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Sports stars like Virat Kohli are fighting a parallel battle on social media

India has the third-highest Twitter users in the world. This has opened up new revenue streams for Indian cricketers, but has also left them open to vicious attacks by trolls, as Virat Kohli is finding out.

November 03, 2021 / 12:32 PM IST
If harm is threatened to Virat Kohli’s infant daughter by online trolls, should it not be called out? (File image: Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli)

If harm is threatened to Virat Kohli’s infant daughter by online trolls, should it not be called out? (File image: Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli)

Twitter was founded in 2006. By 2010, it started being embraced by Indians. Today, India has the third highest number of Twitter users in the world. According to statista.com, as of July this year, 22.1 million Indians use Twitter.

After we got on to Twitter, somewhere down the line, it became okay to be abusive on it. This made the so far charmed life of public personalities tougher. There was a good side to this. The playing field levelled. Stars could not go unquestioned anymore if they played a poor match or hammed their way through a film.

But there was also a corrosive side to this - abuse and bullying by online trolls. There is a theory that trolls are not that high in number, and therefore should not be seen as a reflection of a nation. But trolling can’t be measured in numbers alone. The damage it can cause an individual has to be factored in as well. If harm is threatened to Virat Kohli’s infant daughter, should it not be called out? Is it not a reflection of at least a section of society? And can’t ‘just’ a section of society do significant damage? Let us not forget that it took only 19 men to hijack planes on September 11, 2001.

Yes, a large number of people worked behind the scenes to put those 19 on the planes. But it is equally true that even without them, just 19 men with poisoned minds would be able to carry out a serious attack almost anywhere in the world.

Some days ago, Roger Federer summed up the challenge of an athlete’s relationship with social media. “For every 10 nice comments there’s always one negative comment and, of course, that is the one you focus on. It’s a horrible situation,” he said.

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Federer was lucky enough to have played when abusers did not have a platform to puke their bile out on - at least in the early years of his career. That is no longer possible. And the man who is feeling social media’s sting the most right now is Kohli.

You could call Kohli arrogant. You can criticise him for failing with the bat in the must-win T20 World Cup game against New Zealand. But in terms of his comments before the game, all he did was speak up for teammate Mohammed Shami and for equality. He did call trolls ‘spineless’, but he had valid reason to do so. Besides, ‘spineless’ is not offensive language. It is not a swear word. In fact, it was apparent that some Indian newspapers’ secretly agreed with Kohli from the front page display his comments received. He certainly did not deserve the vicious attacks made on him after the loss against New Zealand.

Few Indian cricket stars speak about touchy subjects. On such occasions, some people criticise them for not speaking up on issues. Here was Kohli speaking up on issues. But now the same people are saying he should focus on cricket.

Earlier this year, French football star Thierry Henry went off social media.

“The sheer volume of racism, bullying and resulting mental torture to individuals is too toxic to ignore,” he said. “There HAS to be some accountability.”

Why doesn't Kohli do this? Why doesn’t Federer? For reasons of commerce, vanity and influence. A Bloomberg report this July quoted Fernando Frias, a sports psychologist at Oregon State University, as saying that many athletes use social media to feel empowered by sharing their voice, expanding their sphere of influence, fostering connections and building personal brands.

This explains why quitting social media is not an easy decision for major athletes. But if Henry could do it, so can Kohli. He can always open an anonymous account and get back at trolls. Or better still, take some of them to court. They deserve it.
Akshay Sawai
first published: Nov 2, 2021 10:14 am

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