I’ve got two things to say about my Elon Musk piece from yesterday. The piece was well-received, insofar as I was expecting it to be: there were a few bouquets, many brickbats. One troll called me “a Marxist in the garb of a science educator”. I thought that was a fine thing to be, though I’m sure he meant it to be offensive. Why can’t a Marxist be a science educator? Anyway, the two things…
First: The quality of the debate that my piece prompted on various social fora was quite poor. It just didn’t progress beyond bashing the piece, and me. I suspect the deteriorating quality of debates on the social media and in comment sections on news websites in general as well as that my piece couldn’t make its salient points effectively. And of the two, I can be responsible only for the latter. One point in particular I should’ve dwelled more on, I realise in hindsight, is about why self-regulation is the only form of regulation that can be effective in journalism.
Second: Are famous people on Twitter also responsible for the actions of their trolls? I think so. I wouldn’t have thought so if you’d asked me a couple years ago but I do now. The singular reason I changed my mind is the troll armies that the Tamil actors Vijay and Ajith command on Twitter. More importantly, theirs is not an active command but more of a passive condonement that the followers typically interpret as encouragement to continue doing what they’re doing.
Once in a while, following a particularly horrible bit of trolling, the actors issue a blanket statement saying they’re against all forms of violence, etc., and never being specific enough to be meaningful in any way. It’s clear that neither Vijay nor Ajith wants to alienate his fan base, the foundation upon which they’re both erected as “mass heroes” and on the shoulders of which Vijay has been nurturing political aspirations.
In one episode of Kaelvikkenna Badhil (‘What’s the answer to the question?’), a superb Q&A in the style of ‘Devil’s Advocate’ that Rangaraj Pandey conducts for Thanthi TV, he asks Kamal Hassan what happens when actors enter politics and bring their trolls along as party workers. Hassan slipped past the question (he has no such following) but I’m sure Vijay would’ve balked. The trolls also almost never think of what they’re doing as a form of violence, chalking up their verbal abuse to free speech.
The relationship between these actors and their troll-followers on the social media shaped all of my thoughts about culpability. Musk – like Vijay and Ajith – may not point his index finger at someone asking troubling questions and so direct a river of hate against the person, but – like Vijay and Ajith again – he must know, rather be aware, that his ire is not just his ire. It’s the ire of an institution, and that all of its supplicants will adopt it as their own. He must either actively discourage their behaviour or prepare to bear the brunt of it.
In fact, I’ve always believed that being a public figure is markedly different in some ways from being some random person. For example, if Jane Doe calls Bob an asshat and if Musk calls Bob an asshat, then we’d be in the right to be sterner in our response against Musk than against Jane. This is because public figures are not entirely individuals (as in the regular sense of the term) because they bear a responsibility that excludes them from that part of the social order – a responsibility to maintain cognisance that they don’t, rather can’t, be representative of themselves alone.
This is why Musk doesn’t get to hurl expletives at some John Doe and walk away.