Social media outrage forced a jewellery brand to pull down an ad that spoke of communal harmony and promoted interfaith love. What followed was more outrage from those who loved the advertisement and were miffed that the company gave in to the pressure created by the troll brigade. To clarify on its decision the company issued a statement last night saying that the decision was taken keeping in mind the well-being of its employees, and one can only feel sorry. Not just for the concerned brand, but for ourselves. Has social media outrage morphed from cancel culture into a technique of intimidation? If any content is pulled down due to fear of outrage, isn’t it akin to policing? Where does it leave us as a society, if hatred calls the shots in our lives, virtual or real?
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Outrage has been a potent tool handed to us by social media. It has helped the marginalised communities raise their grievances. It has enabled us to call out misconduct, and raise demands against authorities, enterprises and individuals alike. It has also helped us reinforce a sense of accountability with those who hold power and position of influence. But just like any tool, outrage is prone to be misused. In unwise hands outrage deepens the rife between communities and clamps the chances of rational discourse.
Advertisers and filmmakers are often at the receiving end of outrage for their product, so this isn’t the first time an ad has been pulled down after being bestowed with social media hatred. Many ads in the past have faced backlash for promoting toxic behaviour, stereotypes and encouraging inappropriate conduct. Check out our list ads that were withdrawn by the advertisers and companies after outrage here.
So what sets this current fiasco apart?
This outrage was not just about cancelling the jewellery brand (a part of the troll brigade did pledge to never buy their product) but also about intimidation. A brand manager based in Bengaluru for the company has reportedly been subjected to trolling. This raised valid concerns over the protection of employees of the company from misdirected rage. And that is where outrage often goes wrong.
Threats of harm, doxing of a company’s employee, verbal abuse, etc, can these acts be even called outrage? It is one thing to criticise an advertisement, to pledge that you’ll not buy their product, and a completely different thing to troll individual employees simply because of their association with a brand. When threats are levied instead of criticism, that is when outrage transforms into intimidation.
We should be worried about how easy it has become for trolls in our country to get away with such acts of intimidation. The fact that trolling scares us, is a cause worth outrage. How is the fear of outrage, and not good sense, dictating what we watch, how we advertise and whom we endorse? What kind of a society does it make us, if the first thing that pops into your mind before you say or endorse anything on Twitter is “will I get trolled for this?” Do we even think about the kind of impact outrage can have on the mental health of those at the receiving end? In probably the most difficult year in our collective lifetimes, why must we derive pleasure from anger?
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Leaving the jewellery ad aside, the fear of trolling can only make people politically correct (or incorrect, depending on your definition of correctness). Does it change our mindset? Does it motivate us to be better people? Do we feel inspired to be kind to each other online?
This cycle of social media viciousness is doing us no good. When anger gets likes and reshares, it doesn’t make people happy, it prompts them to be angrier. At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves, is this what who we want to be? A bunch of angry intolerant digital citizens, who pride in their ability to bring others down on their knees by the virtue of threat?
The views expressed are the author’s own.