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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Bully for you!

How to deal with the hotbed of hatred that goes by the name of the Internet

Cyber bullying has been much in the news of late. And it spawned a fresh set of stories after the wife of the Republican contender for the US Presidency, Melania Trump, gave a robotic stump speech to announce that she would work on combatting cyber bullying if she ever became First Lady. Once we had stopped pointing and laughing -- and asking her if she had ever met her husband, the Insulter-In-Chief, Donald Trump -- it was difficult to disagree with the substance of what Melania said.

You only have to spend ten minutes on the Internet to realise what a hotbed of hatred it has become. Clearly the anonymity that the net offers does something strange to people. It brings forth their worst instincts. It encourages them to spew abuse and insults from their safe havens in front of their keyboards. It turns otherwise rational and sane human beings into a raging mob spitting expletives and vomiting bile. It makes them think nothing of throwing stuff at you that they would never dream of saying to your face.

So, yes, Melania had it right when she spoke about how "We have to find a better way to talk to one another, to disagree with each other, to respect each other."

But she is quite the wrong messenger to put out this message. After all, every night she lies down to sleep beside Donald Trump, who is prone to go on vicious tweet storms in the early hours of the morning, asking people to check out (non-existent) sex tapes of former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado. So if Melania really wants to fight cyber bullying then she should start with the bully snoring gently next to her. Confiscating his phone and deleting his Twitter account would be a good start.

But I am guessing that is not going to happen any time soon. And even if we try and take comfort in the hope that after November 8 we won't have to bother very much about what Donald Trump has to say (am writing this before America goes to the polls, so knock wood) cyber bullying will still be a clear and present danger.

Like most women who have an online presence I have been subjected to my fair share of cyber bullying over the years. The abuses remained much the same. They were always some variation on calling me a 'prostitute', wishing that I would be 'raped' (except that I was too unattractive for any man to bother), calling me fat or ugly (or both), ah well, you get the drift. But over time my way of coping with the steady stream of vitriol did evolve and change.

My initial response to all the sexist abuse on such platforms as Twitter was to hit back hard. I would reply to every abusive tweet and tie myself up in futile exchanges that did nothing other than exasperate, infuriate, and even debilitate me. After a few months of this, I realised that what they say about wrestling with pigs is true: you both get dirty but only the pig enjoys it.

All I was really doing with my instant responses and cutting repartee was feeding the beast. I was just encouraging bad behaviour instead of cutting it off. I was giving cyber bullies the space to function and thrive instead of cutting off their oxygen supply.

So, I decided to change tack. Now, instead of replying to these angry cyber warriors I would just draw attention to their illiterate rants in a suitably high-minded manner. Thus began a brief phase when I would retweet the most vile tweets with a pithy comment like "Your mother would be so proud of you". The hope was to name and shame the most vicious offenders so that they thought twice about using language like this again.

I know, silly me. What was I thinking? All I did achieve by retweeting the messages of these trolls, who sometimes had less than a hundred followers, was allow them access to a larger audience on my timeline. And boy, did they revel in the attention this got them!

It was time to roll out another strategy -- and this one has served me well to this day. It's called Zero Tolerance. I block anyone who is abusive towards me. I block those who bully and abuse others. I block those who spout communal nonsense on my timeline. I block those who retweet this kind of nonsense. It is an endless process; block a dozen trolls and a hundred others spring forth to take their place. But despite the occasional moments of despair, I keep at it.

Is it a viable solution to cyber bullying? Of course not. But it is a good start to keeping cyber bullies out of my space. My logic is simple: I would not tolerate this kind of behaviour from people in real life; so why should I tolerate it on the Net? Anyone who behaved like that in my home would not be invited back. So, why would I allow such louts on my timeline, which is my virtual drawing room?

Which is why I don't have much use for Melania Trump's claims of combatting cyber bullying. If she can't deal with the bully in her bed, what hope is there for her taking on those hiding in the dark shadows of the Net?


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