Trolled and Threatened – Online Violence against Women in Politics

Amnesty International India
23 June 2019 12:17 pm

On the first day of Parliament, two young newly elected women lawmakers proudly posted a picture of themselves outside the Parliament. It wasn’t long before trolls started attacking them. The reason? They were wearing “western clothes”.

Women Politicians seem to be put on a pedestal, with lofty, unrealistic expectations on their shoulders: to be tough yet smiling, strategic but not calculating, commanding yet relatable. And to achieve all of this in a Sari, though that never seemed to shield Sonia Gandhi from the trolls!

Instead of engaging on political manifestos and their body of work, these women politicians find themselves being minutely scrutinized for their appearances and their personal lives.

These trolls are quick to name-call and even resort to rape threats and death threats. Our women politicians’ tweets and mentions feed are coloured with gendered hateful comments and abusive language, ranging from being called “stupid” to “witch” to “slut”.

When Sushma Swaraj stepped up to support an interfaith couple in getting their passports, an avalanche of nasty comments and abuses came her way. Calling her “visa mata” and accusing her of appeasement, one troll went as far as to instruct her husband to beat her to “teach her a lesson”.

Whether it is BJP’s Smriti Irani, J & K People Movement’s Shehla Rashid, All India Trinamool Congress’ Mamta Bannerjee, Shiv Sena’s Priyanka Chaturvedi, Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi or AAP’s Alka Lamba, no one is spared. Instead of engaging with them on their policy decisions, they are attacked with gendered abuses, irrespective of their political affiliations.

Amnesty International India is in the midst of capturing the extent of this online abuse. Using crowdsourcing, we have launched a campaign which will “decode” the extent of “problematic” and “abusive” tweets women politicians faced during our recently concluded general elections. The findings will then be published in a report which will be used to advocate with Twitter for safe online spaces. A similar study conducted by Amnesty International in the US and UK found that 7.1% or 1.1 million tweets sent to women politicians and journalists in eight countries were problematic or abusive. This project will build on our advocacy with Twitter, providing data on the extent of trolling in India.

The India study also aims to capture whether the extent of trolling increases with women identifying themselves from minority backgrounds, marital status other than being married and as a transgender.

These trolls often operate with impunity, as Twitter has refused to make public the information about action taken against them. By failing to implement strong investigation and reporting mechanisms to tackle the problem, Twitter is allowing for this abuse to continue undeterred.  Recently, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, acknowledged that the platform is ill equipped to systemically deal with the online abuse against women. He also recognized that Twitter has created a “pretty terrible situation” for women and is an easy place to harass and abuse others. Acknowledgment of the problem is the first step. The next step is to move beyond lip service and implement changes.

By Sonia Pereira. Sonia is a human rights lawyer and a Consultant at Amnesty International India.