Recently, Umair Haque wrote an article wondering if Twitter is dying and what one can learn from it. Haque argues that the biggest problem plaguing social web platforms is abuse, and since companies like Twitter and Facebook did not pay serious attention to increasing abuse, people have carved out their own little spheres within them to communicate.
But, the quality of public conversations on social platforms has drastically reduced since the early days, especially Twitter, because it allows people to participate with minimal effort and identifying information – one reason why Twitter is dying.
This is as local a concern as it is global. Closer home in the “Indian twittersphere”, popular Hindi news anchor and commentator Ravish Kumar, who has a humongous social media following, recently abandoned his social media accounts after someone called him a dalal or a tout. He expressed his anguish at what he calls the growing lynch mob on Twitter and silence on the part of public intellectuals. A few days later, writer, lyricist, and comedian Varun Grover also deactivated his Twitter account citing growing intolerance as the reason. Soon enough, someone responded, “he doesnt hv Sahita Akademy award, so he quit tyooter to protest… [sic]”.
There are also those who choose to stay on and fight like journalists Sagarika Ghose, Rajdeep Sardesai, actors Shahrukh Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, and more – these public figures have time and again blasted online trolls.
You don’t need to be a famous person to experience this online world of abuse.
Here’s an experiment. Say anything related to feminism, gamergate, Muslims and Modi – there’s a very high likelihood that your Twitter mentions will soon be flooded with tweets from similar looking anonymous profiles, some will begin ‘whataboutery’ (blaming the other side by referring to past events) and others will send you straight up rape and murder threats.
You don’t have to be a famous person to be threatened with rape. Seriously.
But, as Ravish rightly points out, it’s not just the anonymous lynch mobs. Put up a Facebook status update on these topics and several friends will be lost to online name calling, implying that it’s not just a paid political or media machinery running these hate content feeds. Bringing someone down or shutting them up using photoshopped pictures forwarded on WhatsApp or hashtag campaigns on Twitter or hate pages on Facebook is a thing of daily life. We have come a full circle from the days when Twitter was the revolutionary tool of the Arab Spring and coordinated civic action during calamities. That still happens, but the daily social costs of tweeting are much higher on your mental peace. Many friends who I met through Twitter in 2007 have now stopped tweeting entirely, those who continue admit that it is a vastly different space now.
Again, not just Twitter, but in 2014, seven online news publications including Reuters, Mic, Recode and others shut down their comments section because they claimed most engagement was happening on social media and also conversations in comments could easily be derailed with abusive remarks. These remarks then, could also have legal consequences. Guardian actually has a team of people who moderate comments on articles. Online Indian publications like The Wire, Scroll and Catch News don’t allow comments either. As Haque helpfully states, building better quality technologies isn’t just a matter of producing code that doesn’t break. If you are building a social product, you are also responsible for fostering an environment. Otherwise, as we do on a regular basis, people tune out, they stop talking and they go away. If you maintain a blog or write for publications that allow commenting, you already know what I am talking about. Sometimes it is garbled spambot content, some other times they are generic abuses and if it’s a real anonymous person on the other side, you might even get personalized cursing.
Communication, especially two-way talking, the ability to give feedback and respond to things that people write – are all essential to the making of our public sphere. Social media platforms of today have replaced the erstwhile town square. They are the biggest agents of public interaction and thereby also the platforms for potential social change.
However, merely relying on existing laws to regulate freedom of expression doesn’t solve the problem of hateful speech and the shrinking potential of meaningful engagement. Ask yourself, how much negativity and hate are you willing to take from friends you know on social media? Now, multiply that ten times when you write on public forums. Imagine being a national celebrity and the amount of hostility you receive on a daily basis. The social costs associated with public interaction are increasing everyday. And, it is our responsibility as users, inventors, technologists and entrepreneurs to build environments where the consequences of expressing your opinion aren’t so dire.