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Do not let online trolls menace our public life

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Every seventh tweet directed at a woman politician in the country is either “problematic” or “abusive”, a study by Amnesty International India (AII) has found. The human rights advocacy group’s report, titled Troll Patrol India: Exposing Online Abuse Faced by Women Politicians in India, also found every fifth such message to be misogynistic. Regressive elements of the Indian patriarchy have always wielded weapons of psychological warfare to crush the voices of women who attain a public profile, but the scale and frequency of it today should alarm us. It is a threat not just to free speech, but the very idea of public representation. While the report focuses on Twitter, whose chief executive officer Jack Dorsey has rued how easily women are targeted for harassment on the platform, levels of toxicity are no lower on other social media apps.

Twitter has often stated that it has a strict policy against hateful conduct of any sort, and that it works hard to filter out any such content, especially during peak phases like general elections. Yet, as AII’s Troll Patrol reveals, Twitter was awash with venom aimed at female leaders during our election months of March to May 2019. On average, they received 113 ugly tweets every day. This is nearly twice as much abuse heaped upon women politicians in the UK or US. Further, the more prominent and active an Indian politician, the nastier the verbal attacks. Right from slurs invoking the looks and complexions of women to explicit threats of rape, torture and death, and from sexual innuendoes to lurid comments on what type of men they should be sleeping with, the trolling has been relentless. The report also noted how prejudices of caste, religion, sexual orientation, etc., were a glaring feature of these coarse tweets. While leaders across the political spectrum have been at the receiving end of indignities, the findings point to a higher vulnerability among those who are in the Opposition. Some of the most appalling cases of victimization involved the viral spread of doctored imagery, or deepfakes, depicting women in pornographic situations. Technology has evidently worsened things.

Our women leaders have been admirably feisty, but it is unreasonable to expect exposure to trolls not to dampen their spirit and deter others from public careers. As Nazia Erum, AII’s head of media and advocacy, said in an interview with CNN, “Online abuse on Twitter demeans women, it invalidates their voice, it belittles them, it intimidates them, and it can silence them.” It may be a price all public figures pay, but it spells particular trouble for a country like ours, which is still to slough off pre-modern notions of gender roles and suffers deep deficiencies of women’s empowerment. Just 14% of Lok Sabha members are women, a shamefully low proportion. Reliable research has shown that female participation in the socio-political domain bears an undeniable correlation with economic success. The basic cause has been identified, too. Policies drawn from diverse perspectives tend to prove better for progress. They are also less prone to errors of judgement that arise from groupthink—or male-think in this context. But, what could be done to fix the problem? Stricter online supervision by social media apps has been suggested. Also, campaigns that promote gender sensitivity. These may not suffice. To quell the menace, we need our internet whiz kids to come up with novel ideas that could actually aid a social reformation.

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