Online gender-based violence: A tool of digital authoritarianism in India

Mapping Online Violence Against Women. Image via Flickr by AltCity Media/Nadine Mouawad from Nasawiya. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Mapping Online Violence Against Women. Image via Flickr by AltCity Media/Nadine Mouawad from Nasawiya. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Journalists and women human rights defenders are frequent targets of online gender-based violence (OGBV) worldwide. In an environment where voices critical of those in power are silenced, digital authoritarianism thrives. Using the example of journalist Rana Ayubb, this article will explore how OGBV against journalists in India has created a ripe environment for digital authoritarianism.

In a global survey conducted by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) that looked at 15 countries (not including India), 73 percent of the respondents reported having faced some form of online gender-based violence. There is rich literature documenting the negative impacts of such violence on one’s physical, psychological, emotional, and financial well-being. Research shows that experiencing OGBV can lead to silencing and self-censorship. Journalists act as public figures, and their silencing through app auctions or trolling serves as a ‘lesson’ not to speak up, enabling an atmosphere of fear. Additionally, the negative mental impact of online violence can linger and influence journalists’ work. The UNESCO-ICFJ study revealed that 11 percent of women missed work to recover from the negative impacts of OGBV, 38 percent “made themselves less visible,” 4 percent quit their job, and 2 percent left journalism as a profession. The study also noted that silencing women pushes women out of debates vital in a democracy and undermines public trust in journalism. A research report by Feminism India published in 2021 titled Online Gender-based Violence in India: Cybercrimes Against Women and Minorities on Social Media, notes that online abuse against women is a serious problem in India, but women and other victims lack understanding and necessary support to respond to these threats effectively.

The case of Rana Ayyub

Rana Ayyub at Times Litfest 2016. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Satdeep Gill. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Rana Ayyub at Times Litfest 2016. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Satdeep Gill. CC BY-SA 4.0.

An outspoken Muslim investigative journalist in India, Rana Ayyub has frequently been the target of online violence and threats. In an opinion piece summarising their research findings on online gender-based violence, Julie Posetti and Kalina Bontcheva note that Rana Ayyub is one of the “most targeted journalists” worldwide, receiving abuse “within seconds” of posting. She has experienced many types of OGBV: trolling, morphing of images, sexual violence, rape and death threats, physical violence threats, doxing, and orchestrated violence. The authors highlight the impact such targeting can have: “There is a symbiotic relationship between online violence against journalists such as Ayyub and political repression. The former chills press freedom and create a more permissive environment for the latter.” Despite the adverse effects, the authors note how the government and platforms, two key players, have shown complacency. Additionally, they draw attention to how many Prime Minister Modi has followed users’ social media accounts who engage in such violence.

Furthermore, Independent UN experts have condemned the mass-scale abuse by “organised online groups” targeting the journalist. The experts also note: “The lack of condemnation and proper investigation by the Government, coupled with the legal harassment it has itself inflicted on Ms. Ayyub, has only served to falsely legitimise the attacks and attackers and further endangered her safety.” The legal harassment mentioned here relates to money laundering charges and the freezing of her bank accounts earlier this year. In response to the whole ordeal, Ayub took to Twitter, saying, “My pen can NEVER be silenced…”

Online gender-based violence against journalists in India

Rana Ayyub is one of many journalists targeted in the country. Women journalists in India have been trolled, received death and rape threats, found themselves objectified on apps, and are allegedly targeted by spyware like Pegasus. As a result of these digital authoritarian measures, women journalists are being surveilled, their privacy is being violated, and their freedom of expression is limited. Experts note that OGBV often gets translated to the offline sphere, leading to real-life consequences. Additionally, these measures limit sources of information since journalists are vital in bringing stories to the public.

The attacks against women journalists are sexualised and gendered and go beyond their professional roles. Often, this is a tactic used to silence women journalists. In an interview, Neha Dixit, an award-winning journalist, explained: “I am being trolled for the stories that I write, but everyone ends up talking about my trolling and not the cause that I was writing about. As a result, trolling ends up muzzling us on more ends than one.”

Furthermore, an analysis by Feminism in India, a digital feminist media organisation, draws attention to how journalists frequently report on topics such as politics and religion attracting a barrage of attacks. Moreover, research shows that the gendered abuse women face, including journalists, is compounded by factors such as caste and religion. As reported by Aljazeera, Kiruba Munusamy, a Dalit activist and an advocate in the Supreme Court of India, reasons, “While the abuse and violence faced online is gendered, it gets even worse when the abuser finds out that the person posting her picture or opinion belongs to a ‘lower caste.’ Comments on a short dress turn into comments on a woman from a lower caste wearing them.” Similarly, Muslim journalists in India have also been disproportionately targeted, often with islamophobic attacks. Many prominent Muslim journalists also found themselves auctioned on apps such as ‘Sulli deals’ and ‘Bulli bai.’

Press freedom and digital authoritarianism

Digital authoritarianism and press freedom share a chaotic yet symbiotic relationship. Gendered online abuse against women journalists brings down press freedom in the country, creating a ripe atmosphere for digital authoritarianism to flourish, which in turn is used to suppress press freedom. India has slipped from 142 in 2021 to 150 in the World Press Freedom Index 2022 announced by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Please visit the project page for more pieces from the Unfreedom Monitor.


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