The Internet is a fantastic space. It gives us a space to speak up, get information on almost anything, reconnect with old friends, make new friends, talk to strangers, watch cat videos and make cat memes and many more things. But speaking up, especially on the Internet, is not always as simple.
If you’re not a straight, cis man, possibly a Hindu also belonging to the upper class and caste, your expression online is often challenged. If you’re a woman and your views don’t sit well with the majority, it is openly attacked with direct threats aimed at you. Now, in some countries, there are laws which protect one’s freedom of speech and expression online. When these, when existent, can be effective to an extent, it is not as simple as that since the Internet has multiple levels of intermediaries and censors. There’s the platform, your peers, random public who can see your post and so on and so forth.
In this scenario, with increasing cyber violence against women and other minorities, it becomes important for us to figure out other ways of combating the hate online. One cannot just leave the social media platforms and give up one’s space. One should not be forced to stop talking either. Simply waiting on the legal authorities or those from the social media platforms to take action can take a long time. Sometimes, it could even lead to increased surveillance.
In light of all this, our next option would be to subvert the existing technology and spaces so that our voices are not silenced. Here, we need to turn to one another for inspiration and support. Rape survivors in India made videos telling their stories. They used Snapchat filters to mask their faces to maintain anonymity. In 2014, Reddit made a subreddit called TwoXChromosome, which was not very public earlier, more visible on the homepage. Since this subreddit was a space for women to discuss a varied range of issues, from period problems to abortion, rape and more.
Fearing an attack from trolls or random men spaming the subreddit, the women on the subreddit started discussing the most TMI topics possible, popular ones including “period shits” and nicknames for period blood clumps. They aimed to either gross out the trolls and/or get the subreddit taken off the main page. Another fantastic example would be the Mamilo Livre campaign launched by Brazilian activists did to fight censorship of female nipples by social media platforms. They made an app which would divide the photo into four parts such that when they are all uploaded together, the nipple will be visible in the mosaic image formed but not in the individual photos. The rainbow filter introduced by Facebook after the legalisation of same-sex marriage in US, though capitalist in its origins, had an unexpected use in India. Women on Tinder used their photos with rainbow filters to indicate their queer preference rather than write it explicitly on their profiles. Since Tinder does not have a separate option to identify as queer, the filter did that job. Also, it protected the women’s identities from anyone else who might come across their profile on the app.
A significant part of reclaiming the technology would also be to educate ourselves on the various tools available to protect ourselves. People should know basic DIY digital security measures which can thwart initial attacks. There are a number of fantastic resources for this. This is a guide to feminist cybersecurity. Pakistani campaign #HamaraInternet put together a digital security handbook taking into account the sociopolitical scenario in Pakistan. Coding Rights came up with a beautiful pamphlet with tips on how to send safer nudes.
All this will only take us so far if we do not engage with the community. By community, I do not mean the entire internet, but we need a support system online, and who better than others who are going through the same thing as us! About a year ago, the hashtags #takebackthetech and #imagineafeministinternet came under attack by those who associated with #Gamergate. They used the former hashtags, used for promoting women in STEM and speaking about misogyny online, by posting thousands of anti-feminist tweets and memes. Knowing that they alone cannot fight this, the creators of the hashtags sent out a call for support from allies, which included internet rights activists, gender and sexual rights activists, feminists online among others. They used encrypted chatrooms to discuss a strategy and then engaged using the hashtags to reclaim them.
Recently, Taruna Aswani, an Indian woman currently in US, was threatened by a man who hacked her cloud. The man blackmailed to release her private photos online if she didn’t send him more nudes. She not only reported this to the police but also put up a post on Facebook explaining the whole thing and requested people to share the post to help catch the guy. Her post was by shared by thousands of people across the world, inevitably negating the blackmailer’s threat entirely.
As Emma Lazarus said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Until we support each other to reclaim online space and together demand for reforms in the legislations as well as ‘community guidelines’ on various platforms, we cannot be equal on the Internet, and we NEED to be equal online.