Seeking refuge to trolling – Analyzing deep roots of online menace at individual and collective level

We are at it again and this time our target is Ms. Zartajgul Wazir, the Minister of Climate Change, for her gaffe of COVID-19 definition, aired at state run TV channel. The punitive tirade may appear to be an obvious result of a blunder, however, an offensive campaign can hardly achieve anything of substance other than providing just a laughing stock. The seemingly harmless exercise of trolling, spelled by an abridged hashtag, is just the tip of the iceberg constituting the dark culture of maligning others at social platforms operating freely beyond the grasp of cyber crime laws. It is important to acknowledge the deep roots of trolling and its far-reaching consequences if we want to become a tolerant and civilized society.

There are many behavioral traits associated with trolling at an individual level. A research study in Australia titled Constructing the cyber-troll: Psychopathy, sadism, and empathy identifies three characteristics of posters who are adept at trolling. First, they have the genius to fabricate images, videos, dialogues and gestures in an amusing way relatable to the general observations. Consequently, they earn sheer volume of likes, retweets, comments and shares on social media which make them feel triumphant.

However, they demonstrate a low empathy thus showing little to no emotions about the feelings of targets. Third, they exhibit an antisocial tendency of seeking pleasure by hurting others. This is a morbid form of social behavior studied as ‘Sadism’ in psychology. These research findings, though shocking, serve as a wake-up call to recognize the beast within and educate us to be more considerate at social sites.

Trolling provides an easy way of expressing personal views through a swift and free of cost medium. Before the advent of the internet, such views would get communicated through gossip and informal discussions. However, the offline behavior could not be so candid possibly due to lack of confidence, physical presence of observers, or an immediate boomerang effect. Social media is relatively safe from such perils given the luxury of anonymity and provisions of undoing or redoing a post in the digital world.

Ridiculing at social sites may reflect a deep embedded disdain or contempt for a human being or an institute rapidly getting expressed whenever an opportune arises. For example, the fresh troll of #ZartagGulWazir underlies a political context of disappointment over PTI’s narrative of Tabdeeli (Change) and claims of a meritorious team. Lately, the troll of #UmarAkmalQuotes emerged when the famous cricketer mistakenly tweeted “Mother from another brother” picturing himself with the maverick all-rounder Abdul Razzaque. A possible reason for it becoming viral is the public scorn for the player’s unruly behavior at various instances and his dismal performance in many crucial contests. Predictably, the troll would quickly melt down, if it ever became one, had it been Shahid Afridi or any other sportsman enjoying public respect. Similarly, the hashtag #ColonelKiBiwi was more of an expression of the critical perspective many people hold about armed forces in Pakistan.

Trolling provides a ‘voice’ to all and sundry regardless of their status. Attention seeking is a man’s natural desire manifesting itself right from the infantile age. Social media is the easiest medium to satisfy this urge. Granted, but besides providing visibility, trolling takes a more sinister form of producing more and more humiliating posts in the fierce battle of gaining popularity – likes, shares, retweets – showing no mercy for the victim who will continue to suffer the embarrassment for the foreseeable future.

So, what does trolling represent for the collective society? One of the key features is the horrendous form of mob justice on networked spaces. Trolling offers a false sense of legitimacy to the perpetrator that he is not an ‘individual’ but a representative of the whole community. The idea that ‘majority is authority’ is grossly misused.

Moreover, the rapidity of participating and promoting a troll by the whole community alludes to the lack of independent thinking. Getting easily carried away at the hands of a malicious coordinated campaign is a perilous situation which can mould the entire belief system of the society.

Social media experts also agree that trolling is a more destructive form of diatribe given its pervasive nature and time factor. Recall making fun of a school friend with dark complexion, how long will it haunt him? Online hashtags, on the other hand, remain available for long for anyone from anywhere around the globe. Possibly for same reasons, the stigma of trolling Ms. Zubaida broke her son into tears in a video message as he begged the public to forgive his mother. In a similar turn of events, the trauma of a student reportedly resulted in her voluntary dropping out of college. All she did was a ‘terrible’ mistake of using a misfit phrase for the occasion while giving an interview to a TV reporter in Murree. After learning the sorry state of these affairs, I do not think any sensitive person can ever participate in trolling.

For Pakistan specifically, the trolling culture is one of many other ills unequivocally prohibited in Islam. Surah Hujrat [49:11] expressly forbids mocking, ridicule, slandering and taunting, even if the target possesses the weakness. Ironically, we proudly employ the very abominable channel to prove our allegiance to Islam by trolling other sects. Religious scholars and Ulemas must play their role to spread awareness about this modern form of abuse.

Unfortunately, cyber crime regulations are still in an evolutionary state and lack the ability to curb mass trolling – either natural or engineered – compromising protection of the prey at the receiving end. As per my knowledge, the current cyber crime act of Pakistan is yet to delegitimize trolling providing leeway to such obnoxious behavior on social media. It is a lot like a classroom where an outage of power would tempt few mischievous students to start noising and hooting, and later be joined by even the most innocuous fellows enjoying impunity under the dark.

Trolling habits are self delusional and deceptive. They may be a manifestation of defeatist attitude expressing frustration over prominent figures which were once desired by those involved in tirade. In practical terms, the target might emerge stronger becoming immune to such offenses in future while the offenders would only continue their lackluster – often sham – internet life searching for the next troll. Governments should launch awareness campaigns in collaboration with civil society educating masses about the uselessness of this online menace wasting millions of precious man-hours on a rather ‘lose-lose’ kind of exercise.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the blog are the writer’s own opinion. Dunya News will not be held responsible for any kind of discrepancy. 

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