Times of India 9 Sep 2013

Women bloggers seek safety in anonymity 

by Medha Dutta

PUNE: Shoma Nandi, a freelance journalist, was in for a shock when she published an article on her blog on a right wing politician. “My page was bombed with hate mail. People were calling me all sorts of names. It was abuse I’d never thought possible. Also, these abusers were predominantly male,” she says.

The experience rankled Shoma, enough to even put her off blogging for sometime. She is now doubly careful before keying in her thoughts. “I won’t say I was scared, but yes I was unsettled. I mean, when you get rape threats online for voicing your opinions, you know that something is not right with the world.”

A draft study done by the IDP titled, ‘An exploratory study of women and verbal online abuse in India’, found that gender-based verbal abuse, harassment, and stereotyping of women are as much a part of the online world as the real world.

“I work for women’s rights; I raise my voice every time there is a violation - be it a rape, a molestation or domestic or workplace abuse. And each time that I have been vocal about these issues, I have received hundreds of hate mails,” says Yasmin Ali, a human rights activist.

The idea is to silence women, says Anja Kovacs, director of Internet Democracy Project (IDP) in India. Men too face online abuse, but the quality and content are different. “The sexual abuse that men receive is also directed at the women in their lives - mother, sister, wife,” she says.

Namit K Shankar, marketing head with an auto major, agrees, “I had commented on a social networking site about some politicians’ and social leaders’ insensitive remarks at the time of the Delhi rape case. I was fine as long as people simply countered my views, but the reactions soon spiraled into a bitter personal assault with some directing abuse at the women in my family.”

Cases like these have prompted many women online users to remain anonymous. This, they say, promises them some amount of safety.

“I am a regular social network user. I voice my opinions on a range of topics. But, I remain faceless and nameless. It helps me distance my life from my opinions because I know how crazy it can get there,” says Yasmin’s colleague, Vani.

When asked if they ever thought of approaching the cyber crime cell about their experiences, both Yasmin and Vani feel it may not be of much help. In most cases women themselves are blamed for ‘inviting’ such abuse, says Yasmin.

Social networks are coming up with many ways to help victims of online abuse fight back. On most sites, there is a comment moderator whose job entails deleting offensive comments, warning repeat offenders, or, in extreme cases, disabling their accounts. Some sites also have a ‘report button’, that, if used, sends an electronically-generated mail to the administrator of the site. After going through the content, if the administrator finds it abusive or offensive, the page or the user handle is disabled. These initiatives, although effective, are only short-term solutions as the person can come back to the forum under different usernames.

Originally published in Times of India.