Exactly a month after the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, set up a special cyber cell to deal with the relentless abuse of women by internet bullies on social media, there is enough evidence to suggest that this initiative is proving to be a non-starter.
The latest target of the online army of bullies is journalist Neha Dixit, whose latest report, in Outlook magazine, exposed the illegal trafficking of children by Sangh Parivar outfits from Assam to the states of Gujarat and Punjab.
“Ever since I filed the story, I have been viciously abused online,” said Dixit. “They pulled out my marriage pictures and have even abused my husband. I redirected some of these to Maneka’s e-mail account but haven’t heard from her.”
Dixit pointed out that one of the abusive handles – @MahaveerM_ – is followed by the Prime Minister’s Office, an allegation not being made for the first time.
On July 5, Gandhi had announced the establishment of a special cyber cell in her ministry with a joint secretary level officer to deal with abusive trolls. She also tweeted her official e-mail address, email@example.com, where women being targeted online could forward their complaints.
In the next 24 hours, “half a dozen” complaints had landed in Gandhi’s inbox, according to a report in the Economic Times. This was soon followed by a meeting with representatives from Twitter and Facebook in a bid to fix trolls operating both openly and anonymously.
But there is no evidence to suggest that the matter has moved further since.
Said journalist Swati Chaturvedi whose ugly spat with singer Abhijeet led to Gandhi’s initiative in the first place: “Though Maneka did show initiative and received my complaint, I haven’t heard from the minister’s or Joint Secretary’s office”.
She added: “Neither have I heard from the Delhi Police. I had filed a FIR at the Vasant Vihar police station…I have sent seven reminders to the Delhi Police Commissioner’s office but there is no response whatsoever.”
Efforts to contact CB Sanghi, the designated joint secretary, over Monday and Tuesday yielded no results. In fact, in the course of trying to track Sanghi down for his response, this reporter was repeatedly misdirected to other officials not concerned with cyber crime. As is evident, the issue is not considered serious enough by the government – and with good reason.
‘Live with trolls’
A little over a month earlier, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, also a lawyer, in a discussion with NDTV’s Prannoy Roy, advised him to “live with trolls”, “learn to digest them” or simply “ignore them”. He also soft-pedalled their toxic attacks as mere “irresponsible comments”.
Over the past three years, the Bharatiya Janata Party has placed a great emphasis on social media to drive home its message. This was emphasised last year in The Modi Effect, a book by Lance Price, Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor.
“From his early days as Chief Minister in Gujarat, Modi has been convinced that the media, especially the English speaking media is out to undermine him at any and every opportunity," he wrote in his book, which based a series of sit-down interviews with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Price – the only person to have had this privilege – added: “For Modi, social media is not just a passion, but a necessity.”
Price quoted the BJP IT cell chief Arvind Gupta, who worked as Modi’s election time social media campaign, as saying: “Social media changed the whole scenario”. A cleverly timed tweet, wrote Price, could easily “take control of the agenda from the mainstream media”.
The battle with mainstream media and its leading practitioners is quite simply the crux of the problem. But what was initially a fight over setting the agenda has degenerated into online abuse and slander.
Gupta himself appears eminently accomplished in this craft as this face-off with senior journalist Sagarika Ghose over “paid trolls” versus “paid media” shows.
But a burgeoning social media army has its own distinct problems too. Last year Modi hosted 150 of his social media followers at his official residence in Delhi on the day he launched his Digital India initiative, leading to heartburn and recrimination among those not invited. They even threatened to boycott BJP’s social media campaign for not being invited to Modi’s event.
‘A valiant attempt’
Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, said Gandhi’s initiative is laudable. “No one quite knows how to fight trolls,” said Abraham. “At least she has given an option – her official e-mail account where people can complain.”
The most that the government can do is to force the hands of social media tech firms to delete abusive handles – something that Gandhi appears to have tried. But does she have the heft to take on internet bullies who enjoy the backing of the all powerful party apparatus? Till this is sorted out, the ideological battle against liberal public opinion in the shape of abuse and slander is unlikely to stop.