As Executive Editor of this blog, I have a tweet automatically produced for each post. It goes out over my name. Most often, that results in retweets and mentions that are positive; sometimes, quite the opposite. Never before, however, had I seen anything like this:
That comes in response to one of a series of posts (here, here and here) relating to concerns expressed by scholars with an Indian connection or concern about the upcoming visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Silicon Valley. The group is concerned that India may be on the verge of becoming a country where rights to privacy are compromised through digital tools unregulated in governmental hands.
The comments to the initial posting of the statement, some 350 long at this point, are as troubling as the tweet addressed to me. Many of them chortle sarcastic “thanks” to the scholars for listing their names, for now they can be identified. Though a few of them do try to address the substance of the statement, even those mostly deal with peripheral issues. Mostly, we see name calling and anger.
India, I see, isn’t very different from the United States.
It has been 15 years since the first time I tried to set up a blog. Since then, I have been involved in blogging in a number of different venues—and have even written three books relating to blogging. From an initial optimism about the form and the “citizen journalism” it made stronger, I have descended to despair about the damage we do to each other through both blogs and social media in general and back to what I hope is a more balanced vision, seeing the blogs (and social media) as the real and reinvigorated public sphere that I had hoped they would be but also recognizing that the public sphere itself is not always a very nice place to be. It may be necessary, but it is rarely pleasant—not when one gets down into its weeds.
And it is weeds we see sprouting in those 350 comments, crowding out reasonable seedlings and rational discussion.
One of the problems, of course, is that people feel free to comment from under the blanket of anonymity, blasting away while believing that no one can find out who they are (an irrational belief, by the way, in the current state of the digital revolution: Years ago I started finding ways of peeking under that blanket; today, I could easily find the identity of just about any one of the people who have posted such noxious comments).
Early on, I learned the value of keeping my own identity open. It provides a brake, a hesitation before posting the nastier comments that any of us can (and often do) so easily make. I understand that there are reasons, sometimes, for anonymity, so I never try to “out” anyone, but I find it difficult to respect those who attack others without revealing themselves.
Some of the signers of the initial statement, perhaps less hardened to the seamier side of the internet than I, have been quite concerned by what they read in the comments. And why wouldn’t they be, when they find things like this:
Useless biased anti Hindu anti India bunch of low levels of intelligence and high levels of hatred for all original Indian ideas and cultural ethos. Terrified at the high level of penetration these dirt bags have managed in the the academia field in India and out of India. India needs to have a violent brutal purging of these elements. Hope pro Hindu organisations stop their love of Gandhian measures and start emulating hanuman Krishna chanakya and shivaji’s way of forceful elimination of traitors and antinationals.
I emailed the person who posted that:
Though we approved your comment, we are concerned by the implicit threat of violence it contains. We ask that you keep comments civil. No one needs “a violent brutal purging.”
And received this in reply:
I do not mean it in literal sense but some actions or words are such that they force you to become angry. Anyway You are right
I am thankful for that. However, there may be others who would resort to violence. Online threats do need to be taken seriously, as events have proven.
The points the signers of the statement raise are legitimate though they are also debatable. The purpose of the statement is to raise awareness of issues of concern to the governance of every country—and particularly every democracy—resulting from new means of intrusion into individual privacy. The anger aimed at the signers is extremely inappropriate.
Recently, we are starting to see more comments making reasoned responses to the statement, and I am glad to see that. It does not, however, obviate the nastiness we still continue to receive.