In 1971, a group of American students volunteered for what would become one of the most notorious exercises in psychology. Called the Stanford Prison Experiment, it consisted of a 24 normal, healthy men replicating a prison. Half of them played the role of prisoners and the other half became prison guards. Within 24 hours, the guards had so internalised their roles that they began psychologically and, in some cases, physically torturing the men playing the prisoners. Matters became so dire that the psychologist conducting the experiment had to abort it on the sixth day, eight days short of its planned duration of two weeks.

Philip Zimbardo, the lead researcher of the study, attributed the sudden outbreak of sadism on the “power of situations”. People were influenced more by the situation they were in – in this case, playing a powerful guard – rather than any basic personality trait.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a valuable tool to understand abuse on social media. Social networks like Twitter see torrents of abuse pour forth from anonymous handles targeting people they dislike for political or social reasons. On Saturday, Rajdeep Sardesai, one of India’s best-know television journalists, disabled his Twitter account, complaining about a “concerted campaign of lies and abuse on a daily basis”.

This isn’t a one-off incident. In October, 2015, affected by this same sort of abuse, Ravish Kumar, another star TV journalist was forced off social media.

Lessons for Twitter

There is nothing new about political disagreement – but social media plumbs the level of debate to new depths. In fact, the people who log onto social networks to abuse behind anonymity are in all probability fully functioning members of society. They have friends, jobs, family and are likely to be deferential to strangers they meet on the street. But as they log onto social media, bathed in the neon glare of their screens, a transformation occurs. Unhindered by the strings of the real world, they become abusive and cruel. In effect, Twitter is a massive, real-time, global version of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The imminent death of Twitter is being prophesied all over the world. In a popular article titled Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It), British economist Umair Haque blames this squarely on abuse that has made “social media a nasty, brutish place”.

“Twitter could have been a town square,” Umar writes, “but now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit.”

In India, much like the cruel guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment, this abuse is magnified by the fact that many abusers have official backing from authority figures in the form of politicians. Speaking to, Rajdeep Sardesai claimed, “In some cases, my worst abusers are followed by popular and respected political personalities.”

Trolls and politicians

The Bharatiya Janata Party, the party with the strongest presence on social media, has often indulged abusive users. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi even met a few abusive but influential pro-BJP tweeters last year in a carefully publicised event. On Monday, Amitabh Kant, the Niti Ayog CEO, tweeted out an anti-Arvind Kejriwal message, originally composed by a group calling themselves “India against Presstitutes”. “Presstitute”, a portmanteau of “press” and “prostitute”, attempts to demean journalism by comparing it to sex work and is a common term now on social media, highlighting just how commonplace bigoted views have become.

So dire is the situation on Indian Twitter that in some cases things have even moved beyond verbal and mental abuse. In several recorded cases, users on Twitter have openly spread rumours of communal violence – a situation that could easily spark off actual violence.

In an example of just how being on social media can turn normal men into near-monsters, last week Congress politician Digvijay Singh was actually mocked and abused after his daughter died from cancer. In 2014, the daughter of Robin Williams had faced similarly toxic abuse after her father’s death, leading to her temporarily quitting Twitter.

Even after these egregious examples, Twitter has usually ignored instances of abuse. But the flood of abuse – among other factors ­– has meant that Twitter is now looking down into the abyss. The social network failed to add any new users in the final quarter of 2015, even as rival social network Facebook has 5X of Twitter’s active users. Twitter’s stock has been on a sharp, regular decline for the past 12 months.

Twitter’s slide

In 2015, Twitter’s chief executive Dick Costolo admitted issues with his companies abuse policy. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” he said in an internal memo leaked to the press. Recently, Twitter put in a phone verification requirement that allows it to check if a member has other accounts that have been suspended as a result of abuse.

What Twitter has not budged from ­– and what might be at the core of the issue – is to disallow anonymous accounts. Facebook, for example, has a “real name” policy that debars anonymous accounts. “There is value for disallowing anonymous people,” Rajdeep Sardesai points out. “I am all for open forum but what we have is inciting violence, hatred, lies and slander.”

In practice, anonymity means a free pass to abusers. “Even when I am the subject of lies and slander, I have no legal recourse,” Sardesai complains. “Defamation is not applicable to social media. It’s like putting my head into a cobra’s den.”

Twitter already has much to worry about. But one of India’s most leading journalists comparing it to a cobra’s den is surely a rather loud alarm for the social network.