A month back, a message in my Instagram inbox from a perfect stranger read, “Kill You”. Incensed and rankled in equal measure, I visited the profile from which the message was sent. The user had a private account, while mine was open. From the small publicly accessible image Instagram lets users put up for identification, I gathered the sender was an Indian man in his 20s.
However, as is common with troll accounts across social media platforms, the harasser was not using his real name. An hour or two after threatening to kill me, he had replaced his original photo with that of a white celebrity, rendering himself completely unidentifiable for all intents and purposes. As such, I was left with a maniacal death threat with no access to any information on the sender.
The mock threat, which I knew was sent to inspire fear, was unsettling primarily because it was an aggressive and misogynistic assault on my social media freedom. I thought long and hard about what could be done before coming to the conclusion that perhaps my best bet was to block him and turn my account private. I did exactly that. I made peace with the fact that nothing more could be done, given Instagram’s porous safety standards.
I was left with a maniacal death threat with no access to any information on the sender.
The profile disappeared from Instagram after I blocked him and before I could report him. It was a small, anonymous account probably created for the exclusive purpose of harassing women. Even if I had reported the account, I knew the user would easily come back with another. My helplessness, sustained by the lack of security guarantees, made me realise that there are plenty of safe spaces for misogyny and violence to flourish on the internet but none for women trying to have an open social media presence without the fear of harassment. My harasser could threaten to kill me with impunity and I could not as much find out his real name.
As much as the internet has empowered women and queer people by giving us various platforms to share our stories and write our truths, as a microcosm of society, it is not free of violence against the marginalized. Women, trans and queer folx—especially those who have to withstand the glare of the public eye as an occupational hazard—experience the internet very differently than cisgender heterosexual men do.
For instance, Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-conforming poet and performance artist, is violently trolled on a regular basis by racists, transmisogynists and transphobes for their flamboyant transfeminine presentation—not only in their everyday life but also on the internet, especially on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. As recently as January 8 this year, when Vaid-Menon posted a picture of themselves in a swimsuit on social media, they started receiving gratuitous rape and death threats apart from being abused, humiliated and reduced to racist, transphobic memes. They took to the same social media platforms on which they were demeaned—namely Facebook and Instagram—to narrate their ordeal and visibilize the violence routinely faced by gender non-conforming individuals—especially marginalized folx of colour who fall somewhere on the transfeminine spectrum.
My harasser could threaten to kill me with impunity and I could not as much find out his real name.
Rana Ayyub, a seasoned journalist and author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, was viciously attacked last year by what she called “an online lynch mob” after a fake tweet went viral where Ayyub was quoted defending child rapists. Despite her disputing the credibility of the tweet, she was abused relentlessly, threatened with gang rape and a sexually-explicit video with her face morphed in it was widely circulated across social media platforms.
In her own words, “It was aimed at humiliating me, breaking me by trying to define me as a “promiscuous,” “immoral” woman.” Ayyub’s fearless reporting for nearly a decade has brought her face-to-face with ruthless sexist trolling. Last year, when the fake news assault on her soared, experts at the United Nations expressed grave concerns about Ayyub’s safety and urged the government to investigate the matter while affording her protection.
According to Barkha Dutt, one of the most celebrated journalists in India, “trolling is too polite a word.” She describes this phenomenon as “organized smear campaigns”, “organized attempts at intimidation”, “attempts to silence people”— especially women who are independent and dare to speak their minds.
From what one gathers from these instances, trolling is a violent norm enforcing and reinforcing practice carried out by those who have ample stake in preserving the status quo. Women, trans and queer folx who challenge oppressive norms and regulations, question the establishment, critique uses and abuses of power and seek alternatives are formidable because they speak truth to power, often at great personal risk. Silencing strategies aimed at them work through intimidation, misogyny, sexism and pornification. Resistance is acting out against it while exposing it for what it is.