Of all the articles I have written, films I have directed or produced, I had never imagined that I would wake up one morning with 4,000 notifications because of a silly “hot or not” survey I had jokingly posted on my Instagram stories. I had been, as the kids call it today, cancelled.
During an unimportant conversation with my boyfriend, I had recounted the pains of the ICSE board exams and the tears I had shed as a 15 year old convinced that life would be over if I failed. I spoke about history being my favourite subject and mentioned how I had loved the “first chapter” because I had a crush on Mangal Pandey borne out of hours of never-ending lectures about Indian Independence.
To my surprise, my boyfriend laughed about this for hours. He could not believe that while I had a crush on Dean Winchester from Supernatural, I was also thinking about Mangal Pandey. This made me wonder. I couldn’t have been the only kid to have a crush on a freedom fighter from our history books, could I?
So I decided to ask my followers on Instagram. I posted a “hot or not survey: freedom fighters edition” on my stories. I got a few hundred responses on names ranging from Jhansi Ki Rani to Bhagat Singh to Gandhi. I responded to a few of these that voted for Mangal Pandey and confessed I had had a crush on him and thought he was “extremely hot”. My boyfriend and I also both agreed that Bhagat Singh was “sexy” and that Gandhi was the “daddy of our nation”.
Now, am I proud of the humour of these jokes? Not really, these are not the funniest or most original jokes. But was I spreading hate speech towards the founding fathers of our country? Absolutely not.
But the quiz and the comments really riled up several people.
The sexualisation of our founding fathers has always been a haunting idea, a concept that has been far removed from us because we have been instructed to worship them. One cannot make a comment that is not in praise of India and members of the freedom struggle. It is simply not allowed.
While I did not criticise anyone, rating them on a “hot or not” scale was simply making them human. But to the online denizens, objectifying these men was absolutely not to be tolerated because it somehow strips them of their masculinity and threatens their God-like status.
Now, I am more than happy to engage in discourse about my actions with anybody who thinks my 24-hour story joking about the physical appearance of our freedom fighters is disrespectful. However, as we are already aware, constructive criticism and disagreements are not what the internet or social media is for.
Like most shakedowns, my social media death started with Twitter. Several people, mostly teenagers, had taken screenshots of my story and posted them on Twitter, with comments about how angry they were about my “audacity” to sexualise the founding fathers.
This did not upset me too much as they are entitled to their own opinions and I recognise that posting on my public social media page about national leaders would obviously have some backlash. However, there was no way to prepare for what happened after.
Soon enough, the Twitter outrage reached Instagram. Several popular meme pages such as dankbombay, memexnasha, tiktokroom_in decided to post about my “disgusting” behaviour. The Samwaad, a digital platform, also decided to use my pictures on their Instagram to stir further controversy.
Other hate pages made memes insulting me, my body, my family and anything they could find on my Instagram page. Apart from being called fat, stupid and ugly, I was also called the most obnoxious Hindi slurs that do not need to be repeated.
In just one week in July, some half a million accounts had viewed my profile. Most of them were there to either hate comment or to hate message me. Within three weeks, over a million people had viewed my profile.
Very quickly, I started getting death, rape and mob lynching threats. A group chat on Facebook also revealed that some people were looking for my address so that they could “teach me a lesson” and “mob lynch” me (this group chat has been reported and taken down).
My personal messages were filled with people telling me, in gruesome and violent detail, how they wanted to rape, murder or assault me.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have extremely thick skin. But when crowds of people begin to attack you on the internet with obscene and violent language telling you in extreme detail how they want to kill/rape you, things change.
Funnily enough, when I posted the “hot or not” story, I captioned the post as “don’t cancel me” – because of course I was aware that this specific topic would be a sensitive matter. We talk a big game about India being the largest democracy and a land of freedom, when in reality we are bound by the same restrictive principles. We hold our great men to such a high order that rape and mob lynching threats against a 20-something is seen as accurate punishment for calling a freedom fighter “hot”.
