Actor Shah Rukh Khan was trolled endlessly on social media after he went to singer Lata Mangeshkar’s funeral, over false allegations that he ‘spat’ after offering his respects. He was actually blowing a ‘dua’ as per an Islamic practice. 

People went gaga on social media after a man accused of lynching a student leader died, after jumping off a police vehicle in a bid to escape in Assam’s Jorhat. Netizens “saluted” what they called was “instant justice”.

Shah Rukh Khan was trolled mercilessly over pictures of him praying and offering ‘dua’ at singer Lata Mangeshkar’s funeral, with trolls alleging that the actor ‘spat’ after offering his respects

Netizens posted insensitive and nasty comments about actor Salman Khan after he was bitten by a snake at his farmhouse near Mumbai a couple of months ago.

Trolling and social media justice seem to have become a norm nowadays, with people venting out for reasons that could range from the bizarre to obnoxious and even dangerous.

Celebrities, especially, are soft targets with people targeting them even for their dresses and not thinking twice before posting nasty comments on social media. Just because it’s an open medium to express, people think they can do anything and get away with it.

So what drives this pattern of behaviour on social media that has become so common nowadays? And what pleasure do people derive from such a morally depraved mindset?

Dr Rajesh Sagar, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, AIIMS, says a lot can be explained with the proliferation of technology in our lives, when especially during the lockdown, people were indoors and heavily dependent on social media to meet their need for connectedness and belongingness.

Actor Anushka Sharma was trolled more than once for India’s defeat, just for being wife of former captain of Indian cricket team Virat Kohli.

“However, online interaction is always different from in-person interactions and there lies the difference. On online platforms, anonymity is one single factor that makes many interaction ethics go off track, such as expressing judgement and providing negative feedback,” Dr Sagar said.

Explaining further, Dr Sagar said trolls almost know that they may never personally know the celebrities or may never be able to see the reactions of such profound words used online on their faces, or the impact of it on their real lives. And this causes loosening of inhibitions.

“People often tend to express some of the most raw or primitive thoughts with no further need to engage in conversation. And these comments, with a simple click, can always be deleted, which further reinforces expression of any initial thought.”

ONLINE ABUSE

In 2017, a study of Norton by Symantec showed that 8 out of 10 people surveyed experienced some form of online harassment in India. The most common forms of online harassment were abuse and insults at 63 per cent, followed by malicious gossip and rumours at 59 per cent.

Actor Samantha Ruth Prabhu faced trolls on social media, be it for her divorce from Naga Chaitanya or her professional choices.

The aim of the study was to understand India’s exposure to online harassment that ranged from unwanted conflict, trolling, character assassinations, and cyberbullying to sexual harassment and threats of physical violence, and the impacts of these experiences.

Incidence of online harassment was high for people under 40 years, with 65 per cent reporting online abuse and insults. 87 per cent of people with disabilities or poor mental health and 77 per cent of those with weight issues reported abuse or insults online.

Dr Sagar feels there are plenty of cognitive biases at work for such behaviour. Such as the halo effect, which means letting one impression about a person or object dominate the evaluation of the whole person. So, if one celebrity has fought for a significant social cause, people generalise their impressions and tend to consider all their actions as good. This happens vice-versa as well.

“This is often fuelled by another bias called confirmatory bias, which is a tendency to interpret and recall new information in a way that confirms one’s prior beliefs. Thus, people end up forming a rigid sense of opinions about them, which is often expressed in extreme form of judgements.”

Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao were mercilessly trolled on social media after announcing their divorce

With rumours and fake news circulating on social media like wildfire, people often get trapped into quick judgements that are emotionally loaded rather than checking full facts and then forming a more balanced opinion about someone.

Do such people get sadistic pleasure by celebrating others’ pain on social media? Dr Sagar says, “It’s difficult to say that people exactly enjoy the pain or derive some sort of sadistic pleasure when a culprit is punished publically or killed in a police encounter.”

In the Assam incident last November, a mob of at least 50 attacked a student leader, who later died, and two others after an old man fell off his scooter and got injured. The mob had suspected them of hitting the man with their car.

The prime accused died after being reportedly hit by a trailing police vehicle when he jumped out of the police car to escape. Later, people expressed their “happiness” on social media at the death of the main accused.

TV host Mandira Bedi faced trolls over her attire during her husband’s funeral and also because she was performing his last rites.

“If people celebrate a criminal getting punished publicly, it’s not right. Even a criminal has the right to defend himself; people should have trust in the law of our country. I would say they do not think logically and cannot be called mentally sound completely,” says LN Rao, a former DCP with Delhi Police and now a criminal lawyer, adding that people should never take law in their hands.

Rao said it is basically people’s nature that when they do not like someone’s post or their opinion does not match with others, they opt for trolling them on social media. “Some do it because of jealousy, or do it as a confrontation to others’ opinions.”

Actor Anushka Sharma was trolled more than once for India’s defeat, just for being wife of former captain of Indian cricket team Virat Kohli.

TV host Mandira Bedi faced trolls over her attire during her husband’s funeral and also because she was performing his last rites.

Brands have also faced social media backlash because some people did not like their idea of creativity, forcing them to take back the controversial ads.

A SENSE OF POWER

To be able to become a part of practice like trolling gives people an extra sense of power and self-correctness, says Dr Samir Parikh, an eminent psychiatrist and Director of Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

“People want very instant gratification for everything. So when it comes to a solution for somebody’s crime or mistake, they need to have an immediate solution. To be able to become a part of it gives them an extra sense of power and self-correctness,” Dr Parikh said.

When Kollywood actor Dhanush announced he ended his 18 years of marriage with Aishwarya by sharing a note on Twitter, the news spread like wildfire. While some fans understood and accepted the decision of the duo, others started trolling the star. 

Similar was the reaction when Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao announced their divorce.

Actor Samantha Ruth Prabhu faced trolls on social media, be it for her divorce from Naga Chaitanya or her professional choices.

Dr Parikh thinks such people feel a sense of validation and encouragement that others also think ‘like them’ and they also want their views to go out there.

When Dhanush announced his split with Aishwarya after 18 years of marriage by sharing a note on Twitter, the couple was massively trolled on Twitter even when many fans ‘understood and accepted’ their decision.

All this mostly happens with a sense of anonymity because the individual feels people wouldn’t know who he is. They let out whatever is their angst, and what they feel strongly about, in an uncensored way, because they are seeing lots of other people doing it and so they get reinforced, Dr Parikh said.

“This is how trolling becomes a part of our life, which is very unfortunate because it can have a very negative impact on people’s lives. We have views about almost anything and everything — from body image to clothes to background to education to societal norms.”

So when you see that somebody either on your side of belief is saying something, you amplify it, or somebody is saying the opposite, you try and run it down, he said.

Recently, actor Sunny Leone got trolled for not holding daughter Nisha Kaur Weber’s hand in public, with netizens questioning her motherhood and accusing her of adopting a girl only for publicity.

Just a few days after Shah Rukh Khan’s son’s release from jail in an alleged drugs case, a video surfaced on social media of a man resembling Aryan Khan, peeing inside the Los Angeles International Airport. It turned out that the man in the photo was a Canadian actor and the incident happened in 2012.

Dr Sanjay Chugh, a senior neuro-psychiatrist, says when people celebrate violence or violent behaviour, which would even include lynching, it serves as a reminder that we need the veneer of civilisation that all of us have.

“We are still uncivilised beings who descended from animals. A civilised veneer arises from the fact that there is a desensitisation to violence. We would not indulge in violence ourselves but if we see it happening, we tend to have an opinion. If there is a righteous indignation that this guy has been rightly punished, this culprit has been punished or is being lynched, that righteous indignation allows us to give vent to our own baser instincts and that is why the celebration. There is no merit in this of course,” Dr Chugh says.

Dr Chugh equates trolling with bitching. But why do people bitch? Firstly, it helps them to distract their own minds from their own problems.

“People also bitch because their mind, in a very perverse kind of way, tells them that if they can show someone else down, it means that person is now on a lower pedestal.”

WHY IT HAPPENS

Giving a detailed psychological assessment, Dr Sagar says one of the biggest factors behind such uncontrolled online behaviour is what he called the ‘infodemic’.

Sunny Leone was recently trolled for not holding her daughter’s hand in public, with netizens questioning her motherhood Credit: Instagram image

“These days, there are unreliable sources of information that spread very rapidly. Many of us tend to believe in it immediately. Many people are not sophisticated social media users, and overly trust content forwarded by their friends and family members. Though fact-check is a great initiative in this regard, not many people run their mind across multiple perspectives. As a result, they get socio-politically motivated easily and can easily indulge with supporting extreme claims and actions.”

Dr Sagar said humans are social animals and there is an inherent need to be socially accepted by people. And because most social interactions are online, this need for social acceptance has shifted to people online, whom we call netizens.

“So, acceptance by netizens or fear of being isolated by netizens is pronounced and so many people tend to follow the mass trends. It’s like a domino effect where people often start doing what others are merely doing to fulfil the need for social belongingness.”

One of the biggest issues with this approach, he said, is that the extremist opinion gets heard most and those having moderate or mild individual opinions get sidelined or suppressed. Thus, it’s very common to find online platforms easily divided into two categories of supporters and haters.

“People are left with limited opinion to belong to one of the groups, which leads to a kind of online social pressure situation,” Dr Sagar said.

Based on the acceptance needed, it’s almost a trend for people to keep working on content that gives them the highest views and the most number of likes. For this simple need to gain more online popularity and increase the number of their followers (which brings some other perks as well— financial, publicity, etc), people may create and support sensational content, Dr Sagar said.

“The advantage of online moral policing is that it helps a person feel empowered (by belonging to the ‘just/right’ group) as well as helps in getting immediate support and encouragement from people online (which is often difficult to achieve that quickly in real social scenarios),” he said.

THE WAY OUT

But is there any solution? Dr Parikh feels that society should have zero tolerance towards such behaviour. And those who are trolled should not bother about those who do not think about others and are not rational enough.

Dr Sagar said people need psychological skills to regulate themselves. There is a rising need to make people aware about self-regulation skills on social media as well, with more awareness on the legal consequences of their cyber behaviour, he said. “Cyber hygiene should be a way forward and must be endorsed by everyone.”

The writer is an independent journalist and video content creator based in Delhi-NCR. Runs a YouTube channel Think Positive: Live Healthy



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