After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
At 2 AM in June 2009, a man dressed all in black got out of a car at a deserted intersection in Los Angeles. With obscenity-laced stickers he had made earlier that day at a local Kinko’s, he defaced billboards advertising the release of the move I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.
He got back in the car, shot pictures of the defaced billboards from the passenger window, and later that night he sent them via a mail account in a fake name to a couple of blogs. The accompanying note said he had just spotted the defaced billboards, and he was glad Los Angelenos were protesting the filthy, obscene movie.
“If you know Niraj Dave, Nikhil Dadhich and Akash Soni,” says TV anchor Ravish Kumar in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “then please ask them if they are planning to kill me.”
The letter is a follow-up to Kumar’s Facebook post where he talks of a WhatsApp group that repeatedly adds him (and others, such as Barkha Dutt) in order to abuse and threaten. Even when he leaves the group, Ravish said, they add him back on and continue the abuse.
Kumar and Dutt are not isolated victims of abusive social media groups. To cite just a few recent examples from an overflowing collection, Quint reporter Deeksha Sharma was targeted for her criticism of a sexist rap song; Times of India reporter Rosamma Thomas received threats on WhatsApp for publishing an article critical of Modi’s crop insurance scheme. A Scroll story speaks of various journalists in the Delhi/NCR region being threatened. AR Meyyammai, who wrote a story detailing child abuse in a Tamil Nadu temple, and her editor have been at the receiving end of threats.
This creates a set of common behavior patterns. First, members of a group lavish one another with praise so that they themselves might be accepted and praised in turn.
Second, there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.
Third, people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.
Now this has become a thing — the blue tick next to your name on Twitter. Why
Why him? Why not me? And in recent days, that has escalated to the levels of conspiracy — the blue tick has now been elevated to the equivalent of a secret handshake that marks out the members of an elite left-leaning club. So now we have intense agonising about the blue tick, we talk of how withholding it is a conspiracy against right-thinking (oh no, I didn’t mean to pun) elements. We’ve even begun to dig for “evidence”, now.