Truth trolled

February 9, 2020

Trolling takes on a sinister character when employed against social movements that call truth to power

Online social movements were once dismissed by older activists and governments alike, derogatory labels such as keyboard jihadis and slacktivism abound. Genuine critique pointing out the dissonance between online and grassroots engagement notwithstanding, most gatekeepers of activism and social movements did not deign online spaces serious enough for politics. In the past decade, particularly with the proliferation of social media and affordable internet connections, online spaces have acquired a central place in the course social movements take – those who continue to ignore online spaces do so at their own peril. Grassroots and online social movements are no longer mutually exclusive. In fact, subversive movements that are denied a voice by mainstream media find that space online and digital devices have become a critical tool for mobilisation and storytelling.

While social movements are finding room online, online spaces are also a breeding ground for backlash in the form of organic pushback from societal forces resisting change while at the same time manifesting concerted trolling and misinformation campaigns. This is evident in the state’s approach towards the internet where online speech is being framed under the rubric of “5th Generation Warfare”, conceptualising online spaces in militaristic terms rather than platforms for free speech. In a different context, this reactionary politics is explored by Sarah Banet-Weiser in her book Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, where she theorises the rise of popular misogyny as a reaction to popular feminism, both intertwined in “networked, an interconnection of nodes in all forms of media and everyday practice”. She provides an important insight into the nature of the internet that allows for a particular form of backlash: the use of social media by social movements catapults them into the politics of visibility, manifesting in the visual medium of the internet, expressed through images, videos and memes. This language of online social movements lends itself to instantaneous backlash that is unique in its form, emanating both from the state in the form of laws that clamp down on freedom of expression as well as societal pushback in the form of personal attacks on activists, concerted disinformation campaigns and mass trolling.

A tactic employed by trolling armies against progressive movements and activists has been to censor content and accounts by getting them removed through mass reporting.

Trolling, though a tool that can be used by internet users of all ideologies, when employed against marginalised communities and social movements that seek to call truth to power takes on a more sinister character, often with the intention of silencing a community that is battling multiple battles and is denied access to power and visibility otherwise. Trolling takes on its particular character due to the anonymity that the internet affords. The social sanction of obnoxious behaviour that can be a disincentive in offline spaces does not exist for fake profiles. Furthermore, social media is susceptible to manipulation through bot farms and their ability to launch coordinated campaigns. Internet trolls, armed with the knowledge of social media algorithms and the right technological tools, for instance, can make hashtags trend on Twitter in a matter of minutes or create an ecosystem of misinformation on Facebook. Community guidelines and self-regulation by tech companies have failed to catch up with the way online backlash plays out.

Another tactic employed by trolling armies against progressive movements and activists has been to censor content and accounts by getting them removed through mass reporting. Again, by weaponising the reporting algorithms and community guidelines of social media platforms, mass reporting often leads to suspension of accounts. This was seen in the case of pro-Kashmir accounts on Twitter, largely originating from Pakistan, effectively silencing and censoring content that raised alarm regarding the oppressive moves by India in the occupied territory. We saw this again with the case of accounts protesting the detention and arrest of protestors in Islamabad last week.

Women and gendered minorities feel the impact of trolling differently. The feminist movement in Pakistan has used online spaces both as a site for expression, in a country where they are often denied access to political and public spaces, and as a tool of organising people. For instance, social media had a central role in mobilising for the Aurat March. Yet, these very spaces are host to visceral attacks on the movement and its organisers. Recently, an announcement for a public meeting by the Karachi organisers of the Aurat March on their Facebook page attracted ridicule as well as death and rape threats. While trolling takes an immense individual toll, impacting the safety and mental health of its targets, when employed against social movements it has a political impact and grave implications for online freedom of expression.

While regulation of online spaces has increased in the past few years, the legal regime offers little respite to those on the receiving end of trolling and coordinated online backlash. After the Aurat March in 2019, several women moved the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to take decisive action against accounts engaging in online hate speech and inciting violence against organisers and participants of the march. The test case laid bare the inability of the law to fully capture the complex ways in which online trolling occurs. Firstly, the law lacks the ability to take action against mass trolling given the sheer volume of accounts involved; the threshold requirements in the cybercrime law asks the victim to report only “serious” threats, a process which diminishes and invisibilises the impact of trolling that falls below the legal threshold. Secondly, there is no specific provision in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 criminalising trolling, and the sections dealing with crimes such as hate speech do not include gender. Thirdly, the FIA was unable to corroborate the evidence submitted in the Aurat March case, citing lack of cooperation by social media platforms. This is despite the fact that some of the evidence submitted contained self-made videos in which the perpetrators were clearly identifiable.

Social movements online, however, are incredibly dynamic and not simply passive victims. Feminists routinely take on trolls by employing humour as a digital defence mechanism. Movements often invert the tactics of troll armies to come together to counter backlash and disinformation with their own concerted campaigns. For these movements, the ultimate analysis of online backlash can be found both in understanding the technologies and tools deployed to target them and in contextualising the backlash as the status quo fighting back. It is easy to get lost in the byzantine tech and policy conditions that allow troll armies to thrive online. However, technology is best understood as a social construct that reflects the power structures that prevail in society; online trolling is a manifestation of these very structures.

The writer is a program manager at Digital Rights Foundation

Online trolling and social movements in Pakistan