There are politicians on Twitter, and many get prominence when they put their foot (tweet) in their mouth and start trending. Some, including Shashi Tharoor, are tech savvy and have taken to social media like ducks to water. Others, like Narendra Modi, have a professional team to handle their social media accounts.
But J. Anbazhagan (@JAnbazhagan), a DMK MLA in Tamil Nadu, is neither a new-age politician who is at home with technology, nor from a party known for its use of Twitter or Facebook. He started tweeting just over a year ago and now has over 1,400 followers. He opened his Twitter account soon after his party lost the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls; he was one of the few DMK legislators who managed to scrape through. “I thought DMK was not connecting with the educated youth. We were unable to counter the 2G scam propaganda. I thought social media, especially Twitter, could connect us to the youth,” he says.
Anbazhagan tweets regularly about politics and films — he has produced Aadhi Bhagavan, a film directed by Ameer, which is due to be released soon. He also posts on Facebook regularly — photos of his visits to his constituency, and news of his film’s audio release dot his wall. “I wanted to reach out to the 18-25 age group, who are tech savvy. If I put my views across to around 35 lakh youth in my constituency, I’d be able to counter propaganda against my party to some extent,” he says. He also replies to questions on Twitter “as much as I can. That’s why I’m there".
” Isn’t he inviting abuse and trolls, as he is a politician? “Yes, I do receive abuse, but I ignore it, or reply sometimes. I even invited one such person to my office and had a long discussion. In the end, though he was still convinced he was right, I was able to put forth our party’s view. He was surprised by the information I gave him.”
But other politicians don’t take criticism easily. Karti Chidambaram (@KartiPC) filed a police complaint against a person for a tweet. Did he not go overboard, I ask him.
“No”, he says. “The said tweet was not an innocent, off-the-cuff tweet. He is not a regular tweeter. His one and only tweet after a gap of 78 days was this specific tweet about me. He is an IAC (India Against Corruption) activist. So why did he do it? It’s hard to believe it was random. The words used and the comparison made especially after their ‘exposé’ (which Robert Vadra has denied) clearly was intentional with ulterior motives. It was malicious.”
He adds there are “much more obnoxious tweets about me that I ignore. But this particular tweet was motivated. And his affiliation to IAC and a specific reference to me, 78 days after his last tweet< forced me to act.”
Karti feels that “Tweeples must understand that freedom of speech is not absolute. Malicious and patently false statements cannot go unchallenged.” But he is different from Anbazhagan. Being the vice president of the All India Tennis Association, he tweets more about tennis than politics. And unlike Anbazhagan, he joined Twitter “to basically follow news. It’s very convenient to get instant updates”, but “never anticipated the kind of negativity which manifests at times.” Unlike Anbazhagan, he replies to tweets only occasionally.
Khushbu (@khushsundar), an actress and a DMK member, takes the middle line. She finds herself more vulnerable as she is a woman and an actress. Yes, she receives abuse, but she also gives it back. “I don’t hold back my punches,” she says. Not surprisingly Khushbu came out in support of singer Chinmayee Sripada who filed a case against someone who was stalking and abusing her on Twitter.
Won’t taking action against abusive tweeters result in a negative image among the youth? Khushbu doesn’t think so. She backs Karti Chidambaram, and agrees with him on freedom of speech. “It doesn’t mean you can say anything and get away. You must know where to draw the line. What he has done is correct.” When Chinmayi acted against the person who abused her, Khushbu tweeted: ‘There has to b freedom of speech n expression but not at the cost of defaming some1 or stepping out of the line of decency..ppl nd 2 stop it!’
She says people must understand that celebrities will take things lying down and remain quiet. “It won’t take long for celebs to question them,” she says.
It was Chinmayi’s and Karti’s action against defamatory tweets that brought the spotlight on abuse and trolls on Twitter.
Sonali Ranade, a trader and columnist who is a prolific tweeter, and is often the target of trolls, says, “Trolls are an organised group of political activists ably led by veteran ‘journalists’ and politicians. Given our legal system, how can one individual fight them? Suppose you fought and won. What then? You don’t get one troll, but they attack you in wolf-packs of hundreds at a time!”
Anbazhagan, on the contrary, is least bothered about trolls, and wants politicians, at least from his party, to use Twitter to connect with the youth. His party chief, M. Karunanidhi, also has a Twitter account but the tweets are mostly about party positions and links to his articles. Says Anbazhagan, “I see youth all the time tracking Twitter and Facebook even on their mobiles. If we don’t use the social media to connect to them, we will miss a lot”. Once in response to a tweet asking him about a problem in his constituency, he visited the area and posted the photos on Facebook.
Anbazhagan was trolled in Facebook when he posted pictures of his visit to a temple. The abuse centred around how a Dravidian politician could visit a temple. He replied saying that DMK was not against religion. “Even Anna has said that God is one (oruvane devan),” he responded. That didn’t quieten the abusers, but he had made his point.
Not all politicians are comfortable with Twitter. Anbazhagan may have embraced Twitter, but Karti prefers to keep politics out. And his father, P. Chidambaram, Karti says, is not exactly tech savvy. “He doesn’t think much of Twitter and feels that I too shouldn’t be on it,” adds the son.