When Technology is the Problem AND the Solution

Amnesty International India
9 June 2019 2:41 pm

– Natasha D’mello

May 2019. The national general elections are being discussed everywhere. As I scroll through my Twitter feed, I am bombarded with an endless stream of controversial opinions. I hold my breath, and decide to look through the replies to an opinionated political tweet by a fellow feminist. I (naively) hope that I will find some well-thought through responses, and perhaps even add my own opinion to the discussion. Instead, all I see are sexist insults.

Why engage in a respectful exchange of ideas with the desire to widen one’s horizon when one can simply reduce a woman to a $%#*! for the umpteenth time and silence her?

Any desire to participate in a conversation is now dead.

Instead I call my friend, deciding that those opinions that I am too afraid to share online, I can at least share with her. She might disagree with me, but at the very least I know we can have a fair and healthy conversation and come out of it learning something I didn’t know before.

But that desire – the desire to engage with others on a mainstream platform and sharing my experiences remained unfulfilled. I shouldn’t feel forced to go offline to continue a discussion I could be having online because of my gender. At first glance, online platforms have the potential to be spaces where everyone can voice their opinions on a level playing field.  Safe spaces – where people can be exposed to opposing world views, and where different perspectives can help shape our own. The digital universe presents itself as an inclusive space to express yourself freely and to engage with a large audience, with the added safety net of not having to deal with the barrage of sexist abuse many women face in their day to day lives.

However, contrary to this assumed idyllic environment, the moment anything even slightly controversial pops up on people’s timelines, the trolling begins – for both men and women. But far from being a level playing field, the online space seems to be dominated by those ready to dish out sexist, racist, casteist and communal slurs to women and other marginalized communities, rather than encourage those whose voices need to be heard.

Modern problems crave modern solutions

Twitter has only been around for 12 years, and in this remarkably short period of time, online culture has moved at a rapid pace. What is of concern is that many of the socio-cultural issues we face offline have been directly transplanted onto our online spaces. In particular, the patriarchal view of how a woman should behave, or what she should or should not say is rampant. However, unlike some offline spaces today – where violence and abuse against women are being actively called out, reported and penalized, the online space remains unchecked.

Moreover, offline solutions aren’t always adaptable to solve online problems. In order to tackle an issue like trolling of women online, we need innovative solutions which address the technological aspect of the problem while retaining the cultural and social understanding of gender and politics.

That is the appeal of Troll Patrol India – a project I am currently involved with at Amnesty India. It collects thousands of tweets sent to women politicians before, during and after the 2019 General Elections and provides a crowdsourcing research platform that allows me and a large group of people, all of whom have different perspectives, to use our own judgement to analyse these tweets for their problematic and abusive content. In my mind, this project is a collective effort to reclaim the online space for women’s voices, by leveraging innovative technology.

Another aspect that I particularly like is the opportunity for experiential learning of a problem that most consider part and parcel of being on social media platforms – trolling. Through the Troll Patrol platform, participants who may not usually notice the extent of online abuse, can see the enormity and pervasiveness of it for themselves. They can even engage in discussions which create a better understanding of the issues that women face online. Potentially, these individuals could become champions for safe online spaces for women. In this way, the Troll Patrol platform is not only a means to the ultimate end of reclaiming a space, it is part of that ‘end’ in and of itself.

The constant backlash women experience firsthand and see other women face online compels many to seek sanctuary in safe spaces like I did. What we do not realise is that this ultimately creates echo-chambers where no one is exposed to opposing perspectives and one’s views are rarely challenged. But then again, if we as humans cannot engage in a discourse, how can we bring about change?

The only way to break the cycle is to reclaim online spaces for women, where we can amplify the call for justice, dignity, respect and equality.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Amnesty India.

Editor: Natasha is currently an intern at Amnesty India and working on the Troll Patrol India project.