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 the social media spaces are becoming vulnerable for women, while 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; the abuse can be in the form of text messages, emails, online chats, or trolls.
Pew Research Center (2017) identifies six forms of online harassment, that is, offensive name calling, purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, sustained harassment, sexual harassment and stalking. Trolls are organised and work in well ‘networked’ ways. The online abuse can be contextualised within the context of polarisation and hatred in contemporary society, indicative of the tendencies which are increasingly becoming intolerant towards the opinion of the ‘other’ person. The trolls are targeted and weaponised to suppress criticism, opinions, beliefs, and opposition often conducive of social hierarchies and inequalities.
Online abuse can be experienced by all genders but for women, is symptomatic to 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 and trolls were targeted to 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, rather under the current political regime, 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 accounted for 59% as compared to women from General caste.
Samiksha Koirala studied 48 female journalists’ experience of online harassment in Nepal and argued that the attempt is to silence and threaten the press freedom, and a significant number of incidents of abuse go unreported due to culture of shame as well as ineffective legislation. 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 a routine for her, in one such attempt her face was morphed on a pornographic video and 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. 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.
The recent case, which once again brought the discussion in the public sphere, highlighted by the media was of Agrima Joshua, a comedian based in Maharashtra. However, for many women, it is an everyday experience. 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 the women. In social media, the attempt and the intent is much similar, to threaten and silence her. The marks of physical injuries are always visible, the intent of pain or sufferings can be numerically measured, but the impact of trolls is psychological, injuries are invisible, pain or sufferings are immeasurable and the attack can be repetitive. Online abuse is seen or discussed outside of the paradigm of gendered violence. They are treated in isolation, and not associated with how it expands misogynistic public attitudes in an online community.
There is under reporting of crime and violence against women in general, there is fear in addition to the trauma attached with police’s and judiciary’s response. In Bihar’s district Araria, it’s been 20 days and we witnessed one of the peculiar attempts by a civil court where the gang rape survivor was sent 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. Individualistic ways of dealing with trolls have been blocking the person or the social media account. Though in order to file a complaint, one is advised to keep the evidence such as screenshots, report the abuse immediately to the online platform, complaint to cyber cell, and seek immediate support from mental health professionals, if the threats are serious in nature, file a complaint with local authorities. To look out for useful online contents, reports, manuals, toolkits 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 recognise how trolls for women are always sexualised, instead of feeling sorry for raising an opinion; we need to reclaim our spaces, online as well as offline.