Social media provides both a means of expression as well as way to stifle it. Last week, Agrima Joshua, a comedian from Mumbai, faced the latter as online mobs started to attack her on social media. Some of the trolling had to do with her political views, some with the religious community to which she belongs.

Her online bullies went so far as to dig out a stand-up comedy sketch she had performed more than a year ago. In it, Joshua took a dig at some of the outlandish claims made about a proposed statue of medieval Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji. The online mob made sure to misrepresent the content of the video, claiming that Joshua was ridiculing Shivaji – rather than simply mocking the absurd claims made by supporters of the statue.

Joshua isn’t the first person to call out these claims. Fact checkers have been kept busy debunking online misinformation that the statue will be a major source of electrical power or help Mumbai city defend itself against terror attacks.

Power of the mob

The online mob attack on Joshua had an immediate impact. After all, Shivaji is a powerful symbol of both Marathi as well as Hindu identity. Videos of men openly threatening Joshua with assault and rape began to do the rounds. The venue where Joshua had performed her act was also vandalised.

On Friday, Joshua took to social media to complain that these online attacks were part of an organised campaign with trolls “flooding my mentions with filth”. In her complaint, she tagged Aaditya Thackeray, a cabinet minister in the Maharashtra state government as well as son of the chief minister.

On Sunday, Gujarat arrested the man who had made the rape threats. However, curiously, the Maharashtra government itself seemed to side with the online mob.

On Sunday, a Shiv Sena MLA demanded that Joshua be arrested. To add to that, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh instructed the police to take legal action against the comedian.

Far from protecting Joshua from the online mob, the Maharashtra government, it seems, was genuflecting to it. As a result, Joshua had to issue an apology “for having hurt the sentiments of the many followers of the great leader Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj”. The online mob had not only convinced the Maharashtra government that Joshua had said something objectionable about Shivaji, it had even forced her to apologise for something she hadn’t even said.

Much has been written about the passions of the mob and the danger that it represents to democracy. But in India today, clearly, there is much also to worry about when it comes to online mobs. As Joshua’s case shows, online trolling is vicious and often quite organised. Moreover, politicians are highly responsive to these online mobs. For the comedian, getting trolled online soon morphed into the government itself threatening to prosecute her.

Free speech under threat

The phenomenon of politicians embracing – rather than checking – the online mob has been picking up pace for some time now. In 2017, for example, the Bharatiya Janata Party appointed as its spokesperson, Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a man who had made a career as a troll. In another instance, the BJP put out a social media message insinuating that senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai “should handle PR for [terror group] ISIS”.

The presence of online mobs and their deep connections to ruling party politicians presents a signal danger to freedom of expression in India. In this arrangement, only a few hundred people on their smartphones can prevent a journalist or a comedian from broaching certain topics.

Even before the rise of the internet, India had a weak free speech regime, with frequent legal as well as extra-legal actions against people for simply saying something. The rise of the online mob and its nexus with ruling politicians makes matters even worse.