BELLING THE TROLLS

India Today - - UPFRONT - BISHAKHA DATTA Illustrati­on by ANIR­BAN GHOSH

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

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.

The au­thor works on gen­der and sex­u­al­ity in dig­i­tal spa­ces and runs a non-profit in Mum­bai, Point of View

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