Online privacy is dead. Somebody or the other is reading your text messages, your e-mails, your Whatsapp and Facebook status updates, and your BBMs. Take it for granted that nothing is safe anymore other than silence. Either your parents, or your children, your spouse, love interest, employer, or the government or Americans….somebody is reading your online communication.
Social network hazard: Shashi Tharoor and late Sunanda Pushkar brought their lives into the social media platform and they could not control the fall-out. File pic
The more information you put out there, the more vulnerable you are. So either you have led a spotless life or your sins are of nobody’s interest now…or forever. But you can never be certain how information that you give out voluntarily might come to haunt you later in life. Sunanda Pushkar’s death after the ghastly public spat with the alleged third person in her marriage, a Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar, is a case in point. Sunanda joined Twitter much after her husband Shashi Tharoor had already gone through the ups and downs of Twitter-life. He was a pioneer user, had a large fan following, a legion of women fans, lost his job as a union minister triggered by a Twitter exchange and made a triumphant comeback.
There was nothing private about Shashi Tharoor. He had put his entire life on Twitter. His children, his photographs, his parents, his falling in love, his defence of his love when attacked by Narendra Modi. It was all there for us to read, admire, criticise or be a silent voyeur: the platform gave all the options.
On Twitter, you don’t have to reply or post your status to see what is going on. But not many can resist the temptation of hitting Reply. And then you are part of it.
It is addictive and almost everyone who quits Twitter returns in some form, either as an anonymous user or silently, just to read. Sunanda should perhaps have never joined Twitter. She was the interloper who took away Shashi Tharoor, Twitter India’s darling. If you checked Tharoor’s mentions, you would think that he was a Bollywood star. Women were swooning over his eyes, hair, and voice….not really his politics. One among them was Mehr Tarar.
A stunning looker herself, Sunanda was a celebrity in her own right. On the social ladder, her status went up several notches after she married Tharoor. The couple chose to be constantly in the media glare. It was Sunanda who put out the Tweets blaming Mehr for problems in her marriage. It was Mehr who tweeted pleading her innocence. Shashi Tharoor claimed that his Twitter account was hacked when it was actually his wife tweeting from his account. Whatsapp and BBM messages were on TV screens, leaked e-mails appeared on websites, all in a span of 72 hours. They brought their lives into the social media platform and they could not control the fall out. The abuse, the shame, the slander, ugliness, stress, trauma and an unfortunate death followed.
Cyber stalking and bullying is more common than you would want to believe and in many cases it is difficult to prove as unlawful activity. This is not something that affects only celebrities or successful people. Healthy relationships unravel and get permanently damaged because of slip-ups on the web. Security settings on social media platforms are not fool-proof. Hackers break in, Direct Messages become open tweets, private photographs become public. Social media is not for one-on-one communication. It is volatile and dangerous. It has its uses but is a menace too. It has taken down politicians, sportspersons, actors, students, teachers, broken marriages, friendships and careers, caused religious rioting and movement of populations, toppled governments and caused social unrest.
Why is it that people talk to complete strangers online when they wouldn’t in real life? Why does a ‘like’ or a ‘retweet’ matter so much? Why would Sunanda Pushkar care if Mehr got more followers or that Indians were communicating with a Pakistani journalist? There are no answers to what draws us to Social Media. Is real life that hard to cope with that one needs to go into a parallel universe? As in life, so also in the cyber world, one has to guard oneself, family and friends from predators. There are any number of studies that show that social media causes stress. But so do junk food and soured friendships.
Non-users of social media scoff at the anxiety that social media users face. Get off it, they advise. That’s like telling smokers to quit. Yes, it is possible. But oh so difficult……in the meantime, put a pin in your phone.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash