We are not unfamiliar with the general lack of safety women in India face. With digitization and the booming of technology, this problem has also invaded the online spheres. Online harassment or online trolling is rampant on social networking sites in India. This has targeted women much more, especially women of prominence in the Indian media.
The great thing about being online is that one can access a whole range of opinions, ideas and values. It is a hub of knowledge that is constantly regenerating and increasing. But when people disagree, online harassment is a quick result of the same.
Online Harassment – The Reality
We were startled by a poll last week that Thomson Reuters Foundation published. It stated that India is the world’s most unsafe country. Whether you are sexually harassed at work, catcalled on the street or subjected to online harassment – it is a stifling reality. While a lot of us were repelled by the report and rubbished its authenticity, there was another section of the society that said ‘yay’ to the findings (in a sad way).
We at Bonobology were aghast by the report too. Being run mostly by women, we discussed how despite being an unsafe country, we are still better off than a lot of other nations. “At least we can drive,” one said. “We can vote,” remarked another and then in unison, we all said, “Hey, we can all voice our opinion and express them without feeling unsafe.”
So, we had a week to back our claim and then another nail hit us. One of our most respected women leaders, Sushma Swaraj, who is mostly in the news for all her impromptu good actions was suddenly being trolled. Her office, it appeared, had transferred an official who later turned out to be only doing his duty.
Later, the decision was reversed. But, by then, the trolls and rampant online harassment had taken over. If it had stopped at intelligent and well-meant questioning, one would have understood. But it didn’t. Some called her names, there were abuses, and then, someone who claimed to be an IITian asked her “husband to beat her up”. Some other comments were far more disgusting.
Swaraj then asked the Twitterati to vote if they approved of such tweets and trolls. Remember, no foreign media was involved in this entire poll, and don’t forget, our minister had to “ask” people to speak up. Almost 43 percent of people approved. Yes, even a leader like Sushma Swaraj must have felt unsafe then.
We still stand by what we initially said, regarding the perception poll by Reuters. But we have a clarification to make. While we think our roads are still well-lit and we believe our nation still has some good samaritans, we can’t say the same about our online lanes.
Online harassment by online bullies
Behind the anonymous and invisible cloak, these trolls resort to verbal abuses and threats when a woman dares to speak. All hell breaks loose when the woman in question has an opinion and the opinion is even slightly not on the same page as theirs. So they respond and while we can’t really say that they respond in style, we can tell you that they all respond in the “same style”.
You just have to be a woman whose views are not the same as theirs, and the online harassment begins. Or it could be something as simple as a supposedly ‘indecent’ pic. They might call you names, indulge in somebody shaming and ask you if you have any decent family to teach you values.
If someone has more than just looked indecent, the treatment is harsher. They rush to threaten her with “rape”, “murder” and “acid attack”. They strip her with words and shame her in unison. Yes, trolls feed on numbers. They are instigated by each other’s words and work under mob psychology.
The way journalist Rana Ayyub has been attacked and abused online is a shame on society. From being called a prostitute to being threatened of “dire consequences”, everything from the troll book has been hurled on her. This can quickly escalate to cyberstalking and other serious problems too.
Another journalist Barkha Dutt in a campaign against trolls shared her experience. She said, “I have been called a whore, a ‘Randi’, ‘c***”, bitch and ‘presstitute” on Twitter and other social media platforms so often that now I barely notice it.
Columnist Shefali Vaidya, says that “no woman should be subjected to abuse and attacks online, regardless of her political inclination”. She was subjected to vile threats, sexual abuses and assaults, which were later extended to her family too.
She was threatened that the dead mutilated body of her little girl would be sent to her. Yes. A police complaint had to be filed. All this because she voiced her support for a politician whom the ‘trolls’ did not like. If this doesn’t send chills through our spine, what will?
One might want to dismiss this debate and say that this is but the online world. But it is no more “just” an online world. Twitter has more users than there are Americans in America.
Are we really safe?
We are not the ‘most unsafe’ in the world, but we are not completely safe either. We can drive and vote, express and complain. And we are so thankful for that.
Online harassment might not torment us physically but leave us shaken nonetheless. If you are a woman and you have walked alone on a road full of bystanders, you would know how it feels with hundreds of eyes stripping you mentally. You don’t need to look into anyone’s eyes to know that they are all staring at you, you can feel the piercing humiliation and you hate yourself for feeling so vulnerable. If you are a woman, you would know this.
Online trolls make you walk that lonely road with thousands of eyes on you again and again, and trust me, it doesn’t hurt or agonize any less.
(From the Editor’s Desk)
Reporting, blocking and gathering support from like-minded people are a few ways. However, we are a long way away from censuring online harassment until rigid online rules about safety and verbal attacks are in place.