The Internet is an angry place, claims a New York Times article titled, “Clicking their way to Outrage.” The author, Teddy Wayne, begins by pointing out, “You needn’t Google far for recent case studies of Internet outrage. Log in to a social network and you’ll find it directed at celebrities and civilians alike.”

An Indian netizen would agree whole-heartedly agree, albeit with a chuckle. Just look at the recent #WhoIsMariaSharapova brouhaha. Given the way Sharapova was trolled on her social media pages from Facebook to Twitter; it’s evident the average Indian social media user has a hair-trigger temper, ready to take offence at the very slightest misdeed.

“Bile has been a part of the internet as long as Al Gore has…But the last few years have seen it crawl from under the shadowy bridges patrolled by anonymous trolls and emerge into the sunshine of social media…,” as Wayne notes.

For India, as well, social media interaction has come a long way from writing Orkut testimonials in early 2006 to opening a Friendster account to now spending half our lives on Facebook and Twitter era. The greater our engagement with social media, the greater our fury, or so it seems.

While Facebook is for having lengthy, often heated debates with our friends — with the rest reaching for the popcorn as they read our virtual fights, Twitter is about attacking strangers: from women journalists to Paapu supporters to Aaptards to cine-stars to tennis players. It’s a free for all.

And it’s not just a Twitter problem. Who can forget the infamous Rediff chatorganised with Kavita Krishnan, where a commenter openly threatened to rape the women’s rights activist? The moderators failed to stop the commentator and no action was taken against him.

Representational Image: Reuters

The NYT report quotes Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay as saying, that while happiness is to be shared with friends, anger is shared easily with strangers. It’s mob rage, Internet style.

He tells NYT, “People prone to Internet outrage are looking for validation,” as they “feel they’re vindicated and a little less lonely and isolated in their belief.”

In fact in a 2013 study, Professor Martin found that the Internet’s angry horde is also angry in real life and just a tad more than the average population. He noted in his study, “They expressed their anger less healthily, in maladaptive ways,” relying on yelling, screaming.

Of course screaming and yelling is totally possible on the Internet too. Just TYPE OUT EVERYTHING IN CAPS and you think you’ve made your point.

Wayne and Martin also point to the sense of anonymity that mobs feel on Twitter, which is crucial to how the Internet functions as a whole. Anonymity is a valued quality for people who are under threat or want to share sensitive or repressed information with the wiser world. In China for instance, Weibo isn’t just a site to post quick Twitter like snippets about the world, it gives the people a valuable outlet to actually criticise the government – something that they have never have been able to do before.

And then there’s the dark side of anonymity, like with comment forums on websites, and many ‘troll’ Twitter accounts in India, who use it like a weapon with which to attack, name call and spew hatred and vitriol all over the web. They attack anyone with different world views, ideologies and  beliefs, safe in the knowledge that their true identities will never be known.

But for the eternally outraged netizen, even anonymity is not completely necessary.

In India, many of those who abuse on Twitter have a complete profile, with their real pictures, but that still doesn’t stop them from abusing anyone they disagree with. They see no problem with calling a woman writer a bitch for instance. And they adapt their abuse to fit the medium. With Twitter, where the word limit is 140 characters, so it’s best to keep it short and sweet, I suppose.

There is also the added attraction of speed. As Martin says,“You get mad, and you can tell the world about it in moments before you’ve had a chance to calm down and think things through.” And it’s so very easy. Smartphones and tablets allow instant connectivity (if you have a decent Internet connection). It’s not for nothing that Facebook and Twitter are the top ten apps in worldwide usage.

Forget strangers, smartphones have drastically changed the nature of personal relationships as well. I’ve lost count of the number of fights I have had with my fiance, via WhatsApp or even SMS. It’s all right there, just type your anger in, hit send and it’s done. It’s only later, after you’ve calmed down and you read the messages, that you think, “oh dear, did I just overreact?”

And this is with people, you care about. With strangers on the Internet, it’s bound to be much worse.

Wayne also notes that, “the emotion plays well on social media because of its brevity”, adding that a longer post on Facebook might not see such vitriol. But that isn’t always the case.  In India, the angry internet user is everywhere. Just go to the comments section on any prominent news website, from TimesofIndia to ET to Firstpost, all you’ll find is bunch of outraged comments that are often nothing but filth.

The reason for this anger as Wayne points out, is that the readers feel that “their own personal sense of belief” has been violated. So by dishing out abuse be it on Twitter or Disqus, they hope to preserve the feeling of “moral superiority” over others. The irony is that for some commenters in India, this feeling of moral superiority comes with abusive language, incoherent rants, middle fingers drawn via symbols, demands for castration/mass genocide. 

In the case of India, the ready availability of keyboard (be it on your mobile or laptop) has reduced debate and criticism to a virtual fight. And if you’re the unlucky moderator for any site, your job is equally frustrating, as you are left to clean up the blood stains.

 

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