In a country, where I was sexualised as Class 1 student while asked to wear a skirt below my knee else men would get excited, I am now being sexualised and harassed again because I had the audacity to judge a man based on his physical appearance.
The patriarchal double standard is beyond ironic.
Now, I am a nobody on Instagram who occasionally posts random jokes that clearly only I think are funny. And, within a few weeks, most of the hate against me had died down. But there are several teenagers on the internet who face this level of hatred on a daily basis and are left with little to no resources to stand up for themselves.
According to a study conducted by CRY, around 9.2% of 630 adolescents surveyed in Delhi-National Capital Region had experienced cyberbullying and half of them had not reported it to their teachers, guardians or the social media companies concerned. Further, the study found that 22.4% of respondents (aged 13-18 years) who used the internet for longer than three hours a day were vulnerable to online bullying, while up to 28% of respondents who used the internet for more than four hours a day faced cyberbullying. One in four adolescents also reported seeing a morphed image or video of themselves, and 50% of these were not reported to the police.
Microsoft’s Global Youth Online Behaviour Survey ranked India at number three out of 25 countries on the list of online bullying cases. Instagram’s new features that deletes “hate comments” detect only English slurs, hence most of the Hindi (or any other language) hate comments on meme pages or other profiles cannot be reported since hate speech is not detected. In several cases, children who face cyberbullying end up having to seek therapy and are diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Several need to move schools and neighbourhoods. MYADVO also quoted that victims of cyberbullying or anti-bullying are two to nice times more prone to dying by suicide.
The worst part about this entire ordeal is that most of us already know this, but choose to ignore it. As we endlessly scroll through Twitter and Instagram, we watch people get badgered, bashed and humiliated, but continue scrolling. We are trained to say “just ignore the trolls”, but at what point do we start enforcing the laws we have created to reprimand this behaviour? At what point do we hold people accountable for their words?
GCF Global defines a troll as “a person who intentionally tries to instigate conflict, hostility, or arguments in an online social community”. There now exist ”troll armies” who are groups of people who hide behind their anonymity and intentionally try to hurt the person being trolled with rude comments. When they sense conflict, they are first to arrive to make sure it is blown out of proportion.
The act of “trolling” has become so common and mainstream, that it is no longer surprising. However, it is the rampant movement of trolling that causes misinformation and fake news to spread. There is very little action being taken against this by both the government and social media platforms themselves. In the larger scheme of things, social media has begun to quite literally take over the perceptions of people, whether it is about their interest in arts and culture, their beliefs and religion or their politics. By creating strategic posts on social media, people are being manipulated for the economic and political gain of a few. Several scholars and researchers have also argued that social media and the use of social bots was instrumental in distorting the 2016 US Presidential election.
While this is a much larger issue by itself, if we just concern ourselves with social media trolling on a microscopic and individual level, it still is affecting several children causing stress, anxiety and frightening suicidal thoughts. The pandemic saw a rise of several young teenagers using their platforms on social media to create comedy content, dance, sing, draw, vlog and just express themselves in whatever way possible.
This period of time was significant in launching many teenagers’ careers as ‘social media influencers’. But as these kids manoeuvred the general panic and anxiety that surrounded us during the pandemic, they were also faced with a sudden rampant wave of hatred that came with having a little bit of fame on social media.
These comments usually range from people commenting on the content being presented itself to getting extremely personal with body shaming, abusive name calling and even aggressively threatening kids with rape and murder. While one may argue that it is normal for talent to be questioned, I urge you to speak with any Generation Z kid, no matter their following/fame, and ask them if they have experienced any form of cyberbullying, trolling or unsolicited sexual commentary towards them from people they know or don’t.
I promise you, you will be disturbingly surprised.
Saniya Mirwani is a filmmaker based in Mumbai and New York. She works as a Production Associate at honto88. Saniya believes that filmmaking is a medium of social change and is determined to create content that is inclusive and socially positive. She is also currently in post production for her directorial debut, “Any Given Night” which is a dark comedy that deals with the issues of women’s safety.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty