CHENNAI : Members of online actor fan clubs are becoming the goondas of the cyber space. They leave no stone unturned to ensure that those who ‘disrespect’ their favourite stars are mercilessly trolled with the most vile, vicious and vitriolic abuses.These clubs operate like ‘armies’ that are out to ‘protect’ their beloved actor’s ‘honour’ and ‘slay’ anyone who they believe is an ‘enemy’. Many who express seemingly harmless opinions online are relentlessly trolled by these ‘fans’ with everything from verbal abuses to threats of murder and rape.
“These online fan clubs operate much like a mob,” said playback singer Chinmayi Sripada, who was abused by Ajith Kumar fans after she said she enjoyed the Vijay-starrer Kaththi. “They derive their strength from numbers and gain confidence from the sense of fraternity that such groups provide. I believe this violence can spill out on the streets at some point because it is in people’s minds. The internet provides people with anonymity and if this is how so many people think, we have a problem.”
Actor Vijay’s fans were not far behind when they trolled The News Minute’s editor-in-chief, Dhanya Rajendran when she put out a post saying Shah Rukh Khan starrer Jab Harry Met Sejal was worse than Vijay’s film Sura. In an interview with The Quint, Rajendran recounted the harassment she faced. “Almost every abuse in Tamil was used, but almost all of those abuses were sexually coloured.”
They went a step further when they attacked the Wikipedia pages of prominent BJP leaders as the Mersal-GST controversy unfolded. After BJP national secretary, H Raja, played the religion card while attacking the actor, his fans took digs at Pon Radhakrishnan’s name on his page and subjected Raja and state chief Tamilisai Soundararajan to more attacks. With Radhakrishnan, the fans made changes to his name in Tamil rather than English, making it harder for Wiki vigilantes to detect.
Women, however, are subjected to the most ruthless kind of abuse online. Sexist remarks and threats of rape, death and acid attacks feature regularly. Intense character assassination is also carried out and women have had their photos being circulated online with captions that question their integrity.
A media professional provoked the ire of Ajith fans when she made a remark in jest about what she thought his next film should be titled. Within minutes, she was bombarded with abuse. The trolling assumed a violent tone when she was told that she would be beaten brutally with a rod and would regret being born. “I was not depressed but I definitely was disturbed,” she said.
“I have noticed that people cannot accept a woman with an opinion on stars. As long as you praise them, it is fine but the moment you question them, the fans will troll you. I was not scared because I believe that ‘barking dogs seldom bite’ but the element of fear would amplify when I travel alone.”
Most women become accustomed to the abuse and more often than not, try and ignore it unless it gets out-of-hand. “I am not emotional anymore,” said Sripada. “In fact, it takes a lot to get me to react to anything because I feel I have been through so much in this regard. I don’t care what people say anymore. Earlier, we had people who’d gossip behind our backs, now they’re gossiping and leaving it on record.”
One of the biggest consequences of these targeted attacks is that it makes one self-censor and this is what the trolls hope for. Sripada conceded to being more careful about what she writes online. “I have started censoring what I say,” she said. “I don’t talk about films that star big names. Earlier, I would stay away from dissing any of their films, now I don’t praise them either because there is the fear of offending the rival fan club. I only write about smaller films which could do with some publiclity in the form of a good word and if it is a film that is has been loved across the board.”
India is known to worship its actors, politicians and cricketers. Fans and followers go to feverish heights to ‘prove’ their devotion. In fact, it is believed that a Vijay fan immolated himself when one of his films released later than expected. However, in today’s context, while fan clubs of actors in the South have a very strong presence online, some actors in the Hindi film industry too command the same fanaticism.
“Deification of actors is not new to India. Fans here have this crazy passion for stars that they have always been expressed,” said Ankur Pathak, Bollywood editor of HuffPost India, who was abused relentlessly after he put out an interview with Salman Khan.
“Though the threat is not very real online, being at the receiving end of a volley of abuses can be a unnerving. More than that, it is the negativity that affects you; it makes you vulnerable.”
In his interview, Pathak had ironically asked the mega star about what it was about him that made people feel so fervently for him. The actor replied, “I don’t know. Maybe they think I’m one of them. Maybe they think I am just a regular dude who’s chill and approachable and has no airs of being a superstar. Maybe that, along with the kind of films I do, make them think I’m, I don’t know, accessible in a way?”
Are these ‘accessibility’ and ‘relatability’ factors the strongest driving forces of these fan clubs, more so in the South? “There is a lot of resistance to accept a star for what they really are. And when a controversy breaks, trolls go to any lengths. They pick up old tweets or statements that were said in an entirely different context, just to prove a point.”While Sripada has developed a thick skin towards the abuses and hatred, Pathak keeps himself amused with the responses that his articles garner.
“I retweet the abuses,” he said. “That’s how I deal with it all, by trying to find humour in the hate. I also believe that the threats that men receive are not as horrific as the ones women are subjected to.”
It’s in the mind
But it takes a certain kind of person to be a troll, said Mumbai-based cyber psychologist Nirali Bhatia. “Those who troll display narcissistic tendencies and derive pleasure by causing pain to others,” said Bhatia. “Their sole aim is to create unrest which makes them feel entitled and important. The most effective way to do that is to put out a negative response to something as that garners 10 more negative responses. With the absence of a proper law, they are fearless.”
While many believe the anonymity that Internet provides makes it a great place to spew venom, Viren Aul, group director of Cyber Council, believes this is a skewed perception. “The perception of anonymity online is one of the main reasons people have far less inhibition on the Internet,” he said. “This leads to comments and commentary online without concern of reprisal. Others take to the medium as a means to gain recognition, even if under alternative identity, and perceived power. Most often, they are completely unaware of the consequences that their actions have.”
While Rajendran and Sripada took matters to the police and ensured that some of those who spearheaded the abuse were taken to task, many such instances go unreported. This gives those who troll the confidence to continue spreading hate without the slightest fear of punishment. Police officials too said cyber cells in most states are not fully equipped to deal with the challenges posed by Internet trolling and cyber abuse. Experts believe it is imperative now more than ever to review the existing cyber laws to take into account recent trends of hate speech, especially for the online space.
News Minute’s editor-in-chief, Dhanya Rajendran was abused online by fans of Vijay
Singer Chinmayi Sripada was at the receiving end of abuse by fans of
Both the actors had released statements criticising the behaviour of their fans online. Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan too had warned their fans similarly