In recent years, the discourse on social media has been worrisome. Yes, trolling and abuse have always been an issue.
Still, lately we have moved beyond that in a way that can cause irreparable damage to an individual’s mental health, livelihood and relationships, not to mention reputation.
It was Christopher Hitchens who once said that the greatest threat to free expression would be public opinion, not the state or any other authority. To adapt it further, I would say that the greatest threat to individual liberty and reputation is social media and co-ordinated opinion.
In the era of social media and instant justice, this is alarmingly true. There is no space for the law taking its course; guilt is established in a matter of seconds and years of building a life and reputation are shattered.
Furthermore, in a highly polarised society divided along political lines, not only in India but in the United States and other democracies as well, the mob behaviour or rather co-ordinated social media lynching of individuals is devastating for the person in the eye of the storm. However, under the garb of free speech, this behaviour is given a pass. Those who decry the mob lynching on the streets (rightly so) spare not a moment to think of their participation in similar lynchings; perpetuated from the comfort of their homes and with a click of the keyboard.
It has become all too easy to destroy reputations and we must all worry about that and decouple this coordinated dismantling of a person’s mind and life before there is a grave price to pay for this online bullying.
Recently, an incident came to light which has all the markings of this sort of politically driven social media lynching.
A dispute between two neighbours over a parking issue was exaggerated and elevated to such a level that it became a national trending topic on social media. Why and how did this happen?
First, the ‘how’: a video purportedly showing that the ‘accused’ in this instance, one Dr Subbiah, was allegedly urinating outside his neighbour's house was released without any verification or checking with the person involved.
The video, blurred strategically and spliced in places, is from CCTV footage. The accused has contested the authenticity of the video and asked authorities to investigate.
Furthermore, the presence of CCTV cameras for the safety of residents would be something that the accused would know. Why would he then indulge in such an act under camera coverage?
If the camera was in a public space like a market or park and not right outside his apartment on the same floor, one could assume he was unaware of the surveillance and behaved in this way. But the fact that he would do this under the view of the CCTV camera is hard to believe.
However, this dubious footage was released and a storm ensued, with guilt being announced.
But here is where it gets interesting: the video was released by the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student political arm of the Congress party.
Now, you may ask, how did they get involved in a neighbourhood quarrel about parking space, that is the work of the local RWA or at most the neighbourhood thana.
A parking space dispute is a daily occurrence. Still, it rarely reaches the level of national discourse, unless someone pulls out a gun and shoots the other person (this, unfortunately, has happened). This instigation by the political outfit is because the ‘accused’ happens to be the President of the Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the rival student body to the NSUI.
Dr Subbiah is not in politics. He is a highly respected oncologist who has been practising and helping cancer patients during the COVID pandemic, with little regard for his own health.
There have been far too many reports on how cancer patients have been suffering and been denied treatment during the pandemic. Dr Subbiah is by all accounts one of the good guys.
However, his association with the ABVP has taken this dispute to a national level and besmirched an otherwise spotless reputation built over decades.
Dr Subbiah belongs to the Nangudi Vellor community, which is an OBC community from the southern part of Tamil Nadu. From a rural background, he has fought the odds to reach where he has and become a doctor, his life’s passion.
However, a videotape which has not been cleared by the authorities has sullied his reputation. Is this fair? In the past, when journalists carried stories of this nature, it was and is part of their professional code to verify the tapes and also speak to those involved.
Social media offers no such allowances: a tape that cannot be verified is shared as fact. The retractions don’t come even when the authorities determine that the videos are fake, the damage has been done and people move on to the next outrage.
The individual is left dealing with the aftermath, sometimes for years.
Politics is dirty: this is said for a reason. In the caste-driven politics of the day, a man from an OBC caste supporting a nationalist organisation – doesn’t tie into the supremacist argument that opponents of Hindu unity above caste present. Dr Subbiah has had to pay that price.
A mature man, he will overcome this, and the matter has been settled amongst the neighbours amicably. But one worries for the young people who face such situations all too often.
Two months ago, a few kilometres from my home, a young boy of fourteen was called a molester on Instagram by a girl who claimed the incident was from two years ago. The boy would have been twelve at the time.
A few hours after her post, the boy jumped off the balcony of his 11th-floor apartment.
Advaita Kala is an author, screenwriter and a columnist. The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
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