How the online space for women is in a crisis and what needs to be done about it

As we celebrate Women’s Day, the online space is still a hostile environment for many women.

Every once in a while, there is the high optics drama about a woman celebrity or public persona who has been trolled, and then, predictably, the dust settles. But make no mistake. This is but the proverbial tip of an iceberg that is ballooning.

The internet-mediated world presents a contradiction of a magnitude and complexity that feminism didn’t bargain for. Political pundits and world leaders who heralded the turn of the millennium as the century for women and girls may need to quell their enthusiasm a wee bit.

The digital society and its characteristic markers — lives beholden to the network, surveilled bodies, intelligent economics, data-defined politics – reflect a seamless intertwining. A post-human sociality structured by protocols of digital technologies and conventions of social institutions. In this is evident a massive (re)socialisation of gender power and a new legitimacy for sexism and misogyny in the public sphere.

The emancipation in the new online world for women – the promised land at the end of the patriarchal tunnel – seems to have been rendered a naive prediction in the face of this new sociality. This is not techno-cynicism. The many feminisms and their becoming power are very real. However, the unfortunate confluence of the digital paradigm and neo-liberal capitalism and a rapid subsumption thus of the digital society into the logic of surveillance capital was yet to unravel in the optimistic early years of the internet revolution. The digital society has been continuously primed since, through its historical evolution, to maximise profit, one click at a time, one like, one tweet, one retweet, and one swipe. Today, who we are is the universal, globalised reality where any binary, if at all, between the ‘online’ and ‘offline’, has completely dissolved.

Online violence against women

IT for Change undertook a research in three Indian states (Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) with the born-digital generation in late 2018, covering nearly a thousand female college students in the age group 19 to 23 through a detailed self-administered survey. We also conducted group discussions with male and female students in the same age group in both metro cities and small towns. The emerging analysis makes for perturbing reading.

In their intimate digital interactions, young women are more comfortable accommodating, rather than resisting, sexism. Not to be mis-led here. Women do care about being online. It is perhaps the only space that gives them a sense of breaking free from the shackles of social diktats that suffocate their self-exploration and identity building, their right to discover what it means to be unruly and seek gratification legitimately. But what we also found – across the three states – is a self-fashioning behaviour among women, that is gender conservative.

Women navigate the digital carefully to ensure avoidance of trouble or conflict. They advise each other on the necessary caution needed in online disclosure. They are aware of the extreme consequences of an intimate picture gone viral without consent (‘revenge porn’, as goes the misnomer). And they manage a complex balancing act with family, friends and sexual partners – posting what may seem decent, learning to ignore an unsolicited joke or picture that a male friend may send, and opting for demure display photos because the boyfriend thinks she should not be seen “sitting brazenly, leg on leg”.

How the online space for women is in a crisis and what needs to be done about it

Representational image. Image: Reuters

The social burdens of digital encounters gone wrong are simply too huge; from corporal ‘punishment’ by family members for crossing the line to the dread of forced sex with known or unknown men to buy silence and the ignominy of knowing that the neighbour has seen one’s morphed pictures, women live the digital life with a precarity that can be devastating.

For women who wish to step outside of the online intimate into the online publics, the push-back is horrific, with violent intimidation that targets women for their specific social locations. A Dalit activist spoke to us about the indignity meted out to her friend on Twitter. So, during the #MeToo movement, my friend posted a video on Twitter about Dalit women’s struggles. Immediately, two to three men started piling on and said things like, ‘Look at your face; you’re so disgusting. Nobody wants you...You are a kalmuhi (pejorative used in Indian languages to suggest someone who brings bad luck/a woman who is ‘inauspicious’).’ These are specifically casteist remarks. The abuse goes further, ‘You’re so disgusting, nobody would even think of raping you; why are you thinking about #MeToo?’

Many women do not survive the onslaught. They may opt out, either temporarily or permanently, again a huge price they must pay for being woman. Rana Ayyub, a journalist who has written extensively on the 2002 Gujarat riots, was issued death threats when a fake tweet supporting a child rapist and alleging Muslims in India were no longer safe were falsely attributed to her. Along with the barrage of death threats and sexual violence, her Muslim identity was invoked in order to harass and discredit her. Last year, prominent student leader Shehla Rashid had to quit Twitter when she realised she could not deal with the scale of violence online. As a woman, Kashmiri and Muslim, she stated she “ticked all the wrong boxes”, making her an easy target of organised cyber violence.

