Hate and Abuse – Served Online

In my last post, we saw how improvement in medical technology – ultrasounds etc. actually became a tool for gender biases, used for female feticide, thereby increasing instances of abortion of female fetuses. Similarly, with advent of internet technology, easy access and increasing use of social media – patriarchal behavior has been transferred online, appearing as misogynistic and sexist comments, posts or tweets and other forms of online targeting and abuse. Online abuse can take different forms including bullying, stalking, impersonation, non-consensual pornography, revenge porn or image-based sexual abuse/exploitation, and most commonly, hate speech against women or online misogyny.

Online hate and cyberviolence have emerged as extensions of violence against women. Misogyny as such is not new and now with technological advancement it is spreading its roots online too. Online violence against women is directed to them due to their gender – it targets their sexuality, reduces them to sexual objects and reinforces gender stereotypes.

What was initially perceived as an inclusive and participatory platform for all, is now becoming unsafe for half of its digital citizens. This ‘new form of old misogyny’ (Emma A Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History) affects women who participate actively online. Well known personalities, politicians, actresses, activists are all targeted by different hate groups for the views they hold. At the same time, women belonging to marginalized communities and those that are more vulnerable are targeted more. Color, religion, caste all come into play.

The recent incidents of Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai are a case in point. Here women from the minority community in India were harassed and in a way were being given warnings for their dissent.

Oftentimes these victims are asked to just ignore trolling and not engage. Moreover, even for those who want to complain, either there is no clear recourse or their complaints go unheard. Online abuse has a significant impact on the victim – in fact it can even have a more devastating impact than offline abuse at time because it can take place anytime and the victim can be revictimized every time a hateful message or image is shared about them. Online hate material is even more dangerous due to the multiplier effect and increased hate online can also lead to physical violence offline. One of the victims of Bull Bai admits to deactivating her twitter account and cutting off all ties with social media after seeing her picture on the app.

Globally there has been an acknowledgement of increase in online hate against women and Governments are waking up to the fact that there needs to be proper legal recourse. In India, the 273rd Law Commission Report also recognized the validity of claims for a legal recognition of incitement to hatred on grounds of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, and recommended the insertion of these terms through amendments to the Indian Penal Code. More recently, the Ministry of Electronics and IT is looking at reforming the Information Technology Act de novo, and the Law Ministry’s Committee for Reforms in Criminal law initiated a process last year for examining hate speech laws and offences relating to women. However, much more needs to be done right from preventing online abuse to bringing the perpetrators to task.

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