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Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Is Trolling, An Essential Freedom?

Embracing a culture where differences are respected, and debates are conducted with dignity will not only uphold the principles of freedom of expression but also contribute to a healthier, more inclusive digital landscape

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Trolling is a phenomenon that has gained significant attention in the realm of social media and online communities. It involves intentionally provoking and harassing others by posting inflammatory, derogatory, offensive, or disruptive content with the goal of eliciting emotional responses and disrupting constructive conversations. Trolling has become a pervasive phenomenon, raising pertinent questions about its compatibility with civil discourse and the principles of a democratic society.

Every Right has a Responsibility

In the digital age, freedom of choice has taken on new dimensions with the advent of social media and online platforms. While freedom of expression is a fundamental right that should be protected, the rise of trolling has tested the limits of this cherished value. 

Freedom of choice encourages diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and the exchange of ideas. However, this freedom should not be conflated with the right to harm, demean, or harass others under the guise of anonymity or personal preference. It thrives on negativity, divisiveness, and personal attacks, which not only erode the quality of online interactions but also have far-reaching consequences in our daily lives. The impact of trolling goes beyond mere words on a screen; it can cause emotional distress, fuel hostility, and impede the formation of meaningful dialogue. The essence of civil discourse lies in acknowledging and respecting different viewpoints, even in the face of ideological differences. In the past, disagreements were often approached with a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue and the understanding that differing opinions did not equate to disrespect or personal hatred. However, the advent of digital platforms has facilitated the proliferation of trolling, creating an environment where mutual respect and meaningful exchanges are increasingly scarce.

Furthermore, trolling poses a significant challenge to the foundations of a healthy and inclusive society. By normalising abusive behavior and fostering an atmosphere of hostility, it undermines the principles of empathy, understanding, and tolerance that are essential for social cohesion. The negative impact extends beyond the individuals directly involved; it seeps into the collective consciousness, fueling division and perpetuating a culture of online toxicity. While it is important to distinguish between constructive criticism and trolling, the responsibility to foster a culture of respect and civil discourse falls on both individuals and the platforms that facilitate online interactions. Research studies indicate that trolls may exhibit certain personality traits such as higher levels of sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Trolling behavior can be seen as an expression of these traits, as trolls derive satisfaction from the distress they cause to others.

Workplace India & trolling

In the context of the Indian workplace, the concept of freedom of choice and expression is crucial for fostering a healthy and productive environment. However, the rise of trolling poses significant challenges to maintaining respectful discourse and undermines the principles of collaboration, inclusivity, and mutual respect. Trolling can have significant emotional and psychological effects on its targets. Victims may experience feelings of anger, frustration, humiliation, and even anxiety or depression. Trolling can also lead to a toxic online environment, discouraging individuals from participating in discussions and hindering the exchange of ideas.

In the digital age, workplace interactions have expanded beyond physical boundaries, with online platforms and communication tools playing an integral role in day-to-day operations. While these technological advancements have undoubtedly enhanced connectivity and efficiency, they have also created avenues for trolling and negative behaviour that can have a detrimental impact on the workplace ecosystem.

The Indian workplace has long valued civil and respectful discourse, where differing opinions were met with open-mindedness and a commitment to finding common ground. However, the prevalence of trolling in online workplace forums challenges this tradition of healthy debate and respectful disagreement. The shift towards disrespectful behavior not only erodes the quality of workplace interactions but also jeopardises the emotional well-being and mental health of employees.

To address this challenge, organisations must recognise the importance of fostering a culture of respect and inclusivity. This entails clear communication of workplace expectations, guidelines, and policies that explicitly discourage trolling and promote positive online conduct. Emphasising the values of empathy, understanding, and open dialogue will help establish an environment where employees feel safe expressing their opinions without fear of personal attacks or harassment.

Leaders and managers play a crucial role in setting the tone for respectful discourse within the workplace. By exemplifying respectful behaviour themselves, promoting open communication channels, and addressing instances of trolling promptly and effectively, they can create a workplace culture that values diverse perspectives and encourages constructive discussions.

It is equally important for employees to exercise their freedom of expression responsibly and respectfully. Recognising the impact of their words and actions, employees should strive to engage in thoughtful discussions, seek common ground, and refrain from personal attacks or derogatory remarks. Nurturing a culture of empathy and understanding will foster a more inclusive and collaborative work environment.

Additionally, employers can invest in training programs and workshops focused on promoting effective communication, conflict resolution, and empathy building. By providing employees with the tools and skills to navigate differences in a constructive manner, organisations can create an atmosphere where diverse viewpoints are appreciated, and healthy debates contribute to collective growth and innovation.

In the pursuit of preserving freedom of choice, it is imperative to strike a delicate balance between protecting individual expression and safeguarding the integrity of public discourse. By acknowledging the negative impact of trolling and collectively working towards a more respectful and constructive online environment, we can reclaim the true essence of freedom of choice—a freedom that empowers individuals to express themselves while fostering a society that values empathy, understanding, and the common good. Embracing a culture where differences are respected, and debates are conducted with dignity will not only uphold the principles of freedom of expression but also contribute to a healthier, more inclusive digital landscape.

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trolling Digital Age magazine 29 July 2023