What the young men have to say

We also met young men in colleges for focus group discussions. The men’s club, our discussions show, strongly polices female conformism to hyper-feminine performance – rating and ranking women, ‘cautioning’ women against possible transgression – calling upon its male members to flex their hyper masculine privilege and hit out at women when necessary. This is gender-based hate put out as a standing invitation to cause violence.

Students told us about local young men’s WhatsApp groups – named after particular places, Kattancherry boys, Kaverinagar boys, etc (names changed). In the homosocial private male space that is crafted in the online publics, men seek inscrutability to build a new age machismo — getting fluent with cuss-words, making sexualised memes to assert male entitlement, “hooking” women or chatting them up using fake profiles, and watching porn.

Representational Image

Representational Image

Rationalising male privilege and authority, we found, was commonplace across the three states. Young men articulated narratives of female freedom that online spaces bestow on women through post-gender ideas of equality. Gender-based subordination and social oppression were erased by the very fact that “women now enjoy freedoms online”. Even when young men acknowledged the sexual agency of women, they did think that male authority to aggress is an obvious entitlement that men are bound to assert if women decided to move on from a relationship. One male student observed:

Before taking nudes with a guy, the girl must think. There is no use crying now. If she was that deeply involved with him, she should have stayed in the relationship. If she cheats on him, she should know this can happen. The fact is both of them have cheated, and that is the way it is. They (women) must think of the family before getting into the relationship.

The architecture of virtual social space is decidedly building a generation of women and men whose ‘everyday’ lives lie between the poles of the precious disinhibition that women seek online and the toxic disinhibition that men display in virtual spaces. Women must self-discipline to cope with ever-present surveillance or lose the opportunity to belong online. The virtual is also creating and feeding an endemic culture of regressive heteronormativity – notwithstanding all the sacred spaces that friends from the LGBTQI movements have made possible through the online – and a publicly virulent masculinity, where sexism and misogyny are asserted and validated.

The crux of the issue is that the virulence is all-pervading. It is not just about a bounded online space, but the spill-overs and cross-overs between the online and offline, all of which is decidedly very real and almost always, corporeal, for women. A Guwahati-based woman professor, who criticised the Army's role in Kashmir in the aftermath of the Pulwama attacks, received rape, lynching and death threats. She went to the police, but instead of taking action on her complaint, they detained and questioned her for the motives behind her ‘objectionable remarks’ on the Army.

The double whammy for feminism

The visual cultures of the world of apps is noteworthy not only for how communicative cultures in contemporary society are transforming through memes, emojis and GIFs, but also for how such tools and apps (re)structure the very performance of gender. While acknowledging how feminist counter cultures use these very tools to poke fun at elite power, it is important not to forget the political economy of surveillance capitalism – how datafication through platform infrastructures is at the service of corporate consolidation and state totalitarianism and indeed, a collusion between the two, to centralise power.

TikTok, an app that enables creation and sharing of short videos, came up many times in our conversations with young women and men, during the research. One man told us, referring to the female body, "Women should cover whatever is needed to be covered. If a woman does not, anybody will encroach upon her". He went on to explain how he teased a young woman who had posted a music video on TikTok without wearing her duppatta, posting back another video, a duet, in which he is dressing her up with a duppatta. The video concludes with her appearing in a saree.


In popular cultures of the online publics, the self-exploring feminine confronts the civilising masculine. This is not simply a unidirectional influence of retrograde social values in the media space. That would be sociological determinism. The virality of information circulation online combines with the affordances of apps — (think WhatsApp forwards, newsfeeds, troll armies, propaganda bots) co-shaping contemporary culture, with their local flavours (a WeChat in China or local language platforms). What must be underlined is that the self-fashioning female subject and the hypermasculine male authority are primary tropes of digital lives, a twist in the internet freedoms tale that feminist movements cannot ignore.

Beyond doubt, what we are witnessing is a step back for gender equality. The power of the digital must be claimed, but the structures of digital sociality bring new contradictions – they stymie women’s speech, discipline women’s action, dehumanise the marginal woman citizen and punish women for being women, in both private and public spaces online. And they make women take a step back – strike a gender compromise, if you will – to be polite, in order to belong. And yet, nothing, nothing at all, is a guarantee that the bargain will work to protect women from the real threat of violence. The fact that the mechanics of a surveillance society disincentivise particular forms of female subjectivity and reward virulent masculinity is a double whammy for feminist gains.

