For many years now, celebrities have been using social media for engaging with their fans and followers – a reciprocal relationship, where in exchange for adoration, stars give their fans access to their personal lives. It is a two-way street that is often strewn with untoward opinions, judgments and comments.
Pakistan is no different and social media engagement is thriving here. It isn’t unusual at all for celebrities to post pictures of themselves and their families on Facebook and Instagram. In fact, if anything, it is almost expected of them, especially on occasions such as Eid. Model Nadia Hussain was no exception and this Eid, she posted some photographs of herself with her family on Instagram. What should have been a warm and fuzzy moment for everyone, turned sour quite quickly, when one of her ‘followers’ made a derogatory comment about her children, calling them ‘mailay’, which literally translates to dirty, but is often used to indicate that someone is unkempt and unsophisticated. And Hussain was having none of that.
She retaliated – but her choice of language and expression opened another Pandora’s Box on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. She launched a tirade that was laced with abuse, foul language and expletives – none any more acceptable than the verbal abuse she and her family had faced that started this story.
The journalist in me tried very hard to find the incendiary comment, but after wading through several hundred comments, my will broke, and I decided to accept the story as it was reported on popular blog posts and online magazines. Ultimately, I decided that it wasn’t important, in this case, to know the details. What was important was to try and understand online behaviour – of both ‘regular’ people and celebrities.
Like many other readers, I too, spend a lot of time perusing endless articles online, and have discovered that the comments section – regardless of what issue is being written about, and where in the world the story is originating – can be a vile and brutal place. The anonymity allows people to say things and express opinions that one would never do in real life. This phenomenon is so prevalent, there is even a term for these hatemongers – they are called internet trolls. And one thing we know is that it is pointless to engage these internet trolls in any meaningful discourse, because you don’t know who you are dealing with. They could be people doing this for the sake of entertainment, or to kill time, or just to be spiteful.
In Pakistan, much like elsewhere in the world, internet trolls have made it their business to dissect and tear apart celebrities and their families on social media for the most trivial things. Last year, actress Ayeza Khan was trolled twice. First when she posted a picture of her two-year-old daughter on Instagram, and a follower called the baby ‘ugly’, and second when several followers criticised Khan for putting up a picture of her daughter in a mermaid costume, because they thought she was “encouraging nudity” and felt it was their responsibility to police her.
Actress Syra Shehroz came under fire recently for wearing a knee-length dress on holiday with her husband. Model Aamina Shaikh has been ridiculed for her dusky skin tone. Sana’a Khan, actor and model Fawad Khan’s sister, whose engagement pictures were posted online, was called out for her weight… and the list goes on and on. Hussain is just one more name on the list – and certainly will not be the last.
The difference between her story and everyone else’s is that she reacted to the troll using language that was much worse. And she did not stop there – she then lashed out at the people who ‘dared’ to question or criticise her, attacked their families and children, and ultimately, weakened her own argument by doing exactly what she was trying to fight.
Hussain, and other celebrities, have every right to be angry at followers for crossing boundaries, they have a responsibility to call out cyberbullying and online trolling – but they have to do so constructively, and intelligently, otherwise, all we get is petty cat fights in the comments section and no real change in people’s mindsets. Hussain did something very brave, which is confronting her troll and taking on the issue of cyberbullying and bringing it to the forefront without caring about how this may impact her celebrity status. What is disappointing is how she chose to do this. What could have been the beginning of an awareness campaign on social media etiquettes and sensitivities, ended up being the topic of yet another blog post.
Sheherzad Kaleem is a documentary filmmaker based in Dubai. firstname.lastname@example.org