Last month, Sunanda Tharoor, the wife of federal Indian minister Shashi Tharoor, launched a Twitter storm when she accused Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar of “stalking” her husband and urged patriotic Indians to unfollow her.
A day later, Sunanda Tharoor was found dead in a Delhi hotel.
“Everything changed,” Tarar said. “The abuse was beyond my worst nightmares.” She was called a home wrecker, a spy, and a killer in a volley of tweets.
Tarar, whose Twitter follower count went up from under 30,000 to nearly 50,000 in three days, has not tweeted much after the incident.
She is not alone. Media persons, celebrities and others in India have deactivated their Twitter accounts, or gone silent after abusive trolling. Many are women.
India has an estimated 25 million active Twitter users, three-fourths of them male. (That is against 82 million Facebook users and 198 million Internet users in the country.)
While women are a vocal minority on Twitter in India, the abuse they face on it borders on the violent.
CNN-IBN news channel’s deputy editor Sagarika Ghose rarely tweets her views, despite being a known face and having 288,000 followers on Twitter.
Silenced by “online fascism”, Ghose now sticks to tweets about programmes on her channel.
She was active on Twitter until a year ago. Then the abuse got personal, with threats of attacks and rape. The police could not help: the attackers used anonymous handles, often tagged with terms like “internet Hindu” and “patriot”.
|Actor Gul Panag says Indian women are “soft targets” on Twitter, but that she will neither ignore trolls, nor be silenced|
“This is the social media version of gang-rape,” Ghose said. “They threaten you with rape and public stripping and beating. They are brave when anonymous, and hunt in packs.”
The groups also target men – historian Ramachandra Guha has been viciously trolled, and so has Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. But with women, they get personal and sexual.
Liberal and secular women get abused most often by right wing nationalists angry at them for speaking their mind, Ghose pointed out.
Online mobs in India are not always right-wing nationalists, though the trigger is often religion, race or caste.
The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party distances itself from abusive trolling. BJP national head for information and technology, Arvind Gupta, told Al Jazeera that the “party’s guidelines for social media engagement disallow any abuse”.
“Political expression is important for Twitter users, and abuse of any sort will make the platform irrelevant,” Gupta said.
Barkha Dutt, NDTV group editor, has 1.2 million Twitter followers. “The misogynistic trolling is worse than slanderous. It borders on the violent,” she said. “I just block them and move on.”
Tackling Twitter mobs
In October 2012, after two years of abusive tweets and threats, Chinmayi Sripada finally complained to the police in the southern city of Chennai.
“It became unbearable,” the 29-year-old singer said. “They threatened to rape and kill me and used vulgar expressions.” Sripada has over 233,000 followers on Twitter.
The trouble started in January 2011, with tweets to Sripada demanding support for Indian Tamils detained by the Sri Lankan Navy for fishing in Lankan waters. Celebrities are often asked to support causes.
The trolling escalated into caste and race abuse apart from death threats.
She filed a police complaint and named six Twitter handles.
Sripada’s fans helped track two of them down. Police arrested a teacher and a government clerk; both confessed.
But most victims of online abuse find no support from the police.
Violence and abuse
Meena Kandasamy got trolled viciously last year on Twitter. The 30-year-old poet, writer and activist was threatened with acid attacks and ‘televised gang-rape’.
Kandasamy had tweeted about attending a festival by a marginalised caste group in Hyderabad, where beef was served.
Upper-caste Hindus, who consider cows sacred, launched a wave of online attacks on Kandasamy.
“They used the language of religious extremists,” Kandasamy said. “Patriarchal and caste hatred added to the abuse, to show me my place in society and to silence me.”
People watched silently. No one raised a voice. For many, it was entertainment on Twitter.
Kandasamy, who has 23,000 followers on Twitter, usually blocks abusers. “Sometimes I retweet them, just to show the world the extent of abuse possible.”
Actor and activist Gul Panag, who has 756,000 Twitter followers, said women were considered “soft targets” but she would neither ignore trolls, nor be silenced. She often retweets abusive messages, and responds.
“Election year polarises social media,” she said. “If you have a political view, you’ll be trolled, especially if you’re not pro-Modi. And those with larger followings are more susceptible.”
Narendra Modi, the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate for the Hindu nationalist BJP, has 3.3 million followers on Twitter.
Twitter in India appeared to go pro-women after a journalist charged her editor Tarun Tejpal with sexual assault.
There was relentless abuse of Tejpal, and support for the female journalist. However, Tejpal’s young daughters faced collateral anger, with some Twitter users abusing them for the allegations against their father.
India’s most visible law to counter online abuse is the Information Technology Act’s Section 66A, which is considered draconian. It provides up to three years imprisonment for anyone sending messages that cause ‘annoyance or inconvenience’.
Lawyer Karuna Nundy, who has challenged 66A in the Supreme Court, called it unconstitutional.
“Any real threat or defamation or sexual harassment is criminal under the Indian Penal Code. That applies to all crime, online or offline,” she said, adding that a new act now provides for penalties against cyber-stalking. “We don’t need 66A.”
Yet few citizens succeed in receiving legal aid against online harassment. Sripada’s abusers were freed after a brief detention. Police directed Kandasamy to take her complaint to the cyber-crime cell. Nothing happened even after she asked for legal help.
Many groups track state censorship, but few focus on online mobs that silence citizens far more effectively.
“Free speech on the Internet is under threat, and we need to protect it,” Nundy said. “Yet we need to make it easier to tackle criminal intimidation and harassment.”
Intervening and supporting a victim of online abuse is important, Nundy added.
According to Sripada, “People watched silently. No one raised a voice. For many, it was entertainment on Twitter.”