A web column in 2013 began with the Austen-esque, “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of an opinion and a computer will cop a heap of sh*t. Insults, personal attacks and threats of physical violence are par for the course” [cited in Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History by Emma Jane]. A woman who dares to have an opinion and broadcast it too, is highly likely to be personally targeted by denizens with the aim to ‘put her in her place’ and see her silenced.
On the evening of August 4, The News Minute editor-in-chief Dhanya Rajendran’s ‘provocation’ was to speak her mind like any ordinary member of the audience about the latest Bollywood soppy rom-com Jab Harry Met Sejal and make a passing comparison to another film she didn’t like — a seven-year-old Tamil film starring actor Vijay. The tweet was met with vicious keyboard-bashing by mostly young, male fans of Vijay over a span of next four days, featuring the notoriously trending “#PublicityBeepDhanya” on Sunday. The abusers (not to be confused with trolls trolls), ganged up like an online lynch mob and hurled abuse and sexualised vitriol-filled tweets at her. Their collective tweet count exceeded a staggering 35,000 over the four days since and had still not stopped completely. Speaking to Indianexpress.com on August 9, Rajendran marvelled at how so much energy could be spent in the effort to pour misogynistic hatred on her.
Occupational Risk with a gendered bent
Journalists all over the world are used to being lampooned and lambasted over the internet by those who do not agree with their work and this includes personal attacks. But “if you are not being called ugly, fat, and slutty on the internet, odds are you’re a man. Or a woman pretending to be a man,” writes Jane, the author of Misogyny Online. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center showed that men are more likely to receive milder forms of abuse such as name-calling and embarrassment. Women, in contrast, are particularly vulnerable to more severe and vicious forms of abuse such as sexual harassment, stalking and rape threats.
Owing to the nature of such threats, women are susceptible to greater demoralisation, even if they usually pull up a thick skin and move on. “The last three-four days, I have been extremely stressed,” says Rajendran who went through the laborious motions of filing an FIR on Tuesday. “Earlier I was sort of floating, knowing it was bad. But only when I had to go through them all again to pull out the worst, did it sink in to me how bad it actually was,” she shared.
Online and Offline interactions of Misogyny
“The easiest way to try to shut up a woman is to indulge in her character assassination. This is true across professional spectrums, but especially for women who come into the public space. This is also apparent in the recent Chandigarh stalking case or Gurmehar Kaur,” says Priyanka Chaturvedi, whose position as the spokesperson of Congress Party makes her a constant target for social media abuse. She has had to report rape and death threats made to her online in the form of FIRs in the past. “For a society that is in transition, that is male dominated — patriarchy comes easy. This was difficult to see on conventional media channels but you have an open platform now,” she says.
Dr. Anja Kovacs, Director of the Internet Democracy Project and researcher of cyber trolls, points out that the sort of abuse that women receive on Facebook and Twitter is connected with historical norms of policing women’s voices, which has always been central to patriarchy. “It is not just about agreeing or disagreeing, it is about policing whose voice will be heard and who is accepted as a legitimate participant,” she said in an interview at the Internet Democracy Project webpage. The pioneers of the cyberspace had imagined it to be a place where ‘all may enter without privilege or prejudice’. But that eventually proved to be dead wrong. Speaking to indianexpress.com, Kovacs explains that to begin with, campaigns on social media (like Pink Chaddi) empowered marginalised sections of the population, including women, by providing them with a safe platform to organise and be vocal, in a way that offline space could not.
The backlash to that, was online harassment, abuse and threats, which also started early on as an attempt to push the emerging new voices back to the pockets and out of the internet. Misogynists too discovered the web to collectivise and abuse women, with very few consequences. Put differently, empowered by the retweet function, misogyny also went viral. Rajendran’s targeting with a specially created hashtag and the sheer number of attacking tweets is an example of that.
Much of the abuse that takes place on the internet is a reflection of the structures of oppression in the real world, such as sexism, racism and hatred based on religion or plus-size bodies. Men, for instance, are not traditionally shamed for promiscuity. There is no male version of the word “slut” and if any, it does not carry the same derogatory connotations. Even when men are attacked online, it frequently comprises of abuses and threats directed towards the female members of their family, effectively in order to make them feel emasculated. “Misogyny hasn’t gone, sexism hasn’t gone. It is only becoming more rampant and with people expecting us to turn a blind eye to it is only ignoring the problem or brushing it under the carpet,” says Chaturvedi.
“Toughen Up, Princess”
The advice doled out to women who are made targets of online abuse, and the one that is most practical is to grow a thick skin. While this is inevitable to carry on, it shuts down the conversation on this malaise, as the lack of an effective redressal system continues to embolden the relentless abusers. Scholars agree that more surveillance or censorship of the internet is not the solution. “We have seen in case of Section 66A, for example, that more censorship can result in the silencing of innocent people,” says Kovacs. The nature of online abuse, she points out, is such that it baffles the conventional methods of redressal. Like fake news, which is altering the way we approach democracy, online harassment is also a product of the way technology is fundamentally altering our collective lives.