Fact 1: My mother, – whose knowledge of computers is so pathetic that every time we talk about computers, she makes it a point to announce, proudly to her grandchildren “I once did a computer course”, – is always scared that the law-enforcement agencies will hound me, catch me and incarcerate me. This is not a jokey sort of fear. This is for real. Some of my younger relatives who are there on Facebook feed that fear – they tell her nothing about privacy settings etc., but only tell her about the contentious things I write in discussion threads or as status updates and it scares her into getting regular nightmares about her daughter being whisked away and her grandson having to bear the ignominy of a mother in prison. For a lady who stretches her mouse-holding arm right out of the workstation if she has to click something in an upper corner of a page, this can be daunting, I understand. But it is a classic example of where perceptions, based on incomplete information at best, can lead us.
Fact 2: A classmate of my son sent me a Facebook friend request. I found it endearing and called my son over and showed him. I told him I was accepting it and he let out a mini-howl, ‘No ma, you can’t do that!’ Upon telling him I liked the girl and anyway she would be hurt if I did not accept, my son said, ‘You really have no idea how these Facebook things operate, do you? People just click on names arbitrarily to get more friends!’ I still find that a little hard to believe but decided against laboring that point. Apparently – and who knows, maybe this is true as much for adults as kids – if the net does not congratulate or announce to the world how many friends you have, one starts feeling empty and unloved.
Truth be known, my poor inadequate mind too boggles at times by the internet. My incomprehension about how it really works is right up there somewhere with the Big Bang theory and stock market. I still can’t figure out how images, words, sounds can travel across space and be accessible whenever we want. I had just about got used to the TV and radio, when this whole barrage of technology started impacting our day to day lives. Technology in our youth was Binaca Geetmala on a big radio on Wednesdays, and as we advanced and my very middle-class parents could afford a TV, it became Chitrahaar on Sundays, Star Trek for the male, and Different Strokes for the whole family. Speaking of which, had it not been for the internet, I could have lived my entire life with the illusion that Bill Cosby and his wonderful family were for real, in some sense at least – I was taken in, hook, line and sinker by the man and his shows and his books. This knowledge of all that he apparently is, – is a bit of information I could have happily spent my life without.
I think I became scarily aware of the negative power of the net when I saw how people reacted to Aarushi Talwar’s mother speak on TV, and how quickly they made value judgments based totally on her possible inability to cry and appear broken. She did not conform, she was angry. Her daughter was not killed 14 days, how dare she not cry? The interview went viral, although I don’t know if the term was so popular even just a few years back.
Recently almost all of us got the clipping of this girl supposedly wrongly shaming a young man in our Facebook feed. Very soon after she posted the picture and write-up, people iconized her as the modern-day hero, some sort of Xena the Warrior Princess, gutsy enough to stand up to the ever-increasing band of roadside Romeos. Only, this poor man was probably not to blame at all, and what was strung was a web of lies. But the damage to the man’s reputation was already done. He could shout till the cows came home but there always will be someone saying sagely comments like, ‘he must have done something, there is no smoke without fire’ etc. Social media shaming had already ensured that the whole country and their cousins and all manner of voiceless people with their phones or computers had found a voice, and justice suddenly seemed democratized. People who would not lift a finger to help a girl accosted on the streets were passing judgments, figuratively drenching the man in shame. You could see discussions going on in almost all fora – this united a lot of quite disparate groups. What happened as a result was not judicial at all – where the accused was not provided any voice at all, and because we could not hear his voice, he was dehumanized and it became that much easier to destroy his character. As people shared the post with comments, sometimes sarcastic and mostly angry, everyone felt good about it. Everyone felt as though they were contributing in the retribution.
It has happened again – which is not to say it ever stopped – with the way the Mukherjea/Bora case has been handled and is still being handled by the media – social and otherwise. Everyone is horrified. All manner of people get called to opine on the case, supposed ‘friends’ of the couple come on national TV to pontificate on the quality of their marriage, with nary a thought to the supposed friendship, completely unmindful (or maybe it’s arrogance from reasonless celebrity-hood that we mere mortals can’t quite fathom) of the fact that if the same media and law-enforcing machinery were to come peeping into their cupboards, the skeletons tumbling out would not do them any favours either. But the scary power of the media is such that people’s lives can be torn apart and the virtual snowball can collect all manner of people in its wake. People get mangled and devalued and when we sit around drinks discussing them (I have done it myself), we lose whatever capacity for empathy we had.
The media goes on after these temporary subjects and we go after them, all guns blazing. They gloat about the fact that one obscure man who wanted to lead a normal middle-class life and forget his past has been unearthed by them (“you saw it first here”, is the term). This man then, the once-upon-a-very-long-time-partner of the accused, trying desperately to avoid the spotlight and the consequently immeasurable damage it will do his current life, is verbally lynched, made to answer questions even the police are not seeking. It will very possibly completely disrupt the middle-class life script he was prepared to play. The discovery serves no actual purpose, save titillating the viewers, making him out to be a sickening villain even though we know that is not true. All the while, the TRPs rise, so we are all to blame, really. We always get the media and politicians we deserve, has been my view. One week later, when something new comes up, we all flock towards that, but this man’s life is ruined. Media does not give voice to voiceless people any more. It scares voiceless people from trying to find a voice, actually. The collective fury leashed on the subjects ensures they are pilloried and hated for their transgressions – sometimes even imagined ones. Our anonymity as we opine lets us forget one victim as soon as we move on to the next.
We speak of lashes and stone throwing in Arab countries and some other societies. Disparagingly. We look down on them and rush to judgment. But technology has enabled each one of us to do our massive virtual stone throwing and sometimes the price paid by the victim is much higher than the scars and bruises of actual stones. Technologically advanced media judgment is amplified and what is more, permanently accessible. No one has any control, no one can actually use any power to put a stop to it. It is like the arrow that has been released, there is no turning back. There are no perimeters on how and what people can do to put you on a stockade. One pays a very personal price for the public humiliation that social media bestows on him/her.
Besides, has one ever thought of the futility of cleaning one’s room while moving around with dirty feet?