In the light of the spurt in cases of online harassment targeting women – stand-up comedian Agrima Joshua, investigative journalist Rana Ayyub, actresses Swara Bhaskar and Rhea Chakraborty, and writer Shaheen Bhatt were recently at the receiving end of rape and death threats – Bollywood has joined the fight against hate-click politics.
Nearly 13,000 men and women (as of writing this) have signed an online petition calling for an end to harassment and targeted abuse of women on the internet. Even celebrities have lent their voices this time. From Sonam Kapoor Ahuja to Swara, Dia Mirza, Sayani Gupta, Maanvi Gagroo, Kalki Koechlin, Summet Vyas, and Vinay Pathak, top stars have vouched their support.
“Let this be our wake-up call towards the unsafe online environment that women content creators - and all women - are living in today,” their petition states. “We must put a hard stop at this.”
Currently, on the internet and social media platforms, the most victims of online abuse can do is either ignore or report/block an account. And reporting an account or a handle is also subjected to stringent guidelines and technical verification of the nature of the abuse, whether it is harassing or pornographic and so on. Furthermore, on the web where events unfold at a lightning speed, by the time nefarious content is flagged or action is taken, it’s usually too late.
In other words, between identification and flagging of abusers and trolls, and redressal of grievances, there exists a disturbing gap. And the Change.org petition, started by actresses Sayani Gupta, Maanvi Gagroo along with organisations including Breakthrough India, Save the Children, and Women in Cinema Collective among a few others, aims to bring this very situation to light.
Alluding to the recent wave of threats made against women – actresses, stand-up comedians, journalists et al – the petition highlights the culture of online bullying, abusive sexual comments, vulgar memes, sharing and propagating of graphic images, and death and rape threats.
The petitioners point out, “Silence and inaction towards curtailing these have only further fed into the rape culture where threats of abuse have become matters of everyday occurrences.”
But is this true? What does data say?
A survey conducted by Norton by Symantec shows that eight out of ten people in India have experienced some or other form of online harassment. With the total number of internet users crossing 560 million in the country, as per statista, at least 41 percent of women have complained of experiencing sexual harassment in the cyberspace.
In fact, cyber harassment has manifested itself in many forms. While ‘online harassment’ is an umbrella term, which under the Information Technology Act, 2000, (IT Act) refers to the use of internet to harass, threaten or maliciously insult a person, there are more serious forms of harassment that have perpetuated over the years. And this includes cyberstalking, trolling, malicious gossip and rumours, and threats of physical violence.
“Our research shows that more serious forms of online harassment, including threats of physical violence (44percent), and cyberstalking (45percent) are very high,” said cybersecurity solutions firm Norton by Symantec’s Country Manager, Ritesh Chopra.
In India, the past few months have witnessed a definite surge in the incidents of cyber harassment. Particularly, situations where women, whether a star or not, have found themselves at the receiving end of comments and threats so vile and serious that it begs to address the looming question: how long it is just a threat and would we ignore it if it were made in the real world instead of the digital world?
“The fact is, if the kind of abuse and sexual harassment women receive online would have happened to us in our real lives, while we were walking on the streets or in our office spaces at work, at home,” actress Kalki Koechlin shared via Instagram, “we would be taking it far more seriously, would probably be taking legal action against it, and it would probably be having a huge affect on our mental health.”
She adds, “And yet when it happens on the internet every single day, we ignore it or brush it away.”
Kalki, who is one of the actresses to have signed the #IndiaAgainstAbuse petition, in her video message, drives home the urgency of the situation. It’s not just the famous faces but women at large along with marginalised sections, including persons with disabilities (PwD) and mental health issues, who are being targeted and coerced into submission by online trolls.
Does cyber-harassment have real-life consequence?
Apart from fuelling a culture of trolling, silencing unpopular opinions, and adversely impacting mental wellbeing, online harassment tends to have other, long-term effects. In some cases, it even impacts the decision-making of women outside of the virtual space.
Take for instance, the harrowing impact that accelerated election-time emotions tend to have on women politicians. More than usual, during this period, female lawmakers in India are susceptible to online abuses, hateful mentions, and rape and death threats.
Nearly 100 female politicians reported to having received rape and death threats on Twitter during the General Elections in 2019, according to a study by Amnesty International India.
In 2019, altogether 724 women candidates had contested the general elections. Of this, suggests the study, at least 95 politicians received close to one million hateful mentions on Twitter from March to May, one in five of which was sexist or misogynistic.
The truth is gender-based violence is on the rise. It is not particular to any country or region but it does affect women, regardless of their financial or socio-economic status. And, as in this case, it’s “affecting political participation by women, especially young women being put off by the online harassment of women in public life,” according to Adrian Lovett, head of the World Wide Web Foundation.
In the end, it all boils down to safety – in online world and offline. A safe and comfortable environment cannot be created for women and other marginalised sections unless stringent measures are put in place to check the hate-click industry.
(Edited by Athira Nair)