Editor’s Note: This article is published as a part of the #DigitalHifazat campaign combatting online violence against women and non-binary people. Feminism in India and The High Commission Of Canada are focussing on this issue of online violence against women as a part of the 16 Days of Activism to end gender-based violence against women and girls. If you have a story to contribute, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Social media harassment is not a new occurrence. But at the same time, it can in no measure be normalised. To believe that harassment is collateral of our social media presence and a natural part of social media adds fuel to the process. Trolls are the new generation of sexual harassers and the harassment process has adapted to the age of the internet.
To believe that harassment is collateral of our social media presence and a natural part of social media adds fuel to the process.
When I was in middle school, Facebook was the newest kid in the block. In small cities like mine, it was still on the verge of entering the mainstream, but the larger debate of the pros and cons of social media had already begun. With the uncertainty of this new technology, social media interactions were a big no-no. It was a time where cybersecurity hadn’t developed, and being exposed to the wide world of social media meant an unwarranted sanction to get exploited at the hands of miscreants. To top it off, your gender identity as a female or any minority would further jeopardise your virtual presence.
I had my first social media exposure through Facebook when I was sixteen. I was alien to the harassment that social sites carried within them but had encountered my ‘fair share’ of sexual harassment in everyday life. By this point, I had bracketed physical harassment and everyday misogyny as a commonplace occurring. Eve teasing and catcalling found space in my everyday public life and the only way to react to them was to quietly walk off, ‘ignoring’ the culprits. There was no discourse around how standing up for oneself against harassment was the ideal thing to do because being a woman bore these obvious ‘consequences’ to retaliation – shaming, stigma, or further violence.
While I was still learning the algorithms of the site, people had started creeping into my private space. But wait, did there exist a private space in this public sphere? The margin between the public and the private becomes too thin in these platforms. Nevertheless, to abuse anybody in either space cannot be justified – be it the public timeline or private messages.
My first encounter was a hate message on my public timeline. It was one-worded but enough to get me anxious. As much as it freaked me out, my first reaction to it was to chastise myself and feel a mild sense of shame. I hurried to delete it, but I was far from educated on Facebook’s security and privacy methods. My immediate thought was to take down my account – but back then deleting one’s account wasn’t yet an option, one could only deactivate it. I decided against it, however. Post this incident; I started educating myself on privacy and security policies and methods on Facebook. I implemented enough of them gradually but they had its shortcomings.
My first encounter was a hate message on my public timeline. My immediate thought was to take down my account.
Much before Facebook Messenger was invented and an extra ‘Others’ folder existed, the messages section of your Facebook profile was one-stop-shop for hate abuse. People had started creeping into the messages folder and it was incessant. There were explicit accounts of the hatred people held for me, a documentation of days of stalking and how I was under a constant watch and in one instance, a comprehensive imagery of how I’d be raped. A few people attributed my past actions as a reason for the unsolicited hate; others probably gained some distasteful sadistic pleasure out of it. The larger acceptance was, regardless of whatever goes wrong, you can always shut a woman down by threatening them of rape!
Social media is a tricky place. While most accounts are clearly unauthentic, some find the guts to openly cultivate hate speech. Online harassers and trolls have forever tried to badger women into deleting their public presence. Online harassment and trolling are the weapons that come in handy for them. Much like my immediate reaction, most women resort to sacrificing their virtual presence that, in many cases, is the first time they have felt seen or heard. This can attributed to the underlying patriarchy that despises to see women beyond the household, in the public. Hounding women off the internet is the online version of “go back to the kitchen”.
There were explicit accounts of the hatred people held for me, a documentation of days of stalking and in one instance, a comprehensive imagery of how I’d be raped.
Online violence gradually became an everyday phenomenon. While there was no physical manifestation of its ramifications, it definitely had a lasting subconscious impact. It made me averse to my peers and more so, cautious of them. At times it made me mildly paranoid of my surroundings, fearing that I was probably under unwanted but constant surveillance.
Given the standards that society sets for women, harassment plays a multi-dimensional role. It’s not just the abuse that we receive at the hands of these miscreants, but also a constant process of gaslighting, which makes us self-critical to a point of self-doubt. It leaves a person thinking if they signed up for it because their social media presence came with such cons and maybe somehow they are responsible for it. Like the fate of every legitimate issue that a woman faces in our society, online violence too was normalised; ignoring it was what was expected out of me. And there I went following the bandwagon. It was much later in life that I understood that these qualified as legitimate crimes under cybersecurity laws. They were legal cases of cyberbullying and stalking and one could be tried for that.
This brings into purview the nuances of the society’s functioning where rape is normalised and misogyny is not accounted for. The lack of education in the field added to the ignorance of the users who would overlook such a criminal act. Besides, it was also deplorable how other women could resonate with my experiences but only a few men would. Being constantly scrutinised, women are forced to prove their public significance. In the given paradigm, to say that women have an added pressure of representing themselves in public spaces, social media specifically, cannot be refuted.
Like the fate of every legitimate issue that a woman faces in our society, online violence too was normalised; ignoring it was what was expected out of me.
Social media now has evolved its methods to combat these issues by introducing better methods and newer approaches to ensure online safety. Nevertheless, with evolving standards of security, trolls themselves evolve and the harassing scenario has seen a shift in its forms, methods and spaces. While earlier my presence as a woman was questioned, more recently my ideologies and voice have become a subject of their persecution. Patriarchy plays out in various forms and to suppress voices of women and constantly threatening their public presence is fundamental to it.
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