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Online abuse is one of the biggest maladies of the age of social media; women and others from marginalised communities are soft targets. What can we do?
Online abuse is any type of abuse that takes places on the internet, and can occur on any device that is connected to the web like computers laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. This article discusses how increasingly, social media spaces are becoming dangerous for women as online abuse is being normalised on the one hand, and is going unchecked by policy regulators on the other.
The effects of online abuse often leave long lasting impact on the psyche of the individual. This abuse can be in the form of text messages, emails, online chats, or trolls.
Pew Research Center (2017) identifies six forms of online harassment. Offensive name calling, purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, sustained harassment, sexual harassment and stalking. Trolls are often organised and work in well ‘networked’ ways.
Online abuse is usually in the context of polarisation and hatred in contemporary society, which shows the increasing intolerance towards the opinion of the ‘other’ person. They are targeted to suppress criticism, opinions, beliefs, and opposition, in a way that supports skewed social hierarchies and inequalities.
Online abuse can be experienced by all genders but for women, it is symptomatic of larger patterns of gender-based violence, embedded in systematic structures of inequality and hierarchies. The Digital Hifazat conducted a survey of 500 women and people of other marginalised genders, and 57% of respondents had faced cyber violence, with trolls targeting feminism, politics, and religion.
While we argue for a democratic space, we also understand how online spaces are gendered and access is not equitable to women across social, economic, and political categories. In the past few years, many academicians, intellectuals, comedians, policymakers, authors, poets, film-makers, journalists, even politicians have been subjected to online trolls.
Amnesty International, with the help of 1912 Decoders from 82 countries and 26 states in India analysed 114,716 tweets which mentioned 95 women politicians in India over a three month period around the 2019 general elections in India and revealed that 13.8 % of the tweets were abusive. On an average, each woman politician received 113 abusive tweets every day.
Muslim women politicians received 94.1% more ethnic or religious slurs as compared to women from other religions. Caste-based abuse towards DBA women accounted for 59% as compared to other women.
A study by Trollbusters and the International Women’s Media Foundation had found that 40% female journalists they interviewed had stopped writing about stories that would be followed up by online abuse.
Samiksha Koirala studied 48 female journalists’ experience of online harassment in Nepal and argued that the attempt is to silence and threaten the freedom of the press. A significant number of incidents of abuse go unreported due to culture of shame as well as ineffective legislation.
Other Indian female journalists have been vocal about their experiences of online abuse.
Rana Ayyub, a journalist and an author argues that the abuse is constant and is now a routine for her. In one such attempt her face was morphed on to a pornographic video which was sent to her relatives, parents and neighbours.
Barkha Dutt is a senior journalist; her mobile number was shared on multiple online platforms urging people to send abusive and threatening messages.
Gauri Lankesh was shot in September 2017 and she had faced social media threats.
The recent case, which once again brought the discussion into the public sphere was of Agrima Joshua, a comedian based in Maharashtra.
Another research study conducted in-depth interviews of 109 bloggers who identified themselves as feminists in Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States and revealed that 73.4% had negative experiences involving abusive comments included stalking, trolls, rape threats, death threats, and unpleasant offline encounters.
Historically, we have seen how gender-based sexual violence against women has been used to silence women. On social media, the attempt and the intent is similar; to threaten and silence women.
The marks of physical injuries are always visible, the intent of pain or suffering can be numerically measured, but the impact of trolls is psychological, injuries are invisible, pain or suffering is immeasurable, and the attack can be repetitive.
Online abuse, however, is often seen or discussed outside of the paradigm of gendered violence. It is treated in isolation, and not associated with how it expands misogynistic public attitudes in an online community.
For most women, online abuse or trolling can be an everyday experience. There is under-reporting of crime and violence against women in general, and there is fear in addition to the trauma attached with police’s and judiciary’s response.
A couple of months ago, in Bihar’s Araria district, we witnessed a peculiar attempts to silence by a civil court. A gang rape survivor was put behind the bars for ‘obstructing the proceedings of the court.’ The survivor could get the bail on July 17 after the intervention was made by 400 lawyers, 7000 individuals and 500+ organisations from 24 states, however the two social workers, Kalyani Badola and Tanmay Nivedita from Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, have been denied bail.
The reporting of hate content or trolls over social media is extremely low, and individual ways of dealing with trolls have been blocking the person or the social media account.
In order to file a complaint, one is advised to keep the evidence such as screenshots, and report the abuse immediately to the online platform, send a complaint to the cyber cell, and seek immediate support from mental health professionals. If the threats are serious in nature, file a complaint with the local authorities. To look out for useful online contents, reports, manuals, tool-kits to combat online violence, check here.
Should we be afraid of the trolls? Isn’t it the same fear for which our families ask us not to open a social media account, or not to upload our ‘skin revealing’ pictures? Instead we need to provide it a social context, consider it as a social problem. We need to recognize how trolls have always sexualised for women, and instead of feeling sorry for raising an opinion we need to reclaim our spaces, online as well as offline.
First published here.
Image source: Robin Worral on Unsplash
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Twinkle Siwach is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for Media Studies, School of Social
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