Trolls instil fear in cartoonists’ minds

The election season, with all its colour and drama, had been a festival for political cartooning. But no longer so. Cartoonists, especially those using social media platforms to publish their works, say they are under siege by a polarised electorate.

Several cartoonists have reported instances of their work being taken down from social media platforms and their accounts blocked after they were flagged by users for “offensive content, abuse and nudity”. They allege that while they have been experiencing a “tough time” with right-wing trolls over cartoons critical of the BJP, the situation has become worse in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election.

P. Mahmud, a senior political cartoonist from Karnataka, has been locked out of his Facebook account for a week. His cartoon on March 8 portraying demonetisation and GST as an air strike on the economy went viral on social media, but it was later pulled down after it was allegedly flagged for offensive content. Shorty after, his account was locked. “This is an attack on my freedom of expression, robbing me of a platform,” Mr. Mahmud said. Another work of his, critical of Masood Azhar, founder of the terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed, was reported for hurting religious sentiments as he had called it Jaish rather than by its full name. A user reported it as an attempt at “obfuscating the religion of terror”.

“I can take criticism. But this campaign against my work seems organised and connected to my religion as well,” Mr. Mahmud said.

Another senior cartoonist from the State, Satish Acharya, had to lodge a complaint with the Udupi police recently when a right-wing troll threatened to “teach him a lesson in public”.

“I have had my Facebook account blocked thrice over the past five years. Each time it was mass reported over cartoons critical of the Modi Sarkar [government]. It’s part of a deliberate strategy to ensure that critical perspective doesn’t find currency online,” he said.

Senior cartoonists Tanmay Tyagi from Delhi and Mumbai-based Manjul have had similar experiences. Mr. Tyagi’s social media handles have been suspended over six times since 2014. Last year, his personal computer was shacked and 20 years of work deleted.

Cartoonists are worried about this concerted effort to muzzle them. Manjul expressed sorrow over the lack of space for nuance, wit, sarcasm, irony and satire — tools that a cartoonist relies on to get their message across.

“You are branded and pigeon-holed in a world that seems to operate on a ‘you are either with us or with them’ narrative. In a polarised society readers look for a confirmation bias in the cartoons,” he said.

A steady stream of abusive comments is a daily reality for cartoonists. “These trolls seek to enter your mind and create fear so that the next time a cartoonist sits at his table to sketch, he will rethink what he draws. It’s aimed at self-censorship,” Mr. Acharya said. He believes that traditional media houses are also developing cold feet.

Sunil Abraham, executive director, Centre for Internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based research organisation, termed it a “private censorship regime” that was also opaque.

“At most of the social media platforms the function is done partly by machine and partly in person. No company has invested heavily on human resources to review content being reported, making most of the process automated. Once you know what patterns the machine is looking for, you can game the machine and provide such patterns. It is an attack on freedom of expression,” he said.

Last year, Facebook made a detailed document on its internal community standard policy public explaining the nature of the content it takes down. An email questionnaire to the company on its redressal system especially when posts are being falsely flagged for nudity went unanswered.

But is trolling a new phenomenon or restricted to just right-wing supporters? Manjul said the first time he faced this kind of censorship was in 2013 when Twitter took down one of his cartoons critical of the Congress.

His recent cartoon on Triple Talaq received much flak and a Muslim organisation called up the editor of the publication threatening to kill him.

“My cartoon of Lord Ganesha taking a taxi during the Surat Plague got me a barrage of hate mail in 1994. It’s an old disease, but the wound is now in the open and it is rotting. Right-wing trolls are more organised, tech savvy and nasty in their use of language,” he said.

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