There was a children’s rhyme that was popular a few decades ago: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It’s obvious that these lines were written in a pre-digital age because today, words are among the most potent weapons for those who want to cause harm. Particularly with the growing popularity and influence of social media, words can gather enough momentum to change offline reality. Like most powers, this has the potential to do good, like when the collective outrage on Twitter led to much-needed attention upon Khabar Lahariya’s journalists being stalked and harassed on the phone. For nine months, their pleas for help had been ignored by the UP police. Yet, within a few days of the case being discussed on Twitter, the culprit had been arrested.
Unfortunately, the not-so-good side of social media casting as wide a net as it does is that being online means laying yourself open to trolling that quickly becomes abusive. This is particularly true in case of women. “That a woman exercises her agency to be online and express her views strongly is, it seems, seen as threatening by a lot of men – and some women,” wrote Anja Kovacs, Richa Kaul Padte and Shobha SV in a 2013 research paper titled Don’t Let It Stand!: An Exploratory Study of Women and Verbal Online Abuse in India, for the Internet Democracy Project. “However, ‘simply gender’ is not a ubiquitously applicable argument, and many women find that the topics they choose to write, blog, or Tweet about is directly proportionate to the abuse they receive.”
Don’t Let It Stand has many examples of how trolls try to gag women they consider outspoken. While men, particularly those who are well-known faces, also face their share of abuse, attacks against women are usually far more vicious and sexualized. Unable to (or perhaps unwilling to) contest with them in the marketplace of ideas, online abusers use the threat of sexual abuse as one of the instrument with which to attack women. As Don’t Let It Stand puts it: “The frequent use of rape threats as an extreme form of control of and punishment to women’s bodily and sexual autonomy seeks to foster an climate of fear, where a woman’s right to use her voice and be heard is always subject to potential violence – whether real or perceived – and is an attempt to silence her.”
So what legal options are available to women who have been harassed online? “You can approach a police station, give them screenshots and a true account of what happened, write a complaint with the head constable and they’ll register an FIR,” said lawyer Apar Gupta. “If it’s from an email address or a social media account, they’ll need the company on which the user has signed up, to provide internet protocol (IP) logs and cross-check those IP logs with the internet service provider whom they correspond with.”
When Delhi-based leadership coach Aparna Jain was threatened with rape by a commenter on Twitter, she emailed the cyber crime cell to notify them of her abuser. Her emails bounced back. Jain then went to her local thana where she had to wait for two hours before she could file an FIR. Later when she was finally able to contact the cyber cell, they said there was nothing much they could do since an FIR had already been filed.
“It is a much larger structural problem,” explained Gupta. “The police doesn’t want to register a case because once it registers an FIR it has the duty to investigate and take it to its logical conclusion. It has to state that it is closing the case due to lack of evidence, which reflects badly on the police officer’s record departmentally. Or it has to file a chargesheet in court and bring the accused to court also. So in a sense there is a strong incentive for it to turn away the complainant and look towards non-formal ways of enforcing the law.”
In theory, once the accused is identified, he’ll be in police custody (if it’s a non-bailable offence) and produced in court within 24 hours, to ask for further custody, to interrogate him. “The complainant will be required at the stage of giving evidence, she’ll give an examination to confirm that her statement in the FIR was accurately recorded and asked whether or not she made the complaint under duress,” said Gupta. Next, the accused are summoned, the complaint is cross-examined, both sides will present final arguments and, depending on the evidences, circumstances and statements, the court will pronounce its verdict. “This process by itself can take anywhere between three to four years,” Gupta said.
Even when a case is taken up by the cyber crime cell, this doesn’t mean the abuser is in any danger of being punished. Not one of more than 500 cases registered under the Information Technology Act in Mumbai has reached the trial stage, according to a recent report in Indian Express. The police point fingers at the judiciary and complain that the bottleneck is the responsibility of courts. The one least affected by all this is the one who has committed the crime: the online abuser.
One of the few examples of trolls getting their due is that of singer Chinmayi Sripada. As a popular figure in the south Indian film industry, Sripada has faced harassment on a number of occasions and always for the flimsiest of ‘reasoning’. Once, a commenter threatened to “rape her and cut her to pieces”. She’s also been threatened with acid attacks and sexual assault. Sripada’s usual tactic is to block the abusers and post clarifications.
However, the violence nearly spilled over into the real world when a troll threatened to disrupt Sripada’s concert in Coimbatore in March 2012. Simultaneously, her mother’s appeals trolls to stop the abuse, in the hope that it would stir their conscience enough, failed. “When my mother tried to find out why they were doing this, one of them said ‘Chinmayi’s mother came and spoke to me but I’d rather sleep with her,’” said Sripada over the phone from Chennai. “That’s when I was at blood boil and said ‘I will hunt you down.’” With the help of her fans, who dug up IP addresses, Sripada tracked down her two chief abusers and lodged a complaint at the Chennai police commissioner’s office. Sarvanakumar Perumal, a NIFT professor and @RajanLeaks, an assistant freelancer at the Tirupur Collector’s office, were found guilty in 2012. The case, however, is far from closed. Sripada still has to appear for court hearings.
Sripada’s experience of being trolled and abused is common enough, but her success at locating her abusers and getting the police to take her case seriously is rare. It’s the benefit of enjoying a great deal of social privilege, a fact that Sripada readily accepts. But what about women who don’t enjoy such advantages? If blocking and engaging with adversarial opinion on Twitter don’t act as effective deterrents to abuse, then what does?
The silver lining is that even if society and law enforcement seem to be slow on the uptake and continue to label women who take trolls to task as troublemakers, there does seem to be a concerted effort from some sections to acknowledge the seriousness of online abuse. There is a law (Section 345D) that classifies stalking a woman (online or offline) as a criminal activity. Although it has loopholes, the punishment is a term of three years imprisonment on first conviction and a five-year stint in jail if the offence is repeated.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi is drafting a Charter of Women’s Act, that aims to protect women from victimisation and abuse, resolve disputes, and guarantee access to secure spaces – in the virtual and real world. If passed, the Act will give the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) powers to mediate disputes, order enquiries, conduct gender sensitisation programmes and refer matters to a special court for prosecution. It is modelled along the lines of the Bill of Rights as recommended by the Justice Verma Commission, that guarantees women the right to life, bodily integrity and security. The Internet Democracy Project suggests a more contemporary understanding of hate speech as a critical step to providing women security online.
“Being a complainant is not without its hazards,” said Gupta. “You’re labelled as a troublemaker in society and as a temperamental person. It will happen not just from strangers and friends but also from your own family. It makes the support environment for women very tough to go out and complain.” Until then, all we can hope to do is keep the trolls out and the conversation going.
Aayush Soni is a freelance journalist in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @aayushsoni.