My poster in Jack Dorsey's hands wasn't the point; real threat to trolls was me seeking safety of oppressed on Twitter
We live in strange times that the whole of Twitter India can be brought to a standstill by the subversive presence of a contemporary Dalit poster
We live in strange times that the whole of Twitter India can be brought to a standstill by the subversive presence of a contemporary Dalit poster. And yet it was never really about the poster was it?
That was just distraction. For the real threat for trolls was my presence there in that room, an educated Dalit woman advocating for the safety of Indian caste-oppressed communities. If any lesson is to be learned from this, it is that an educated Dalit woman who knows her community's rights and fights for it is in fact the greatest threat to Brahminical Patriarchy.
On 9 November, I was part of a closed-door discussion with Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter. The meeting was one of several meetings that Dorsey attended on his trip and was organised by Twitter India to better understand the challenges for women and vulnerable minority communities for India especially on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
The objective of the meeting was to discuss our experience of using Twitter, as journalists, activists, women and minorities, and raise issues related to the routine harassment and trolling we face on the platform. It was also important for me that the conversation did not simply stop at trolling, but that we talk frankly about how trolling is part of an ecosystem of hate speech and disinformation.
For me, this was not simply an academic exercise, but a question of physical safety, even life-or-death on some occasions. I have been subject to many campaigns of casteist and sexist hate on Twitter and have been forced off of the platform before. Being one of the few Dalit women in the world who work on caste and tech equity, the foundation of my work is to ensure that my community and I deserve to have a place where we can have the freedom to express ourselves without the fear of online and real world violence.
I never expected to share my story with the constructive desire to help make the platform better and to represent the over 300 million Dalits who struggle with online violence on digital platforms.
Giving my testimony at that meeting was a way to name the systemic violence Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Ravidassias, Buddhists and other religious and cultural communities face every day on Twitter. From casteist, Islamophobic, and anti-Christian slurs to outright calls for violence, we face unspeakable amounts of harassment on the platform without any recourse, for the platform currently provides no way to report casteist hate speech and its algorithm is as yet untrained to recognise casteist slurs.
At the end of the meeting, I presented Dorsey the poster that has now become the subject of national debate. The poster was part of a series of posters co-designed by our friend and Dalit sister Thenmozhi Soundararajan in 2016. The poster was intended as a gift, an act of sharing contemporary Dalit culture, as an artifact of solidarity and empathy that reflects the beauty of resilience of Dalit Bahujan Adivasi people.
Is calling out a system of oppression hate speech?
While Dr BR Ambedkar drew many parallels between caste oppression and gender oppression in his work, the term 'Brahmanical Patriarchy' was first used by feminist scholar Uma Chakravarti in a 1993 paper titled Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State. She explains it as the need for sexual control over women and women’s bodies to maintain patrilineal succession and caste purity, the institution unique to Hindu society.
When we say 'Smash Brahminical Patriarchy', we are referring to our fight against these interconnected systems of oppression. Criticisms of white supremacy are not seen as direct criticisms of people who racially identify as White. Similarly, calling out Brahminical Patriarchy should not be seen as an attack on the Brahmin community. It is not hate speech to name how Brahminical texts and scriptures have legitimised discrimination against a group of people based on their caste. It is not act of violence to call out forces of oppression.
However, it is well known that to those who are privileged, equity feels like oppression and that is the only explanation for the outrage we are witnessing on Twitter today. This fresh round of harassment, accusations and threats that Dorsey, the other women in the photo and I have been facing is not unfamiliar. It is not the first time that Twitter has turned into an unsafe place for my Dalit allies and me. That Dorsey held the poster in the group was an unintended consequence and not an act of political opportunism. It was what I suspect to be a human act on the part of the Twitter CEO, who was moved by the meeting and all of our testimonies.
This is what I think is powerful about Project Mukti's work. Dalit women have all the tools to succeed once we are removed from the shadow of violence and untouchability. That is why our mission has always been to move past the narrative of atrocity and poverty and instead build technological equity and literacy among Dalit Bahujan women and gender minorities. We do this through training, building tech, growing Dalit Bahujan knowledge and culture, and fostering solidarity among Dalit Bahujan-Adivasi people.
This work is my way of taking Savitribai Phule's vision of educating women into the digital arena. However, in doing this work, and in our daily lives as Dalit women simply taking up social and intellectual space online, we are constantly battling Brahminical Patriarchy.
Explicitly casteist and sexist trolling and harassment has been part of our daily work, whether on Wikipedia, Twitter, or even Facebook.
That is why it is time we have a frank conversation about this violence as a nation. Dalit women and religious and minorities are canaries in the coal mine when it comes to harassment on social media platforms. If there is toxicity and hatred on social media, it will find us first. This is why even in the middle of this, I have nothing but deep compassion for the Twitter India team. They now know what we experience all the time.
We hope this episode will light in them a spark of empathy that will guide them as they work towards making Twitter a more equitable and safe environment for all communities, irrespective of their caste, gender, class or religion.
The following is a statement released by Anna MM Vetticad, Nilanjana S Roy, Rituparna Chatterjee, Sanghapali Aruna, who were present at the meeting with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey:
Last week Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, and Vijaya Gadde, Legal, Public Policy and Trust and Safety Lead at Twitter, hosted a meeting with a group of women, including the undersigned, at the Twitter office in Delhi where several Twitter employees were present. Twitter asked for it to be an off-the-record meeting to allow everyone involved to be as candid as possible, and we agreed. The objective of the meeting was to hear our experiences of using the platform, to highlight how women's movements and groups had used Twitter, and to share concerns about women's safety and online harassment.
While each of us shared our own experience of handling abusive speech or threats, a Dalit rights activist in the group spoke about her lived experience of Dalits being pushed out of the platform by trolls. She spoke about everyday battles fighting casteist slurs on Twitter and pointed out that caste abuse is not even listed among the categories under which abuse can be reported on Twitter. On hearing this, Vijaya Gadde broke down in tears, and apologised for not having thought of this herself. Though we were all surprised by her reaction and her apparent lack of awareness about caste, we took it as an indicator of her sensitivity to the concerns being expressed.
Each one of us highlighted the gaps in Twitter’s algorithm in addressing abusive trolling. At the meeting, the Dalit rights activist gifted the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey two posters, one of which, the rest of us have subsequently learnt, said, “End Caste Apartheid” while the other said “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”. Dorsey chose to hold the poster saying “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” while posing for a group photo.
The photo was clicked by a Twitter employee, it was mailed to us and we were told it could be shared. It comes as a disappointment to all of us dealing with the abuse, harassment and legal threats that we are facing now, that Vijaya Gadde has, in a Twitter apology, chosen to claim that the photo was a “private photo”, has apologised to handles alleging that we were instigating hate, and — in sharp contrast to her emotional, apologetic response at that private meeting — publicly distanced herself from Dalit and gender concerns.
This is also in sharp contrast to Twitter's strong stand in favour of women and marginalised communities in other countries. Twitter's misrepresentation and half-truths are the only reason why we have felt compelled to take the unusual step of issuing this statement.
We made it clear during the discussion that we were against any individuals — irrespective of their political or caste affiliations — who actively threaten women. We call on Twitter to step up and not capitulate to bigotry, disinformation and bullying, and to address in serious terms the problem of trolls threatening the life and liberty of scores of women and marginalised communities (including Dalits and religious minorities) online.
Signed: Anna MM Vetticad, Nilanjana S Roy, Rituparna Chatterjee, Sanghapali Aruna