A couple of years ago, I saw a picture on Twitter. It was of a food truck in America selling Indian food. I was thrilled to see idlis, dosai, pongal and sambar on a vehicle parked in a different continent. I hit retweet. Little did I expect someone to get offended by the name on the truck, a detail I had hardly noticed. A (not so gentle) man, or at least that is what the profile picture conveyed, latched onto the tweet. He explained why I should not like that photo, not once but repeatedly and in not-so-pleasant ways. Consciously aware that I was in a public forum and drawing unwanted attention, I tried to explain myself to him politely. When that did not work, I dropped a couple of Haha-s. I even pacified the unknown entity with an apology … but every single action of mine made things worse for me. The offended user invited his friends to the party. So I sat and watched, as I received comment after comment. From being an opinion about a tweet, it became a discussion about me and then to ‘everyone like me’. I was partly disgusted and partly amused. At one point, I got busy rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness unfurling before my eyes. On hindsight, I should have ignored him. But I had little experience with such folks until that day. It took me a while to realize I had been cyberbullied.
Perhaps like me, you too have been upset by a stranger’s (or someone known to you) rudeness online, at some point? This person being nasty or lewd to you and making you uncomfortable is actually a cyberbully. A 2018 Pew Research Study showed that over 59% of teens have experienced cyberbullying. Women, children and members of marginalized communities are often soft targets for bullying / cyberbullying.
The digital dimension to bullying
Bullying, or the act of saying / doing mean things and putting other people down, is also a means to exercising power and control over another person’s emotions. The insecure bully behaves this way, because it gets him / her what he wants, attention and submission. He has succeeded in doing so earlier. Anyone can be a bully, a co-worker, a spouse, a friend or a sibling who is at a position to exploit the vulnerability of the person at the receiving end. The bully may even justify his act as a rite of passage and a part of growing up for the victim. But whatever the reason cited; bullying is actually abuse. Much has been said about the debilitating impact bullying has at schools and workplaces, often times driving the victim to depression and suicide, not to mention PTSD. The internet adds a whole new dimension to this heinous act.
The volume of worldwide searches on Google for “cyberbullying” increased threefold since 2004. Cyberbullying can take various forms. Sending inappropriate private messages, making threats of violence, stalking social media profiles, making lewd comments, morphing the victim’s photographs and sending out pornographic images which the receiver does not wish to receive are a few examples. In addition to getting exposed to offensive images and words of malicious intention, the victim often does not know the perpetrator and that instils fear. Anonymity gives the bully the power to inflict mental scars and humiliate their victim, using the support of people having similar opinion / intention. The bully gets a kick out of all this. From a teenager signing into an online game to famous sportspersons, whose wife and children are targeted when the team does not do well, nobody is spared.
How far will you go to appear smart?
A user id and password can be the key to making you feel heard and seen by millions at once. Users therefore pry for that wee bit of the network’s attention, particularly on topics that are trending. They also personally invest their emotions in every conversation coming their way, akin to a warrior tasked with winning a battle for his side. Not surprisingly, it becomes a great tool to influence religious / political ideologies en masse, quickly drawing lines for people to take sides. In this heady mix of numbers and emotions, the boundary between a person and say, their political opinion becomes blurred. Every action, one as simple as a picture of a breakfast, is viewed under the lens of politics, attracting vile and disrespectful comments. These actions are endorsed by a bully’s connections as humorous and smart, creating a chain effect. Now the inappropriate behaviour turns valid, instantly glorifying the bullies / trolls and giving them the much needed ‘kick’ that reinforces their actions. There is no telling for the quantum of disgust and emotional trauma that the victim undergoes.
A smart phone/ social media is in effect an echo chamber, equally amplifying what we stand for and what we object to.
That this is merely a reflection of what is happening in society today is a different discussion altogether.
Being a woman makes things worse, particularly to those unused to women having an opinion or unused to interacting with them. To make matters worse, we have been groomed by cinema, that shows the hero’s need to ‘fix’ a woman as a symbol of masculinity. What follows is mansplaining and unsolicited views on everything from clothes to complexion to character. The more uncultured ‘sanskari’ men go a step further, message and proposition the girl. And why? Because she had an opinion that does not align with the reality that the reader lives in.
A bully is not always some strange looking villain in an isolated house.
Around 69% of people admitted to being abusive to someone online at some point and 15% have cyberbullied someone! (Src : Ditch Label’s Annual Bullying Survey 2017)
So ask yourself these questions …
Are you being a troll or a responsible netizen?
Are you expressing yourself or taking it out on someone because it makes you feel / look good / powerful?
About the author
Nithya Rajagopal is the Manager of Content and Community at IWI. She works as a Program Manager for a Non-Profit and is the author of Over A Samosa, published by Readomania and Thanthanathom, Short Stories from Tamil Nadu. Her articles have also been published on Women’s Web and ToI. Nithya, along with Anupama Jain and Deepti Menon, is the co-founder of Stories From The Peninsula, a forum for South Indian Literature.