In my head, I wake up every day, read something meaningful and go for a run. In reality, however, I sleep next to my phone and check it first thing in the morning. My phone is always on 'silent' mode—all day and night. It is impossible for me to cater to every notification that pops up on my smartphone. So, each morning, I try to look for any urgent message or email and then proceed to check Twitter, because so much keeps happening there. I literally wake up to thousands of toxic comments every day that drain my energy even before I start my day. If it weren't for my caffeine addiction, I would remain glued to the intriguing amount of hate that I face every day. It affects my sense of self-worth. It makes me feel drained even if I have slept for 8 hours. It also discourages me from sharing anything positive or private or mild on Twitter.
Everyone gets trolled, isn't it? I should grow a thick skin, ignore, block, etc. But here's the thing. I'm a real person, and I want to remain human. I don't want to be dehumanised to the point where hate—irrational and abundant hate—doesn't affect me anymore. The fight is to save human values. If we become dehumanised, desensitised and numb, we become capable of inflicting violence on others without batting an eyelid. I do not usually block people on Twitter. When I block an abusive user, I'm branded as 'intolerant'! Why do I go through the replies at all? Because I want to hear from rational people. I want to engage with my supporters.
I didn't start using Twitter in 2018. I started in 2008 when it was a more progressive and rational space compared to Facebook and Orkut. I created my present account in 2010. You must be wondering why I said "After eight years of Twitter use ..." in my final tweet when I've been tweeting for ten years. I was afraid. Afraid that if I write 'ten years', hundreds of trolls would immediately go to my profile page and point out that I've been using the account since 2010. They would call me dumb and say that I cannot even do basic arithmetic properly. My university and my teachers would be ridiculed for not teaching me basic math. I would be called a 'madrassa chhap' student because I'm Muslim. I'd be told that Kashmiri students are actually ignorant terrorists who cannot subtract 2010 from 2018! There would also be a couple of jokes on how women are dumb and cannot do math.
This wasn't the case in 2008 when I started using Twitter. The most popular people on Twitter back then were comedians. You had to make complete sense in 140 characters and there were no Twitter 'threads'. Sharp, hard-hitting points in one tweet, even at the cost of nuance. Retweets were not a thing. Retweets appeared as "RT @shehla_rashid: ...". In order to get retweets, you had to leave those many characters for your tweet to be retweeted without having to be cropped or acronymised! Twitter taught us how to think in 140 characters or less. Blocking didn't mean much on Twitter, as the blocked user could still type your handle in and tag you, or tag your supporters and you'd be able to see everything that they had written. It enabled the perfect ecosystem for bullying, except that wasn't a thing just yet when I started tweeting.
In 2010, journalist Sagarika Ghose first pointed out how she was being attacked in swarms by what she called 'Internet Hindus', referring to abusive fundamentalist Hindutva supporters. It wasn't until 2012 that I started to experience this. Before 2012, you could not defend Gujarat riots on Twitter. Since 2012, that became the norm. Discourse on the platform was slowly beginning to be hijacked. Mr. (Narendra) Modi had started projecting himself as the Prime Minister and with him came his troll army that now dominates Twitter. Mr. Modi follows some of the most abusive right-wing trolls on Twitter.
Today, Twitter has fashioned itself as a governance platform which enables and empowers citizens to question their representatives. There is no denying the fact that Twitter has had a democratising impact. Over the years, Twitter has formed partnerships with key people in governments and police who were provided with prompt verification and support to use Twitter effectively. This has, however, also meant that Twitter has become too embedded in the ruling party ecosystem. Consider this. For a very long time, the Kerala Chief Minister (who belongs to the opposition camp) did not have a verified account, while every right-wing hatemonger, including the recently suspended Jagrati Shukla, has long had a verified account! This serves as an endorsement for bad behaviour. Many progressive activists, professors and bloggers in India do not have verified accounts. When Sonam Mahajan was suspended for hateful conduct on Twitter, top brass from the ruling party made sure that her account was reinstated and re-verified. This is in sharp contrast to Twitter's own policies in the US where the accounts of white supremacists and neo-Nazis were suspended proactively by Twitter.
Technically, I can take Twitter to court, but I would have to do it several hundred times a day, that too without any resources
I do not completely blame Twitter for this. Having a presence in India meant that Twitter India is now subject to the law of the land. Section 79 of the Information Technology (IT) Act, which deals with intermediary liability, offers little or no safeguards to social media giants against frivolous litigation for failure to take down requested content. This has disastrous consequences for vulnerable groups. Powerful private groups which have the resources for litigation can make sure that certain voices are crushed. They can ensure that unfavourable content is taken down without any due process or oversight. The government, using the Blocking Rules under Section 69 of the IT Act, can issue its own gag orders that suppress narratives of, say, Kashmiri human rights activists or other marginalised groups. On the contrary, when I report outright abuse such as the use of the words "slut", "bitch", etc., I often get an email from Twitter saying that they did not find such content abusive. Technically, I can take Twitter to court, but I would have to do it several hundred times a day, that too without any resources!
