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Why journalists hate trolls

At the outset, let me make it clear that I’m making a distinction between what is being labeled as “trolling” and criminal online behavior such as cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, hate-mongering, etc. However, this distinction is NOT made by a league of critics (most of them journalists) who are on a mission to purge the social media by launching a War On Trolling, much like Junior Bush launched War On Terror and declared that “if you are not with us, you are with the terrorists”.

In that case, I’m with the trolls (as defined by them).

For them, a troll is anyone who is not following the rules and decorum of a civilized communication, and who argues without showing much respect to logic.

(Please note that I’m giving them the benefit of doubt and not claiming that they consider anyone in disagreement with their views as a troll, which is truly the case with many such critics)

Now going by that definition, a troll sounds like a silly and avoidable person. But is he (or she, lest some troll calls me a misogynist) so despicable and monstrous?

No, except the cyber-criminals and hate-mongers (different from ‘haters’), most trolls are fun (not for the sensitive and politically correct types, in which case, just block them and move on).

In fact, trolling is an art. You need to indulge in lateral thinking to become a “successful” troll. It’s a well-known fact that creativity is often hindered by “rules” and “decorum”, and sometimes even by accepted “logic”.

So perhaps the first step towards being creative is to become a troll!

In India, Deepak Chopra and Chetan Bhagat are among those who are most trolled on Twitter. Those keeping a track would know that sometimes the trolls make more sense! Ditto about some celeb journalists, whom I won’t name as I could be accused of vanity.

At this point of time, some of the top journalists leading the crusade against trolls would claim that their objection is only to the abusive and hateful trolls. I have reasons to believe that this is just an excuse.

The verdict

In the last couple of days, an article has been widely shared on Twitter. It lists 5 types of trolls, rather “monsters” (see pic).

Strangely, it doesn’t list cyber-bullies, cyber-stalkers, or hate-mongers – the true monsters. In essence, it is a condescending list that labels people, who, according to the writer, follow no rules, logic, or decorum while communicating.

The thought process (no lateral thinking involved here) behind creating such a list is rooted in a journalist’s arrogated right to frame rules and decorum for a public debate.

Twitter is neither a TV studio for a controlled panel discussion nor the “letters to the editor” section where you can pick and choose what to print.

When a journalist joins twitter, it’s like getting into a government college after being the teachers’ favorite student in the private school. No teachers to protect you from the “bad boys” here. No extra marks for beautiful handwriting (grammatically correct and “intellectual” tweets). And no strict rulebook to follow (except Twitter’s terms and conditions and the laws of the land).

However, more than the anarchic nature of Twitter (and much of the virtual world) and a public display of love towards civilized discourse (in private, journalists use quite a colorful language, I can tell you from personal experience), a journalist’s problem with Twitter arises from the fact that traditional journalism is ill-conceived to allow and incorporate feedback and criticism.

In a newspaper, the “Letters to the Editor” column is the only place for feedback. But we know what kind of stuff goes there; mostly praise for the newspaper articles or complaint about government authorities. Many of us have written such ‘letters to the editor’ as a language composition exercise during our school days. Those were supposed to be some citizen journalism piece (Sir, the lamp post in my area is not working, I want to draw attention of the authorities through your esteemed newspaper) and not as a ‘feedback’ to journalistic activity.

Even in television, we are supposed to send SMS’s and answer loaded questions as feedback. Public views are edited (sometimes even faked) and ‘raw’ feedback is never entertained. Whether as a child going to school or an adult having your own mobile phone, you were never encouraged to give feedback to journalists.

A few years ago I met editorial head of a national news channel who earlier headed top editorial posts in many newspapers. He rued how internet was full of RSS sympathizers and went on to claim that RSS had a special cell that sent “letters to the editors” objecting to views expressed in various newspapers. He proudly claimed that he used to throw away such letters in the dustbin.

Twitter has no such dustbin, and many miss this luxury.

Maybe the views expressed in those letters were not deemed fit for publication by the editor, but they were fundamentally ‘feedback’ and ‘criticism’. You don’t throw them into dustbin just because you “suspect” that they were sent by an organized group.

One can mock that such views deserve nothing but the dustbin, but when have we seen the mainstream media allowing and incorporating feedback and criticism?

I’ve been a (television) journalist myself (in pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter era) and don’t remember a single editorial meeting that was called in to discuss feedback. In fact, there was no mechanism to collect public feedback at all.

The only ‘feedback’ that we were responding to was weekly TRPs. There were weekly meetings to analyze what type of program gathered the highest TRP and how to repeat the “success”. And I guess things haven’t changed much since then.

Most of what is being dismissed as “trolling” by journalists (not all of them, I must admit; some of them are doing really good on Twitter) are actually instant and angry feedback by their ‘consumers’.

Imagine AirTel or Vodafone dismissing all criticism and feedback as trolling. To be fair, they deal with many angry, abusive, and even dumb customers on a daily basis. God forbid if a journalist becomes their customer care head!

Traditional journalism, as an institution, has always seen itself as ‘giving feedback’ to the society and hasn’t thought it necessary to ‘take feedback’.

I remember Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta’s interview with Star News (now ABP News) after the coup-story controversy where he claimed that a member of Team Anna (most probably Arvind Kejriwal) had asked him whether Indian Express took feedback from the readers on what it publishes (Express had published a string of stories ‘exposing’ Team Anna before).

Shekhar Gupta thought that the suggestion (about taking feedback) was irrelevant as it was his duty, as a journalist, to show “mirror to the society” (his words) and not let anyone show him the mirror (my words).

After all that’s why he sued fellow journalists when they tried to show him the mirror.

A bulk of the problems of journalists with Twitter is rooted in this nature of journalism, where feedback is not deemed necessary, in fact, it’s seen as an unpleasant development, something they happily dismiss as trolling.

And yeah, if you disagree with what I’ve written above, you are a troll as per the picture above  – the see-no-evil monkey (Replace Indian Society with Indian Journalism).

(this was originally written on 11 June 2012 on a blog that I lost due to my own carelessness while migration of content to different server)

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