Interestingly, a queer activist who we interviewed recalled how feminist communities that are oblivious to these contradictions risk depoliticising feminist action: There are some queer support groups online which state upfront that this is not a space for asserting political opinions. To explain with an example... they would be okay if members are sending Diwali greetings, but they will not tolerate a debate on the Hadiya case. I find this hard to understand – how can you live a queer identity fully if you insist on being apolitical?

Freedom from violence in surveillance society

Much has been said over the years about law enforcement agencies and the urgent need to re-train and re-orient them to shed their bias for the ‘good victim’ and against the ‘unruly trouble seeker’. In fact, we found that the police are more likely to take a complaint seriously when women are accompanied by the spouse and only if the cybercrime implicates a stranger.

Police and courts undermine women’s agency by invoking obscenity provisions in offenses of non-consensual circulation of a personal photograph that a woman took consensually and does not consider obscene. Understandably, women want to have little to do with the legal rigmarole and may often seek police help wanting merely to put an end to the harassment/violence, rather than go through a case registration. Seeking justice may only bring undesirable publicity with associated social sanctions.

So where do we go from here? We need to wake up to the fact that cyber violence is ubiquitous. As a society, we must identify the particular ways in which this results in divesting women of their social and political citizenship. The fight against normalisation of sexism and misogyny on a planetary scale needs to be a systemic attempt to tackle the techno-social; the digital protocols of the communicative arena and the socio-cultural fabric of institutional relations. Lawmakers, educational institutions, workplaces, law enforcement agencies, internet intermediaries and civic organisations need to start understanding gender-based cyber violence for its far-reaching consequences. Coming together across different persuasions, feminist activists need to have an informed dialogue to build normative responses that can inform rule making and new institutional mechanisms.

Representational image.

Representational image.

However, contentious issues abound. The first is the classic libertarian call to cure bad speech with more speech, usually citing Justice Louis Brandeis. But Brandeis didn’t do Twitter. When the technological paradigm changes, so does the underlying system of domination. Power hierarchies may be disrupted, consolidated and new actors may emerge as dominant. The counter speech mobs of today are human-machine assemblages. They are intended to intimidate and harass. They are weapons used to silence women. The power of patriarchal forces that game the public sphere must therefore be evaluated for the current context in history. In any case, the argument for more speech is about truth claims of marginal populations and not about an absolutism that is blind to social power. This is what Brandeis intended, in his famous words.

The law must legitimise gender-based hate speech as a social reality that affects half the population. Nowhere in the world are laws impervious to speech regulation; some forms of speech are regulated. Unfortunately, in a world where sexism and misogyny circulate through the communicative protocols of digital society, ‘bad speech’ affects women disproportionately. Anonymity and virtuality also embolden faceless men to attack women relentlessly, with impunity. The law must define gender-based hate speech and create the guidelines to inform law enforcement and judicial intervention. Current provisions on hate speech, it has been noted, are often misused for political purposes and to stifle creations of art. Clarifying the difference between unprotected and protected speech, as well as what the notions of threat, harm and intent imply, will therefore, be important.

It is noteworthy that while hearing an anticipatory bail plea filed by a leading male public figure in a case registered against him for a defamatory statement against women journalists, the High Court of Tamil Nadu upheld the possibility of treating women journalists as a wronged community and applying Section 505 of the Indian Penal code to cases of gender-based hate speech.

As a social institution, the law is very much part of the system that perpetuates gender inequality. Women may not wish to walk the long and arduous path to legal justice. But, the absence of formal claims results in ‘misframing’ – the social negation of a rightful claim. To enable free speech for all in the public domain, the formal recognition of gender-based hate speech against women is the first step.

The second debate is about holding intermediaries accountable. Social media companies are notorious for ignoring complaints of violative speech or action from women, and for penalising women activists and dissenters time and again. For long, these corporations have sought immunity from regulatory oversight through various discursive tactics. However, increasing public pressure has forced the speech platforms of today to manage user expectations through protocols of speech governance. Despite wide criticism, corporations continue to be opaque about their procedures. It is time that they follow public interest obligations of transparency, notice, and fair procedures and reasoned explanations for decisions about, or changes to, policy. While internal mechanisms for end-users to complain about the conduct of the institution and seek redress are necessary, the role of state regulation and democratic public oversight cannot be overemphasised. The fact is that these platforms are central to the contours of democracy and commerce in current times and hence accountable to citizens.

