Online abuse cannot be as simple as patriarchal values carrying over to the Internet. At its heart, it is a clash of groups with different notions of identity.
As the Internet and its younger retarded brother, the social media, slowly enter the deep-end of the pool together, the frequency of ‘morally grey situations’ starts increasing.
This is only natural—for those that know technology (the users of the Internet) cannot see beyond it, and those who do not know technology (the users of social media) cannot see into it.
So when Sagarika Ghose is bad-mouthed on Twitter and the BBC covers it with an article titled: “Why are Indian women being attacked on social media?”, we should refrain from jumping to certain conclusions.
Conclusions like Ms. Ghose’s assumption that women abused on Twitter tend to be ‘liberal and secular’ or that her online abusers must be angry at ‘women who speak their mind.’ Or even (a BBC-drawn conclusion) that the Indian patriarchal mentality is ‘carrying over to the Internet.’
While the above statements may be justified, and even correct, the broader aspect of online abuse cannot be as simple as that. It is at, its heart, a clash of civilisations. A battle royale between netizens and the Twitterati.
From 1995 to nearly 2005 – 2006, the Internet encouraged free discussion of even the most taboo topics—as in most forums, people were able to wrap a cloak of anonymity around themselves. During this period there was no Facebook, no Twitter. Before the advent of social media and its ilk, a person’s online identity could not possibly represent the whole of a person’s actual identity! This was because for the most part, people functioned on the Internet under some nickname or the other.
Indeed, many of the Internet’s earliest communities (IRC, various bulletin board messaging systems etc) were built in such a manner that an individual’s personal identity played no role in the functioning of these forums. Indeed, a derivative of this principle was that users were actually discouraged to shed parts of their personal identity to be able to function on these forums. Why was this , you ask? For the simple reason that there was no way to verify ones identity, even if you wanted to reveal it!
This indirectly led to a different definition of identity itself. You could be Indian, Chinese, American, Russian, gay, straight, male, female—all depending merely on what you fancied on being that day. In fact, this phenomenon became so prevalent; the founder of 4Chan put a word to it. He called it ‘fluid identity’. Moving from being one person to the other, nobody could stop you.
These principles were embraced, which lead to slurs like f***er, w**re, s**t becoming commonplace. Why? Because the Internet initially, was at its essence, home to basically an anonymous pool of people from around the world.
And when you call somebody a w**re, what you are essentially doing is reducing their identity down to the most simplest level. It was commonly assumed that everybody would lie about who they were, and by slandering everyone with an insult, they could move discussion forward from there onwards.
Almost how in certain tribal groups, when a boy becomes a man, he is given a new name and then only allowed to lead his life. Similarly, bringing your own ethnicity or political affiliation or orientation of any form to the Internet was simply not necessary - as the Internet would remove it anyway. In some forums, it was considered almost rude to draw attention to yourself in that fashion.
And this is what people, who take offense to online abuse, are truly missing. You see that blue, ostentatious check mark symbol next to Sagarika Ghose’s Twitter handle?
The Twitterati and Facebook personalities who embrace the confirmation of their own real-world identities—and indeed broadcast to the whole Internet that “yes, this is the true Sagarika Ghose” are trying to bring the physical world’s notion of identity onto the Internet. And this is where our problem starts.
Political scientist Samuel Huntington gained prominence for his theory—the Clash of Civilisations— where he postulated that all sources of conflicts in the future would not be ideological, but rather cultural in nature.
And do we not see this happening, twenty years later, on the Internet? On the one hand you have the old users of the Internet with notions of fluid identity, and on the other hand you have social media users who wish to reclaim their right to be offended! It is a clash between users of websites with different identifying natures, with different cultures. The point here is that, for users of the old Internet, it is not just Sagarika Ghose who is a s**t, but in that everybody is a s**t.
What would be ideal at this point, however, is for both camps to understand each other’s stance and together develop a new concept of online identity? Admittedly, neither group's principles are perfect.
What we are getting instead is the repeated subversion of fluid identity, with attempts to have identifying tags put over the whole online space. You have websites which force you to sign up through your Facebook account, in an attempt to identify.
You have hungry lawyers and advocates, like the one quoted in the BBC article, who say that “unleash Section 66 A of the IT Act on offenders!” Let us not simplify this into a simple “Indian women are targeted on the Internet.” While, of course, this does not excuse those who threaten to kill people over the Internet — it is a massive, global clash of civilisations. Hardly a localised problem.
We should therefore, let online culture evolve without bringing the law or any preconceived notions into it.
I, myself, have been threatened with rape (and worse) many times on the Internet – and even sometimes through the comments of this blog! And yes, rest assured, my picture on the top of this blog will soon be gone.