Session 7. Cyber-feminism and digital activism: New frontiers in theory and practice

This session deliberated upon what a cyber-feminist praxis can offer in terms of reclaiming the emancipatory potential of the Internet for feminism. Some key questions that it discussed , includes: What lessons can we learn from older feminist movements in approaching the digital? What are some subversive practices currently at play in online spaces that can help us trouble gender hierarchies?

Lakshmi Lingam, Isha Bhallamudi and Neomi Rao, School of Media and Cultural Studies,TISS, Mumbai
Shreya Sen, Nazdeek, New Delhi
Shreya Sethuraman, Independent Researcher, New Delhi
Dyuti Jha, Center for Health Research Development, New Delhi

Niranjana. P, Independent Researcher, Mumbai

Why loiter? Women claiming online public spaces

Isha Bhallamudi

Lakshmi Lingam, Isha Bhallamudi and Neomi Rao, School of Media and Cultural Studies, TISS, Mumbai

Within a context where public spaces are being contested by women, the act of loitering disrupts gender norms by creating alternate discourses on women’s access to public spaces. Loitering enforces visibility as opposed to anonymity and invisibility. It is the right to be in a space rather than seek protection. This approach is very different from that of seeking support and safety for women. Loitering challenges patriarchal norms. If we view young people’s smart phone use through the prism of ‘loitering’, it helps us appreciate the inadequacies of the mainstream discourse on gender-based cyber violence. Most media narratives on the issue engage in scare mongering. Examining existing academic literature and research studies commissioned by cellphone companies, one can see that they are mostly geared towards assessing the risks involved in the use of cellphones or identifying strategies to minimize risk of violence. What dominates the mainstream discourse is moral panic centered around women and girls and their sexuality. Very few papers look at the positive opportunities that mobile phones and the Internet hold for women. Further, women are never portrayed as informed consumers, but as eternally vulnerable subjects. Consequently, the focus is always on safety and dangers of the Internet. Such protectionist attitudes restrict women’s access and thwart their explorations of the Internet. We must move away from protectionism towards rights, in order to reclaim online spaces.

Shreya Sen

Internet as a new feminist frontier

Shreya Sen, Nazdeek, New Delhi

There was a time when social media feminist activism was considered ‘slacktivism’. However, working on the Internet has allowed for international outreach. The Internet has opened up spaces for feminists from across the world to speak to one another. It has enabled a shift from high level politics and theoretical engagement to more localized, informal politics aimed at introspection and reflection.

We have come a long way from the early days of feminist activism online. As feminist spaces online grew more popular, protocols were developed for group interaction. There was a growing realization amongst feminist communities that “Facebook had a real misogyny problem” allowing many pro-rape pages to exist. Taking an extremely liberal stance on free speech, the platform refused to take any action against these pages, even as it continued to arbitrarily take down many feminist pages for purported violations of content standards.

The feminist movement learned to respond to this quandary, by building empathetic connections  to deal with the trolls and uncooperative platforms. This was helpful for a while, but soon activists were burnt out fighting troll after troll, and driven out of online platforms by very real threats.

Twitter and Facebook are, at the end of the day, large mass media organizations that tend to be statist. It is because of feminist activism conducted on these platforms that they are currently somewhat accountable. But Internet activism still depends on virality and only selective, ‘global’ issues can go viral. Accessibility is still a dividing force, and until all feminists can be online, we cannot feminist-ise online spaces.

Internet activism can also destabilizes institutional mechanisms, sometimes making them redundant. This has caused some tensions with older feminist movements who fought for institutional accountability. But the Internet does have a lot to offer; more than ever we can produce knowledge, and create language and develop shared values.

Shreya Sethuraman, Independent Researcher, New Delhi

It has been very encouraging to see many female graphic artists engage with feminism in online spaces. For many of them, the 2012 Delhi gang rape was a defining moment in determining their strategies of online engagement. The emergence of each feminist art space has been an encouragement to others to step out and express themselves. Artists engage with a range of themes, from gender-based violence, women’s daily lives, to how women consume the Internet. Their art is topical and often call out everyday patriarchy.

The extent of influence that most female graphic artists have is limited. Firstly, the fact that they predominately publish work online limits their reach in a context when online access is limited. Secondly, most of their work is in English. Because of misogynistic trolls, artists are also afraid of   putting out their feminist art online.

Dyuti Jha, Research Associate, Center for Health Research Development, New Delhi

The dominant narrative included in liberal spaces often questions whether cyber violence has any tangible effects, and many wonder if it should be considered violence at all. Gender-based abuse usually targets women’s sexuality, irrespective of what is actually being discussed. Trolling, morphing, circulation of intimate images, doxxing, are common practices that are employed to harass women. Trolling is relentless, sustained and from multiple sources, and often includes rape and death threats. For women, expressing an opinion online, especially on topics that are not considered ‘feminine’, often results in a backlash from trolls. Online abuse often contains direct references to the socio-political locations and non-conforming gender identities of the target.

Doxxing involves hunting for personal information such as residential address and making them public with the intention of making threats including of physical injury to induce fear. This can even comprise offline mobility of the concerned individual. Women often avoid using personal pictures online because of the warped understanding of consent. Just uploading a picture is seen as granting consent to using it for purposes like morphing.

Platforms have often taken adverse action against the abused instead of the abuser, by invoking their community standards in opaque ways that are often difficult to challenge. Further, online platforms do not take cognizance of threats in local languages, allowing a whole swathe of trolls to exist with impunity. Law enforcement, too, has not been able to effectively deliver any relief, forcing women to take matters into their own hands by using techniques such as ‘name and shame’.

Open discussion

Niranjana. P  responded to the presentations with the following broad comment, before opening the floor for discussion.

– Systemic moral panic in response to the advent of a new technology is not unprecedented. This has been the case right from the time of the television. The nature of the Internet is changing. We have restrictions on the space and increasing corporatization.

– Feminist spaces created by female graphic artists are often  subversive spaces where identities that are not reflected in mainstream and highly patriarchal media find expression.

– Experiential accounts recounted at the seminar give us a birds eye view of the depth and width of gender-based cyber violence faced by women in India and also evidence the blurring of the binary of online and offline.

Niranjana. P

Comments from the floor

1. One of the reasons people are reluctant to report gender-based cyber violence is because of the insensitive response from law enforcement agencies. Because of this, there is also severe under-representation of gender-based cyber violence. The 2016 National Crimes Records Bureau  states that 12,000 cases cyber violence were reported in that year, but it also states that an equal number of cases remain un-investigated from the previous year. Further, the ‘I am trolled’ online helpdesk of the Ministry of Women and Child Development’ received a mere 23 complaints on Twitter from all over India, and just 54 on Facebook, in 2016-18.

2. Cheap female labor powers the Internet. One obvious way is that women are often employed in making devices in factories in developing countries. Another way that cheap female labour is used is in the care-work that goes into actually implementing the community standards – correcting racism, sexism and casteism online.

3. There was a question from the audience on how can one  extend the act of loitering to queer groups who may want to remain online, but in closed communities.

Lakshmi Lingam and her co-authors responded that because the loitering framework was applied on mainstream media in their research, and since mainstream media largely ignores queer culture, the study couldn’t effectively capture and analyze these spaces either.