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With over 100 million Facebook users, India remains second only to the United States in total number of active accounts and is soon likely to take the lead due to the rising popularity of social media. Despite this surge in new users, Indian women on Facebook are routinely complaining about online harassment by "cyber-trolls" who appear to be acting with impunity despite Facebook's own stated policy against cyber-bullying.
According to Facebook's Community Standards page, their mission is to "keep users safe" by disabling accounts that post content making threats of physical harm or risk to public safety. Users seeing any content they deem offensive or abusive are urged to report it to Facebook. Their Standards page adds that "Not all disagreeable or disturbing content violates our Community Standards. For this reason, we offer you the ability to customize and control what you see by unfollowing, blocking, and hiding the posts, people, Pages, and applications you don’t want to see – and we encourage you to use these controls to better personalize your experience."
Even though these safeguards are supposed to be in place, misogynistic harassment of women who post openly on Facebook remains disturbingly common in India. This is especially true for lower-caste women who are frequently targeted by higher-caste Indian men who often post anonymously while making death threats. When journalist Preetha G. Nair complained online about a misogynistic comment made by a prominent Indian politician last July, many of that politician's political supporters organized a massive campaign against her, including reporting her account to Facebook as being fake (it wasn't) as well as numerous misogynistic comments. Facebook suspended her account citing "community standards" but restored the account on discovering that she had done nothing wrong.
Not l0ng afterward, she was singled out again after she spoke out against another prominent Indian politician. This time, a new Facebook profile appeared which accused her of being a prostitute and ran nasty stories about her, complete with graphic content. Despite numerous complaints to Facebook, the profile remains active as it is not deemed to violate community standards. An independent complaint to local police failed to be investigated.
When journalist Inji Pennu wrote about Preetha Nair's case online, she was subjected to misogynistic harassment herself. This included numerous threats of violence (one user threatened to choke her). On August 4, her Facebook account was suspended, again for violating "community standards". The complaint alleged that she used a fake name in her profile and she was asked to submit a photocopy of her ID to have her account reinstated, something that she was reluctant to do given that it included her home address. Many of the same accounts that heaped abuse on her and Preetha Nair are still active. Though some were suspended, the ones responsible quickly established new profiles and continued with the abuse.
In a blog post written by Inji Pennu, she wrote:
Many of us women are here [on Facebook] to escape from patriarchy forced down upon our throats by marriage, by family, by caste, by religion. We are shunning all this to exist as a human. Yet Facebook is throwing us back into the dark dungeons asking us to stay where we were. Does Facebook think we rightfully belong there?
Though Inji lives in Miami, Florida, she still has links to Kerala, India where many of the targeted women live.
Other women activists who announced their support of Inji and Preetha have come under attack as well. Some have had their accounts suspended following complaints of nudity though most were restored soon afterward. As one woman wrote:
What happens when you complain to Facebook about misogyny and abuse against a woman? The profile of the complainant gets taken down. Inji Pennu's profile is now taken down supposedly for identity verification. Either Facebook is supporting hate mongering and misogyny OR its high time to revise their community standards (Especially for regional language pages) and identity verification practices. I really hope its the latter and they will take action soon!
As a protest against Facebook policies, some women have started a new Facebook page called “Against cyber attacks on women.” This new page has already generated hundreds of likes and is intended to pressure Facebook to become more vigilant in policing misogynistic trolls. Since allegations of sexual conduct can be extremely damaging to women and their families in southern Asia, this kind of harassment has had a chilling effect on women Facebook users.
And the trolls seem to be winning. Despite active pleas to Facebook administrators, including open letters to Mark Zuckerberg himself, many of the trolls at the centre of the abuse still have active accounts. As for the women on the receiving end, they continue to struggle.
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