Centre for Internet & Society

Online abuse - specially against women - is like one of those rapidly-mutating viruses that resists all antibodies.

The article by Bishakha Datta was published in India Today on July 13, 2016. Rohini Lakshane was quoted.

We have always known that the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. And the pleasure with which it is savoured. This month, we saw its online avatar. Barely had Maneka Gandhi launched the Twitter hashtag #IAmTrolledHelp than the trolls were all over it. Trolling with all their might. Abusing both Gandhi and textile minister Smriti Irani, thereby proving her point: that something needs to be done about the unending stream of online abuse that women face every day.

Online abuse - specially against women - is like one of those rapidly-mutating viruses that resists all antibodies. It's everywhere, in many different forms. I'm not talking about the everyday sexism that's our daily bread. That we deal with. I'm not talking about androcentrism, or the assumption that men, and male experience, are at the centre of the universe. That we live with, constantly rolling our eyes in our heads.

I'm talking rape threats. Gang rape threats. Graphic gang rape threats with vivid descriptions of postures. Death threats. Those, in my view, are not free speech. They are a call to arms, incitement to violence. Especially when it's an invisible cyber-army behind the threats, backing each other up, preying on a woman. Wilding. Trying to break her. Trying to humiliate her. Trying to get her to shut up, out of the misplaced notion that only men have the right to air their thoughts and opinions online. In a public space.

In one of her essays, Egyptian writer Fatima Mernissi introduces the concept of 'trespassing in the nude' to explain how men in Morocco think of public spaces-as a men-only zone. Social norms dictate that Moroccan women not seek to be part of public space; women who break that rule are seen to be trespassing. But women who dare to step into public spaces without their veils-that's even worse. That's trespassing in the nude. And trespassing, of course, demands punishment.

On the internet, women who speak out are seen as trespassers. And women who speak about things men consider their preserve are seen to doubly trespass. Or trespass in the nude. As British writer Laurie Penny famously said, "A woman's opinion is the short skirt of the internet." It is an excuse to harass.

The women on Morocco's streets were punished by stoning, as are the women who loiter on the streets of the internet. Online abuse is as good as stoning someone who has an opinion with words. When journalist Swati Chaturvedi got massively harassed last year, she wrote about her experience: "Journalists, specially women, are hunted for sport, abused, slandered and hounded by trolls who hunt in hyena-like packs. The problem is that you have an opinion and are behaving like a journalist, not a cheerleader."

Little wonder than that Chaturvedi, like many other women online, have welcomed Gandhi's initiative to curb online abuse. As do I. I'm writing this in the middle of conducting a digital security workshop. At lunch, one of the participants described how she can't bear to be on her company's social media feed for more than an hour each morning. It's just an endless stream of filth. And something needs to be done about this filth if we want a #SwachhBharat.

Many women have tried ignoring online abuse. It continues. Others have tried fighting back. It continues. Some have tried humour, including the Peng Collective's brilliant Zero Trollerance campaign. The trolls march on, undeterred, like Tolkien's orcs. Of course, it's important to distinguish between trolling and abuse, but sometimes when you're facing the shitstream, there's just so much semantic jugglery you can take. No matter what you call it, you just want it off.

And that's where Gandhi's initiative makes sense, as one more pathway to a #SwachhBharat, since we now live both on and offline. But one that'll work only if she can take on her party's trolls. Who are now trolling her too. Yes, cybercells and cops do exist, but that route doesn't always work. Social media platforms make promises to their users, but they are rarely kept. "Not a single tweet that I've ever reported has been taken down," says Rohini Lakshane of the Centre for Internet and Society, who's helping us with our digital security workshop.

This is not only about safety. It's about digital citizenship. Women are neither interlopers nor outsiders online. We belong there just as we belong here. We intend to loiter online full-throated. We're not content with a purely offline #SwachhBharat that cleans rivers and ponds. We want online #SwachhStreams too.

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