Omprakash Mishra and the Zenith of an Online Riot

Social Commentary

Omprakash Mishra and the Zenith of an Online Riot

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

When historians look back at this period in our lives, it will note 2017 as the year that logic went for a spin and never came back. It is the year when India launched ambulances for cows even as its babies died of lack of oxygen. The year we reaped the fruits of demonetisation. It is also the year when we went from fighting for Gauri Lankesh to standing with #Omprakash in a couple of weeks.

If you’ve been living under a rock and wondering who Omprakash Mishra is, then know this: Omprakash is to misogyny what Mahatma Gandhi is to the Indian Independence. Mishra, a rising star of cringe-pop, is, by any measure, an entity best ignored in a genre best ignored. But in a generation at a loss for battles to fight, he has become an “icon for freedom”: An idea that could not have been conjured by his wildest imagination, which we already know is rather limited. But today Mishra is important, hyped up with a million people fighting for him… all thanks to an online riot triggered in his good name.

The Omprakash fracas is the perfect example of the anatomy of an internet riot in 2017. This is how it will unfold. A twenty-something from middle India will sing a misogynistic song about MILFs and two whole years later, a 25-year-old activist with an iPhone will ask the singer if she should “lagao his vaat”. Then other twenty-somethings without iPhones will try to take down those doing the calling out. And twenty-something editors in South Delhi and South Bombay (including the ones that work at Arré) will christen it a war of the classes, forgetting other IRL class wars that are simultaneously happening under their noses all the time.

Welcome to the internet, where everyone takes themselves too seriously. Where online rioting has been successfully institutionalised, before people can even learn to say the words “cringe-pop”.

We are surely living on the planet of the apes and it is a most idiotic time to be alive.

Full of his new-found fame as a “youth icon”, revolutionary leader Omprakash called out for a takedown of Quint Neon, even as boys in IIT Kharagpur, supposedly brightest minds of the country, continued to belt out, “Bol na aunty aau kya”. I want to make some jokes here, but the reality is far more bizarre.

Anyway, Quint Neon’s request to have the original Aunty video taken down, was granted. Then things took a grave turn: Quint Neon was forced to take down their own video because of a barrage of abuse from Omprakash’s followers, who seemed to creep out of the woodwork. Propelled by the anonymity of the internet, netizens issued the journalist rape threats like they promised chamaats before the internet era. The personal profiles of Quint’s journalists were attacked; the website itself withstood multiple hacking attempts. And in all of this, in classic internet fashion, the original aunty video went up again on various pages; now there is even a candle-light march planned for solidarity with Omprakash.

We are surely living on the planet of the apes and it is a most idiotic time to be alive.

As I watched the #SotRevolution unfold, my mind kept going back to Charlie Puth’s latest banger, “Attention”. “You just want attention,” sings Puth, giving voice to an overtly simplistic idea, but one that explains the very existence of people like Omprakash. The rape threats too are borne out of this need for acknowledgement, as saying, “I hate you” just doesn’t cut it anymore on the internet. We are living in an age where we indulge in amped-up abuses, without understanding their meaning or the damage they signify. The participants in this online riot are only baying for our attention for their 15 minutes of #trends fame.

Online outrage ke aage jahaan aur bhi hain.

In these times, when attention takes the form of offensive videos, provocative responses to said videos, and rape threats (as any digital platform, including ours, knows very well), political commentator Bill Maher’s words are instructive. Maher has often said that liberals need to develop a thicker skin, and that we shouldn’t give this festival of the insignificant the attention it craves. The internet is an open mic and not everyone who speaks needs to be heard, especially when we know we are dealing with an anonymous army that can be corralled at a moment’s notice. Online outrage ke aage jahaan aur bhi hain.

Maher’s advice of not letting a troll get under your skin, is, however, only a coping mechanism. In this free-for-all circus, it does not mean that the burden of protection should only lie with the journalist or the video- or meme-maker. But the advice is encoded with a corollary to keep our trigger-happiness in check.

Except for the issue of rape threats that the Quint Neon reporter received – because in addition to trivialising everything from the idea of freedom and protests and solidarity, we’ve also trivialised rape.

Many women on the internet have learnt to dismiss this escalating verbal violence, the way they have trained themselves to dismiss and deflect a lot of offline misogyny, just so they can get on with their lives. “Chhod na, police complaint se kya hoga,” we tell each other. But as our digital and real lives become increasingly enmeshed, the threat of online violence often has the potential to translate into actual violence. For instance, journalist Swati Chaturvedi had to go to the police to stop harassment at the hands of a troll, while Gamergate’s prime victim Zoe Quinn needed restraining orders against the people she knew.

In an online riot, as with an offline one, the biggest casualty is the dignity, safety, and personhood of the women in the eye of the storm. Their tormentors, meanwhile, those who vend out rape and death threats and incite this verbal abuse, get away without a scrape, without even a light rap on the wrist. Omprakash is now a celebrity — just the way American provocateur extraordinaire Milo Yiannopoulos, who wrote a piece on Quinn headlined “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart” has entered the alt-mainstream.

I am giving this whole scandal a couple of days before it dies a natural death. We’ll grow bored with Omprakash and he’ll move out of the limelight and our timelines, save for the occasional blip when an FIR will be filed against him. We’ll have gone after the organ grinder, not the monkeys. Those primates will lie low… waiting for another Omprakash to lead another riot.