’. Social media, then, tends to get mistaken with concepts of citizen journalism.

I think it is a much more fundamental concept. I think the term ‘social media’ underplays the real role sites like Twitter (and Facebook and others) play in our democracy. To me, these are the new public squares; where people of all political and social colours come together to share, debate and communicate. Some use it as a soap box; others, to sell their wares. Still others use it for gossip. All this is fine. 

The public square was the hub of societies in years long past. Sites like Twitter are merely shifting the location of this hub. They have become our go-to place for news views and entertainment.

And this takes me back to the trolls – those who enjoy “freedom without responsibility”. They abuse this public good – the internet’s public square – and so, must be discouraged. We do not tolerate anyone who abuses and threatens us on a public road. We must not allow this in cyberspace. 

Trolls hit at the very idea of a Republic by undermining the role of public debate. They - rightly or wrongly - make our governments more suspicious of the usefulness of public debate in shaping the public affairs. Let us then preserve our new public square so we can disagree as all rational people would. But let us also keep the beasts outside the gates.

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