Centre for Internet & Society

Suketu Mehta (@suketumehta) - terrible news about sunanda tharoor. this is murder by twitter.

The article by Malini Nair published in the Times of India quotes Nishant Shah.

Even before forensic science has declared the reasons behind Sunanda Pushkar's shocking death on Friday night, social media has been accused of murder. Writer Suketu Mehta wasn't the only one to point fingers. "First murder by @TwitterIndia , claps, fellow twitter matured guns!" is how another tweet went. Besides the deadly cocktail of depression, drugs, a strained marriage, questions have been raised about whether the vicious banter and collective howls of derision on social media over her very public meltdown — again on social media — pushed her over the edge.
Have we, the tweeple, in our eagerness to share every detail of our lives over an internet megaphone, not quite understood what the social media can do, especially its pitfalls? Is the line between the public and private blurring too fast? Commentators say that the rules that govern human and social behaviour haven't changed, and the fault lies in how we negotiate the cyber turf.

Can our digital lives have serious offline consequences? Nishant Shah, director, research , Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore, says people need to realize that though twitter amplifies everything, but the ability to hurt, be mean, fight, question, critique and bully is not new.

"These are human practices , which replay themselves across different media forms. What is perhaps new is that our most personal and darkest desires have become available for public spectacle," says Shah.

That the twitterati can be brutal has been shown often enough this last year. When Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal was mired in allegations of sexual harassment, his daughter was hounded on social media. Recently when novelist Lavanya Sankaran wrote an op-ed for New York Times defending the decent Indian man, she was royally derided, so much so that another journalist Rahul Bhatia tweeted in her defence, asking people to lay off.

Sunanda's story hurtled towards a tragedy in a space of 48 hours after she went public. As Shah points out it wasn't as though there were no affairs and scandals before the dawn of social media but the tangle would have spun out differently and less brutally in another time and age. It all began, as Pushkar admitted to some papers and later denied, with the spilling of alleged BBMs sent by Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar to Tharoor on his twitter account.

Predictably, the effect of the first round of revelations was explosive. In fact, Pushkar herself appeared taken aback by the fact that a twitter spat ended up making front page headlines.

The entire drama which, in another age, would have played out at home or a circle of family, friends and acquaintances — and at the most in far less dramatic gossip columns and on TV— was up on social media, provide enormous vicarious pleasure to thousands of social media bystanders. That Pushkar herself set the virtual assault in motion only adds to the bleak irony of it all. This was also not the first time Pushkar took a spat to twitter. @SPTVrocks tweeted about her fight with a journalist in Dubai earlier this month.

Clinical psychologist Varkha Chulani says it is the personality behind the media usage not the form itself that is to be blamed. "People choose to talk about their private lives to impress others, to get attention. We forget what is real and what is virtual." Shah, however, believes that we live in a world of digital striptease and that the ubiquitous and pervasive technologies that surround us have forever blurred the lines between real and virtual.

Activists have often pointed out that the social media has everything going for it — quick and vast connect and instant response — but what it lacks is empathy. It is easy enough to send out an RIP message, for instance, for someone you don't know or even care for, positioning yourself as a caring, empathetic soul in 140 characters.

Post Pushkar's death, news anchor Barkha Dutt tweeted that we need to limit viciousness , stop judging and use greater compassion on twitter.

Shah makes a similar plea for the human touch.

"We are all so self-involved , creating narratives of our selves, bit-stripping every moment , instagramming every event, tweeting every encounter, and liking all the various things that happen around us, that we don't always have enough time to stop, to respond, to think and reflect upon other people's conditions . We have become jaded, to the various 'great' moments in people's time lines, but we are also becoming jaded to the pain that our involvement in these social networks can bring to those who are the subject of our attention," he says.

With additional reporting by Shobita Dhar