In 2016 when journalist Rana Ayyub's book 'Gujarat Riots - Anatomy of a Cover-Up' - was released, she may not have imagined the volume and shelf-life of the hate she was about to receive. Today, two years since the book's release, Ayyub continues to be regularly trolled, she continues to get death and rape threats, her reputation continues to be systematically desecrated, she continues to feature in fake and inciteful 'news' content, tailored to incite ignorant masses. But though Ayyub has remained one of the most trolled women journalists in India, she is not the only one.
Anja Kovacs, project director at the Internet Democracy Project, has been heading a detailed study on the trolling that women journalists in particular face in India. Speaking at a two-day seminar on online trolling called 'The Beast on the Block', she said that she and her team studied the social media interactions of ten women journalists in India. They have gone through over 1,600 tweets targeting these journalists and the researcher admitted that sometimes, the content made her sick to the core.
"It was appalling to read tweet after tweet, hurling invectives and abuse at women journalists, most of which centred threats of physical or sexual violence. They use derogatory words and in general try to defame and character assassinate women journalists," Kovacs said.
And for what? Mostly for questioning authority or the way Indian society, religion and governance work, said the researcher.
"Online is a reflection of offline"
Social entrepreneur and founder of Digital Empowerment Foundation, Osama Manzar, felt it was because of a lack of digital literacy among people. Manzar described social media today as a virtual 'chowk' (the Indian equivalent of a town square). Whereas on one hand it has helped give a voice to the voiceless and brought everyone on the same platform. But on the other, it has given people the power to criticise and abuse anyone and get away with it.
"Social media is only a reflection of real life and every day social behaviour. And with the impunity of anonymity, anyone today feels like they are a 'citizen journalist'.They feel entitled to have an opinion and let you know what they think about things, especially if they disagree," said Manzar.
He added that now focus had to be shifted from 'bringing people online' to teaching them how to 'behave' online. But how does one tackle organised trolling? Research suggests that despite sexism in trolling, all kinds of trolling may not be fragmented or gendered. In fact, trolling is often part of a systematic, propagandist and often political campaign to destroy the credibility of a journalist, which makes it an important tool in the hands of the powerful, like the government, and is not limited to women journalists alone.
Earlier this year, journalist Rajdeep Sardesai was targeted by a troll (who has a verified Twitter handle and is followed by several ministers). He was asked whether his son's admission to an MBBS university was legitimate and he was accused of paying Rs 1 crore to the University for his 'average' son's admission. An infuriated Rajdeep posted pictures of his son's admission form and merit ranking. The ensuing hate campaign, as Rajdeep describes it, reached such frenzy that he and his family were concerned enough to consult with a lawyer.
Speaking on a panel about the legal discourses on trolling, Sardesai said he was dismayed at having been advised to 'ignore the trolling'. Which brings up the next question. What can people, especially journalists, activists, women and other vulnerable groups, do in case of such vitriolic trolling?
The answer is - not much.
Too many laws?
Women journalists can take legal recourse through Section 354 A makes sexual harassment an offence, even on social media. This may include sexually offensive remarks or implying sexual violence. But according to human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, it was often that the police handling such cases were ill-equipped to handle such charges. Many officers, even in cyber cells, routinely ask victims to ignore the issue and not engage - allegedly the only solution to make it go away. However, readers may remember the case of Malayali actress and member of the Women in Cinema Collective, who was incessantly harassed for over two months due to a tweet criticising the iconic actor Mammootty for a 'sexist' role in a film.
Section 66 A of the revamped (2008) Information Technology Act makes cyberbullying a punishable crime (up to 3 years). This includes stalking, cyber harassment and other forms of online abuse such as sending or sharing abusive content without. Laws against hate speech in the IPC also apply. But the anonymity of offenders often makes it easy for trolls to get away.
In case of wilful slandering or fake news, the defamation law is the most practical answer. But according to lawyer and academic Siddhart Narrain, the success of the law's implementation often depended on the 'victim's access to power and resources.
"Defamation lawsuits work when it is for protecting the rich and powerful. The tables sharply turn when the same happens to an average journalist or anyone else who is being trolled. It takes a lot of time and money and those in power often manage a better litigation team," Narrain said.
The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies Fellow also felt that defamation laws (Section 499 of the IPC) were a double-edged sword, in the sense that they are often used by those in power to suppress dissenting voices. The vague connotation of words such as 'obscenity' and what constitutes 'abuse' often vary, thus making the law even more susceptible to manipulation. Which is why those like Vrinda Grover now want autonomous bodies to deal with such issues, especially when the victim is a journalist.
"We have to think, what are the other recourses available to us? Civil society is the answer. It is the civil society, organisations like the Press Council of India, which currently toothless, need to organise and strengthen against organised trolling," Grover said.
But what about the social media platforms themselves, are they free of all responsibility? Views differ on this too. While the general consensus is that social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp, should bring in more sophisticated censorship mechanisms, many argue that the censorship is disproportional with the level of transparency. It means that users are often unaware of what content is going to be weeded out, what content is likely to remain, and what algorithms companies like Facebook and Twitter use. And in light of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, many are scared that the companies, essentially private, profit-making entities, may be exercising more power than was actually intended.
"While they get away by saying that they are providing the service of connecting people and giving voice to the voiceless, the truth is that Facebook works on a testing-based model. It uses trial and error to see what works and in the process has learnt to 'nudge' people to do things," Kovacs said. And that is both useful and dangerous.
Because while nudging can help create intelligent and well-behaved netizens, people can be nudged to vote for a particular candidate, discriminate against a certain minority, spread hate against women, and much more. And in a country when corporate success is directly linked to crony politics and political favours, can these bodies be trusted to be impartial? Questions remain and are further deepened after the refusal of these corporates to engage in dialogue with civil society.
So what really can women journalists (and all others) do to fend off trolls? Well, as one journalist pointed out, not responding could be the best response.