Why do trolls exist? Why are comedians/academics/journalists mobbed on the internet? Why does the State initiate criminal proceedings against citizens for jokes or facebook posts for content that is just free speech or a bad joke or just someone’s opinion?
The internet has given us the chance to become armchair analysts and express our views on anything and everything under the sun. Not withstanding the fact that no one might be interested in our views or that so many people might be putting out their thoughts that ours might just be a blip on the radar.
Moreover, all of us have an innate desire to belong to a tribe or a group which would support us and with which we can identify. The internet makes this easy. It helps us create silos where we interact with people with views similar to ours and live in echo chambers where we find evidence to reinforce our views reject alternative ideas. Once we are in the tribe, we want to rise to the top. So what do I say to catch attention, stand out from the crowd, get people to share, like or subscribe to my feed.
I put out content that is so out there or express an opinion that is so extreme that it will get a reaction from viewers/readers or the authorities if I really hit it big. The costs are negligile, however, if I hit the jackpot I might end up with a significant bump in popularity or even a electoral seat. This explains why your ‘appear to be perfectly normal’ neighbor or colleague might be an online troll.
So how do I go about it. I see what topics are trending or if someone has ‘insulted’ a leader/spiritual guru/anyone who a significant number of people hold sacred. Then I go after them with guns blazing (pun intended). To rise to the top of my tribe of vigiantes, I take the extreme position, threaten to send goons after them or worse of all, attack their gender and spew rape threats. Voila!
The target will, most likely, retreat and apologise, nevermind their emotional trauma. As for me, at worst, I may get a rap on the knuckles from the authorities and may be asked to take my video/post down. At best, I may have a hundred new followers or a thousand likes or a place in my local political party’s cadre, if things are really going for me. The incentives are aligned to encourage mindless trolling. I lose nothing but stand to gain a ton.
As for the State, it acts with an eye on the future. It doesn’t want people making fun of the political leaders or the government. Taking a cue from the ‘broken windows theory‘, it is in its favor to stomp out minor transgressions.
Comedians are at the bottom of the food chain. They make a political joke. People laugh and then the academics and intellectuals think that perhaps its okay to disagree with the powers that be, to criticize, to suggest alternatives and to ensure that the government is working for the people. However, if that comedian gets the rap for the silly joke, the other line items do not follow.
So the state goes after the soft targets, the comedians, academics, poets and activists. An FIR here, an arrest there, a custodial death and the target is achieved. The motive is not to punish for the act which has already been committed. It is to prempt and prevent others from going down the same path. It is to supress future dissent.
Other comedians, academics and activists start worrying about their families and fall in line. They stick to other genres which are perceived to be relatively devoid of controversy and so on. Their incentives are in favor of shutting up. Amit Verma and Vivek Kaul, call this the ‘chilling effect’ of the coercive actions of the state, in their podcast ‘The Economics of the Chilling Effect’ available here.
This has an impact on me too. It has happened gradually but now I am unlikely to put out an opinion that may cause offence because what if someone comes after me. I fall in the majority who shut up because they have been conditioned to believe that there is very little benefit and a very high cost of being a black sheep.
Sad, isn’t it?
Credits: I listened to the podcast ‘The Economics of the Chilling Effect’ available here and it inspired me to write this post.