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Two kinds of cockroach

In 1982 when Amitabh Bachchan met with a serious accident on the sets of Coolie and then spent several weeks at Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital, all of India prayed for him.

As Bachchan hovered between life and death, the nation held its breath, begging God to save the biggest star the country had ever seen.

 

When Bachchan tested positive for Covid on July 11 this year, the news caused widespread shock all over the country. The hospital made it clear that the condition was not life-threatening but no 77-year-old with co-morbidities can afford to take Covid lightly. And so, even though the situation was nothing as serious as 1982, a worried nation still prayed for him.

 

   Bachchan was so overwhelmed by expressions of support and concern that he tweeted on July 17, on behalf of himself and his family “Our well-wishers, our fans have ever given us unstinting love, affection, care and prayer. We express our bountiful, gracious gratitude to you.”

 

   Apart from the fact that this episode of illness was not potentially fatal unlike the 1982 episode, there was one other important difference.

 

   This time around, Bachchan got hate messages from social media trolls. Some not only wished him ill, they also hoped that he would die of the virus.

 

   Who would hate a 77-year-old man, the idol of millions, whose work has given so much joy and pleasure to the world, enough to send him such hateful messages?

 

   The short answer appears to be that social media attracts vermin and then brings out the worst qualities in them. It could be that there were no low-life haters in 1982. But it could also be that they have always been around. They just didn’t know to transmit abuse anonymously. Social media has given them a means of directing hate at pretty much any target they want.

 

   Given Bachchan’s current public persona as a kindly old man who gives away money on Kaun Banega Crorepati, you might expect him to ignore the haters. But, in a stunning return to the persona that made him a star --- the angry guy from Zanjeer and Deewar, who wouldn’t take abuse from anyone --- Bachchan chose to hit back.

 

   On his popular blog, he posted a response to one anonymous troll. It began.

 

   “Hey Mr Anonymous

 

   You do not even write your father’s name because… you do not know who fathered you….”

 

   He ended with a threat.

 

   “If by God’s grace I survive and live, you shall have to be weathering the swipe storm, not just from me but on a very conservative level, from 90+ million followers… that extended family shall, in the flash of an eye become “extermination family’. All I shall say to them is: “Thok do saale ko!”

 

 "Why do people spend so much time tweeting hateful things to strangers? Does it make them feel powerful?"

   It ended with a stanza in Hindi (containing not very nice things) and Bachchan finished with: “May you burn in your own stew.”

 

   That response was out of tune with the tone of the blog which is generally benign. So it offered one indication of how angry Bachchan must be.

 

   He is not the only angry one. All over the world, celebrities have been incensed by the abuse and negativity directed at them from strangers. George Clooney has said that he tries not to read what it says on the internet because of the terrifying levels of hatred. The British star Stephen Fry went off Twitter for a while because of abuse. In India, Sonakshi Sinha has done the same thing.

 

   Why do people spend so much time tweeting hateful things (which they often don’t even really mean) to strangers? Does it make them feel powerful? Does it compensate for some inadequacy in their mental make-up?

 

   In the case of people who tweet or send abuse to women, the tone of the messages can be so full of sexual references that the chances are that the senders are sexually inadequate men who can only get their kicks this way. 

 

   The actress Swara Bhaskar is a frequent target of right wing trolls because she is vocal about her liberal views. But after she acted in Veere di Wedding  playing a character who once used a vibrator, a large chunk of the tweets about her have focused on masturbation and “Swara’s finger” (presumably from people who have not seen the movie or are not sexually knowledgeable enough to know what a vibrator is).

 

   Other actresses may have been intimidated by this torrent of misogynistic, sexually-loaded abuse but Bhaskar has given it back to the haters. Her bio on Twitter proudly reads: “Introduced the vibrator to the Indian silver screen and gave employment for years to come to countless trolls and vermin.”

 

   It isn’t just stars who suffer. Asked why she filtered replies to her tweets, the journalist Rohini Singh tweeted “The onus of respectful engagement is on men. Sexual innuendos, abuse, and slander isn’t an “alternative view” that women should listen to.”

 

   How does one handle trolls? I can sympathize with those who have left Twitter because it is pointless to expect the platform to act against the abusers. Even when Twitter does act against a habitual offender, he is back in business with a new account.

 

   And while some of the abuse does come from sickos and perverts, a lot of it comes from organized troll farms where employees are asked to intimidate and abuse specific targets.

 

   The people who run these farms understand technology. So each time Twitter tries to block abusers, the managements of the Bot Farms, and control rooms find new ways to outwit the Twitter authorities. In the case of Facebook, as recent protests in the US have demonstrated, the operation is designed to support hatred and fake news.

 

   I am rapidly coming around to the view that if you use social media --- and even if you aren’t Amitabh Bachchan --- the only way to survive is to block haters and to fight back. I know people who say you should just ignore bots, which sounds reasonable, but if you come across a real-life sicko or a two rupee Twitter assassin then blocking or ignoring is not enough.

 

   In the words of Tiger from Hum, there are two kinds of cockroach in the world. And as Amitabh has reminded us, thirty years after he uttered that dialogue, you don’t need to let either survive.

 

  

Posted On: 30 Jul 2020 08:58 PM
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