Social media trolls are not something new. They've been around as long as social media has, revelling in the relative anonymity provided by the internet. Emboldened by their sheer numbers they have now gone from dwelling in the shadows, to emerging into the daylight in all their hideous glory; foaming at the mouth, and attacking anyone unfortunate enough to draw their attention.
In the last week alone we've had many such instances - Kolkata RJ Mir Afsar Ali was trolled for celebrating Christmas despite being Muslim. Mohammed Shami's wife also found herself in the firing line of seemingly Muslim trolls for wearing a gown rather than something more conservative. Before her, it was the turn of Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan whose joy at having a child was tainted by a rabid army of nationalist trolls that disagreed with Taimur, the name they chose for their baby.
In all three cases, the abuse that emanated from the trolls was vitriolic and escalated rapidly.
The troll's agenda
While all of this was happening, another disturbing fact came to light - the BJP controlled a troll army of its own, dedicated to vilifying and hounding those deemed opposed to the party. The revelations, made in Swati Chaturvedi's book I am a Troll, indicate that the BJP orchestrated and directed troll campaigns against a number of perceived detractors. In the words of a former volunteer, Sadhavi Khosla, these efforts were "a never-ending drip feed of hate and bigotry".
However, it went even beyond this. Khosla alleges that she, along with other volunteers, received direct directions straight from BJP's IT cell head Arvind Gupta, asking them to actively campaign on social media to have Snapdeal dismiss Aamir Khan as the brand's ambassador. Aamir was targeted after the actor spoke out about rising intolerance under the NDA.
It's disturbing that a political party would resort to this sort of tactic. However, it would be naive to imagine that other parties and ideological groups do not do this. What is important to acknowledge, though, is that trolling on social media can be disturbingly efficient at silencing opponents. And few things exemplify this more clearly than Aamir Khan's case.
The Aamir we once knew
The mainstream Bollywood fraternity may be many things. One thing it is not, however, is concerned with the plight of those who live outside of the Bollywood bubble. Apart from adopting pet social causes, usually while promoting their latest projects, Bollywood tends to distance itself from real world issues, lest they upset the political class.
There was, though, one glaring exception to this - Aamir Khan. Where Bollywood steered clear of anything even remotely close to activism or political opinion, Aamir was constantly sticking his neck out to make important points. His desire and willingness to do this, often to the detriment of his popular standing, was hugely important in a country where Bollywood stars are worshipped as gods.
I say 'was', though, because a few weeks ago at a press conference, Aamir Khan fielded a question on demonetisation and came across as ignorant, sycophantic and, most surprisingly for the man known for his emotional moments, insensitive.
"I haven't faced any problems due to demonetisation as I don't have back money at all. I pay taxes. Those who have black money will face problems." he declared proudly.
He, the same man who constantly wept for the plight of the underdog on his show Satyamev Jayate, dismissed the deaths of over 100 people and the suffering borne by tens of millions with an unfeeling "I know common people are facing problem and I feel sad about it," before reiterating that it was "a good initiative," and that "we must support him[Modi]."
It's easy to be upset with Khan for this seeming u-turn. However, a closer look at the situation makes it amply clear that Aamir's statements aren't those of a man whose priorities have changed, but that of a man whose spirit has been broken.
No stranger to criticism
Aamir Khan is no stranger to criticising the powers that be, or standing up for pubic issues. In the past, he has stood with the Narmada Bachao Andolan group, criticising the government's plans and refusing to apologise later, even as political groups threatened to boycott his movies.
In an industry where bravery and empathy are generally reserved solely for on screen exploits, Aamir has proven that he is no coward and has a soft corner for the suffering masses.
With that in mind, his recent statements on demonetisation really rankle. However, when you look at the sort of trolling Khan has been a victim of in the last year itself, it quickly becomes evident why he is toeing the BJP's line.
A new level of vitriol
It began with the onset of the 'Award Wapsi' saga. While most of Bollywood wouldn't dare to say too much on the issue, Aamir did multiple things to upset the establishment's apple cart. He criticised the rising intolerance in the country, he made a statement in support of the protesting FTII students and criticised the CBFC's censorship.
However, while Khan thought he knew how to deal with these situations, he was about to get a stinging dose of Twitter troll reality. Ably assisted by the BJP troll army alluded to in I am a Troll, trolls abused not just Aamir but also his wife Kiran Rao and anyone associated with the couple. The threats ranged from the usual 'Go to Pakistan', to actual threats of violence, Islamophobia and mindless abuse.
These attacks were unlike anything Aamir had ever experienced before. Previously, when he was attacked, it was through statements issued by political or ideological groups. These groups threatened boycotts or criticised his views, but restricted by the accountability that comes with operating in the public domain, these skirmishes were positively mellow. Responding to (or ignoring) a fringe group's statement is one thing, but battling a rabid army in an echo chamber of hate is altogether different.
What's more, while in the past these incidents would resolve themselves quietly in a day or two, things tend to last longer on Twitter, especially if a group is systematically orchestrating it. What's worse, once they're up, they're there forever.
In an atmosphere like that, is it any wonder that Aamir Khan is suddenly in love with the same establishment he criticised less than a year ago? Battered and bruised by the merciless trolling, he has effectively been silenced. This is the power of social media trolling, a power that I am a Troll alleges the BJP has harnessed and channeled to their benefit.
While the BJP stands accused of using the power to further their own goals, different groups of trolls use the same abuse-laden approach to silence their own opponents, ensuring dissenting voices are drowned out or eliminated. And, if this sort of environment isn't checked soon, meaningful discourse, on social media and otherwise, could soon be a thing of the past.