Harassment of women online, especially on social media sites has emerged as a major problem. How does one deal with this menace? 

A few days ago on telly, an Indian student asked the IMF chief whether the India growth story would help only Hindu men. Within a day, the hastag #ndtv girl asks began trending on Twitter. Some of the tweets were harmless memes and jokes about the question, while many were rather abusive and made snide personal remarks, some even claiming that the girl was planted by the TV channel. In February, popular Indian twitter user and Buzzfeed editor Rega Jha got much flak and abuse online after she put out a tweet saying that Pakistani men were better looking than Indian men. These are some of the stories of harassment women face online.

Shardha K.P. works in a marketing firm in the city and was an active user of social media sites. I stopped using social media in the run up to the national elections last year. I was constantly attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, with extremely personal remarks about my parents and upbringing. I used to block people en masse, but the relentless abuse continued. I feel that the anonymity such sites offer is a major reason for harassment online. I am not against the occasional leg pulling and a disagreement with a political stance, but fail to understand why personal abuse must follow any such discussion.”

Anja Kovacs is a researcher and has worked on the issue of harassment of women online. She says, I very rarely use the term trolling to describe online harassment, as trolling makes it sound as if this is just about an erratic individual, while really much of the abuse that happens on the Internet is a reflection of larger structures of oppression, such as sexism, racism or hatred based on religion. This is true of much of the sexist abuse women are faced with online as well. Our research showed that having opinions about politics, saying something critical even about one’s own religion and talking about feminism, gender equality or issues of sexuality all increase the likelihood that women are targeted by abusers online. Even an innocuous comment about an everyday event can attract abuse (“went to a party! Had a drink! Had so much fun!”). A lot of what happens online takes the form of moral policing, and just being a woman is enough to become a victim to that.”

Anja talks about the need to build online communities that speak up against such abuse on the net. It is important people support each other. Apps developed by communities that allow you to automatically block lists of abusers, before they have even followed you, are another good example. Those apps are also effective in ensuring that abusers will not be able to affect as many people anymore. I do not support banning anonymous accounts as they benefit many marginalised internet users.”

IT professional Rohit Venkat says, I feel that a distinction should be made between people indulging in slander and personal attacks and those indulging in some harmless fun. I find that women are often target of deeply offensive comments for what they talk about online. Such attacks must be dealt with seriously. On the other hand, harmless jokes should not taken out of context and banned. It is imperative that sections of our IT law deal with these issues urgently, rather than filing cases against people who make fun of political leaders. For instance, the student in Uttar Pradesh, who was arrested because he spoofed UP minister Azam Khan or try and ban a documentary from being streamed online. Harassment must face still penalties. You can make fun of people online, but to make personal attacks is a strict no-go zone.”

Originally published in The Hindu.