The Government of India has put out draft guidelines to amend Section 79 of the Information Technology Act that deals with intermediary liability. The requirement to proactively identify ‘unlawful information or content’ has met with public criticism. Concerns have been voiced that the phrase is vague and may lead to excessive censorship. However, some legal experts have opined the duty to block content has always been imposed on traditional publishers like newspapers or broadcasters such as news channels.

The guidelines have also been critiqued for the requirement of proactive filtering. While public opinion is broadly in favour of some sort of immunity in this regard for start-ups or micro platforms who may not be able to absorb the costs of such requirements, the option to avoid the use of AI tools to assist content governance is not really an option. This does not in any way suggest a carte blanche for AI tools, and neither does it mean any pre-eminence for the role of machine-based decisions. On the contrary, it is an argument for a balanced approach that accounts for the fact that machine intelligence is systematically mobilised to hound women. Technological tools may therefore be used as part of the wherewithal in processes of justice. Mandatory application of filtering tools should also be for limited purposes, and democratic institutional mechanisms for review and reform of the tools need to be put in place.

Representational image.

Representational image.

The procedures for application of proactive filtering cannot be content neutral. In issues concerning defamation or images, contextual circumstances are vital. A vertically calibrated regime that does not lump together all legal wrongs online, civil and criminal, is a much more equitable solution that counter-weighs free speech concerns of Internet users, the right to do business of the intermediary and the rights of the complainant. Internet intermediaries do use their private standards to conduct proactive filtering for egregious content such as child pornography. Tools such as Content ID are being employed for proactive monitoring of copyright infringing content. The EU recently enacted a new law requiring large internet platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to proactively monitor and take down copyright infringing content without waiting for legal notices from the copyright owner. Proactive filtering does not have to mean the lack of human judgment. Indeed, human moderation is already used widely by major internet platforms for content removal, and this process does call for continuous review and refinement.

Detailed guidelines for procedural safeguards and appropriate measures that intermediaries must put in place in the design and deployment of automated tools need to be issued. Content moderation provisions should also clarify procedures to contest wrongful removals. It would be important that the new guidelines include provisions for regular public audits and reviews of AI-based tools used for proactive filtering by a committee of feminists and public interest actors.

The draft rules require intermediaries to introduce a traceability requirement. Rather than dismiss this as an attempt to infringe on free speech, this may be read as an issue that concerns the rule of law. At the same time, we recognise that we come from a history of excessive surveillance and that any state-led intrusion into our communication channels must be preceded by a thorough constitutional test of necessity and proportionality.

The rapid virality of hate speech demands a responsible debate on the liability of big platforms that facilitate the publication, transmission or broadcast of any hate speech en masse. Today, women victims of online violence who embark on the process of access to justice despite the odds are deeply frustrated when police officials are unable to trace the offender. Investigating authorities in our research told us that the silence from Internet Intermediaries forecloses any and all progress on the most grievous crimes against women. For instance, between 2016 to 2018, the Cyber Crime Cell of the Chennai City police had sent about 1940 requests to online social media companies for IP logs in cases of cybercrime. Of this, only 484 IP logs were received.

The complexity inherent in balancing interests cannot become an excuse to avoid governance. Liberal democracies are built on acknowledgement of social power and the structural fragility of women’s agency today is a reprehensible failure of human society that needs to be amended through deliberative processes.

Feminist blindspot

A final note. Feminists often recommend digital security training as a solution to the vexatious issues arising from surveillance. Transferring the burdens of navigating the digital on women to get on top of the ‘surveillance assemblage’ may only be a part solution.

On issues that are systemic, social energies need to be invested in a range of institutional solutions; public and civic. What we now know for a fact is that self-disciplining is a visible consequence of women’s struggles with ubiquitous violence online. It cannot also be the solution. Personal security hygiene as ‘the’ solution will only render agency more fragile, through a neo-liberalisation of responsibility.

The author is with IT for Change, a research and advocacy organisation working on digital technologies and social justice

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