Home / Opinion / Columns /  Mohammad Shami, and our misguided obsession with internet trolls

A few days ago, I started seeing “love" expressed on social media for Indian cricketer Mohammad Shami. I took some time to figure out what happened—that “some people" had accused Shami of throwing the T20 World Cup match against Pakistan because he is Muslim. I tried to find out who exactly had accused him in this manner, and how many they were. I could not find any evidence that even hundreds of Indians had said this. Also, no public figure, not even minor politicians who are known to say ludicrous things, had made such remarks. Not even a Bajrang Dal activist, nor a passionate cowherd with a smartphone.

I do not say no Hindu would ever hold such a dim view of a Muslim cricketer. There are so many humans around, and so many with access to the internet, that everything that can be said can be found online. That is why it is absurd to accord any importance to the abuse of a few, whose size cannot be ascertained and identities cannot be established, not even whether they are human.

On the other hand, there is circumstantial evidence that India’s Hindu mainstream, or even a substantial fringe group, does not endorse the insult of Shami. The evidence is in the behaviour of famous cricketers.

Many Indians were annoyed a few days ago when the Indian cricket team knelt in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, because our cricketers are yet to take on any social injustice in India. But then, that is precisely why they knelt. It was easy. You are woke when it is safe, low-stakes and you have nothing to lose, and when you need to fill a quota of human goodness as cheaply as possible. The fact that such luminaries came out in support of Shami says something notable. If Indian cricketers find the courage to take a stand, it means it is not controversial to do so.

Even Sachin Tendulkar, who tends to keep his peace, came out in support of Shami. Recently, Tendulkar had kept quiet when his former colleague Wasim Jaffer resigned as a state coach in protest against the allegations of some officials that he promoted Muslims. But the same superstar was brave enough to “stand behind Shami". He could bet he would not get into trouble because almost nobody in India thinks Shami can go soft on Pakistan.

An annoying habit that “some people" have on social media is whining about “some people" when they want to whine about one specific person. This need to exaggerate the size of those you loathe is also behind most overreactions to foolish statements made by a tiny number of people, or bots.

Every day, self-absorbed folks get agitated by the views of a minuscule minority, and announce the death of India. They do not want to believe that in a vast society, zero can never be zero. Dozens, even hundreds or thousands, should be considered zero. How many trolls make a society? How many people constitute a bloc? Actually, how many people make a minority? How many horrible tweets make for a national crisis?

These may appear to be abstract immeasurable quantities, but they are not. They are quantifiable approximations. The weight of substantial opinions, including minority opinions, can usually be felt. And the lightness of insane comments by very few, too, can be felt—as in the case of the Shami episode, which even had Tendulkar saying what needed to be said.

But then, just as megalomaniacs like to exaggerate the numbers of “some people" who say nasty things about them, people with strong ideological views or other psychological disorders tend to accord disproportionate respect to fringe statements.

There is a practice among naive writers and journalists. They land in a new city, take a taxi and then get infatuated with the observations made by their taxi-driver. Taxi-driver journalism is one of the most meaningless forms of writing. If he has said something everyone is saying, then what is the point? If he has said something remarkable, then it could be just his view. Of late, people have found a way to do worse than taxi-driver-journalism. They make up quotations of the taxi driver. And that too is transmitted on the internet, which helps career lamenters lament the decay of a society.

I do not say that we have to be dismissive of fringe opinion. Its subscribers may be close to zero, but they are not air. Also, sometimes a fringe opinion may signify a view that many people harbour but will never say aloud. And that means a fringe opinion may portend a future mainstream opinion. Let us not forget, even in the 80s, Hindu nationalism itself was a secret yearning among many intellectuals, bureaucrats and teachers who knew they would be penalized if they revealed themselves. In any case, only wounded thoughts are infectious, and wounded thoughts usually emerge from a sentimental minority. All transmission of ideas are conducted by charged minorities. And, a very small group of people with strong opinions can cause damage.

Also, overreacting to the fringe has benefits. Statistically, emotionally and literarily, most of the world is moderate. A problem with the moderate condition is that it is not very impressive, so moderates find it hard to transmit their views. So, the occasional overreaction by self-absorbed activists to some ridiculous statements can convey the full force of the reasonable majority and hence serve to reassure everyone.

Even so, the ease with which fringe ideas garner attention is absurd. And it creates a bleak and inaccurate portrait of a society. On most days, we need to give majority opinion a chance to win.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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