Centre for Internet & Society

This paper is part of a series under IT for Change’s project, Recognize, Resist, Remedy: Combating Sexist Hate Speech Online. The series, titled Rethinking Legal-Institutional Approaches to Sexist Hate Speech in India, aims to create a space for civil society actors to proactively engage in the remaking of online governance, bringing together inputs from legal scholars, practitioners, and activists. The papers reflect upon the issue of online sexism and misogyny, proposing recommendations for appropriate legal-institutional responses. The series is funded by EdelGive Foundation, India and International Development Research Centre, Canada.


The proliferation of internet use was expected to facilitate greater online participation of women and other marginalised groups.  However, over the past few years, as more and more people have come online, it is evident that social power in online spaces mirrors offline hierarchies. While identity and security thefts may be universal experiences, women and the LGBTQ+ community continue to face barriers to safety that men often do not, aside from structural barriers to access. Sexist harassment pervades the online experience of women, be it on dating sites, online forums, or social media.

In her book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci argues that the nature and impact of censorship on social media are very different. Earlier, censorship was enacted by restricting speech. But now, it also works in the form of organised harassment campaigns, which use the qualities of viral outrage to impose a disproportionate cost on the very act of speaking out. Therefore, censorship plays out not merely in the form of the removal of speech but through disinformation and hate speech campaigns.

In most cases, this censorship of content does not necessarily meet the threshold of hate speech, and free speech advocates have traditionally argued for counter speech as the most effective response to such speech acts. However, the structural and organised nature of harassment and extreme speech often renders counter speech ineffective. This paper will explore the nature of online sexist hate and extreme speech as a mode of censorship. Online sexualised harassment takes various forms including doxxing, cyberbullying, stalking, identity theft, incitement to violence, etc. While there are some regulatory mechanisms – either in law, or in the form of community guidelines that address them, this paper argues for the need to evolve a composite framework that looks at the impact of such censorious acts on online speech and regulatory strategies to address them.

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