You might want to say that "both sides abuse", "left-wing abuse is same as right-wing abuse", etc. It isn't the same. My supporters or I don't tweet to Mr. Modi 500 times a day saying that he should be killed or raped! I'm sure that women from the right wing face abuse, but they seem to have internalised it so much that they never talk about it, except when the intention is to dilute a point made by someone from the "opposite camp". Even my supporters have become somewhat intolerant now. Simple social courtesies like a condolence message or congratulatory message to someone from the "opposite camp" is frowned upon. The true essence of democracy lies in understanding that we are all in the same camp and that we have to collectively advance our rights. Then, why do I point out that I face abuse from Mr. Modi's supporters? I did, after all, deactivate my Facebook account when I received rape threats from many Muslim men for supporting inter-faith marriage. I did not talk about it because I didn't want to become the victim in a case where Ankit Saxena—a young man murdered for being in love with a Muslim woman—was the only victim! There is no difference between this incident and the daily abuse that I get on Twitter. Both kinds of abuse come from a fundamentalist, deeply misogynistic position. Then why do I single out Mr. Modi's supporters? Let me try and explain.
The hate that I get from pro-BJP accounts is organised. No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12 seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren't scary. Also, there seems to be no way to avoid this. There is no method to the madness. Regardless of what I tweet, there is "instant abuse". It is not based on the content of what I write. Those who do not behave like bots are not ready to give me any benefit of doubt. They will read motives into my benign language, attribute motives to me and then abuse me based on a prejudice. If you do not know me, and you read 20 replies to my tweet alleging that "I pocketed the funds meant for Kathua victim", you'll believe it, no matter how many times I or the crowdfunding platform put out proof to the contrary!
No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12 seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren't scary.
If you want to genuinely engage with my post, you'll think twice before replying to me, as it means that your day will be ruined by abusive trolls who will keep tagging you for hours or even days. You will find no support for me in the direct replies (except in the forms of retweets or favourites) and you'll take whatever I say with a pinch of salt. I get a lot of support in my inbox, even from my opponents, but the same people are afraid to express affirmation publicly using the 'Reply' function, because of the fear of trolls. Support begets support. Attack begets attack. Trolls are bullies who harass those who they think are fair game, vulnerable, tainted with the wrong identity markers. It creates the perfect ecosystem for bullying.
There are those who abuse me and defame me, morph my photos, edit my videos and create fake news about me, attribute fake statements and fake tweets to me. They are aware that if I were to walk in to a police station, my complaint against them won't be registered because it would be mediated by my Muslim identity, by the fact that I'm a Kashmiri woman, and not a property-owning male from a dominant community in South Delhi! If I get even slightly carried away in my criticism of my opponents, I'm threatened with police complaints. On the contrary, I'm fair game because I do not have the resources for litigation and I have never aligned myself with any political party.
Another peculiar feature of the 'hate' that I complain about is that it is an activity, to be performed over and over again. The Internet has changed the notion of 'hate' itself. 'Hate' used to be a personalised, deeply private emotion. If I hate something, I'll tend to stay away from it. If I hate a person, I'll tend to severe contact. But this is something different. It is harassment. People who hate me have my Twitter account on 'Notification Alert'. The moment I tweet something, they will rush in armed with hate and perform hate. At times, I suspect that they may not even hate me. But they perform hate as an activity! They have turned me, and others like me, into objects of hate, to be actively, publicly hated all the time. Hate is now a verb, not an abstract noun.
People who hate me have my Twitter account on 'Notification Alert'. The moment I tweet something, they will rush in armed with hate and perform hate.
I have, for now, chosen to remove myself from the target. I do not want to normalise this harassment, this abusive behaviour. I know that I'll be accused of "playing the victim card", as I am, every time I condemn an incident of lynching, or an instance of misogyny. But I want to make a point. All is not well. This pattern of hate, abuse and harassment is not acceptable. It defeats the very purpose of open engagement—it defeats the democratic promise of social media. I have been asked by friends to stay on or to return to Twitter. Maybe I will. Maybe I won't. The stakes are high, after all.
In times when electronic media has turned into a show of competitive bigotry, Twitter does provide activists like me with a platform to air our views. I have 427,400 followers on Twitter. This means that the trade-off between leaving Twitter and having a voice is too high. This points to a deeply abusive relationship that we have with Twitter. We have virtually been held hostage to its benefits. It has become a necessary evil. But I think we are better than this. We deserve better. Democracy deserves better. Social media abuse and bullying is not freedom of expression. It is an attack on freedom of expression. It is an attack on the rights of marginalised groups, as they are at the receiving end of it for reasons of structural inequality. Abuse is not normal. It is anti-democratic in its very thrust. And Twitter knows it all too well.