Social media victim tells story of shame, abuse and courage

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Social media victim tells story of shame, abuse and courage

  Thu Apr 13, 2017 10:20        Gulf News, Telugu

It could have been one of the many doses of bile that Indian journalist Rana Ayyub receives on her social media for her strong views against the prevailing establishment. Except that it was something more vile.

One day, when she sat down to check the messages on her Facebook's 'Others' folder, Ayyub found a sexually violent note sent to her by an online troll who happened to work in the UAE. Having decided to publicly name and shame her abuser, Ayyub posted a screenshot of the message with a note, "Just a sample of the filth I receive on my Facebook page. Time to name and shame this pervert."

Ever since, her abuser, an employee of Alpha Paint, a sister company of National Paints, has not only been sacked, but his visa stands revoked, a move that has been widely hailed as exemplary across the UAE and India.

Talking to Khaleej Times, Ayyub, 33, tells us why the action taken by National Paints will have a larger impact when it comes to handling online abuse in India.

You are frequently trolled on social media, but mostly attacked on the basis of your political views. When you read the sexually abusive message, what led you to name and shame the abuser?

In the past couple of years, people have called me 'Pakistani', 'Jihadi Jane' and even s**t. When I have reported the matter at a police station in India, I have been told, 'Ma'am, forget it, na. You must have also called people names.',  the argument that has been presented to me is - it's all happening online, no one is actually coming to your home and abusing you. On some occasions, I have been asked to reveal the person's identity. Most of them use anonymous handles, how am I supposed to find their name? There has never been any genuine interest in taking concrete action. When I chanced upon this guy's profile, what irked me was that he was brazen enough to not hide his identity, he had a profile picture with his wife and had written where he worked, and yet did not think twice before sending the horrendous message. I was repulsed by his audacity and decided to shame him publicly. When I did that, someone who follows me sent me a message saying they cross this building every day and would want to check out who this guy was. Later, I got to know that after a through check, he had been sacked! That's when I took to social media and said, "Humanity is alive."

Women often receive such messages on social media, but tend to ignore them because they feel in the end, they will be the ones who will be shamed. Did you have similar considerations?

It was embarrassing initially because my social media also has my friends, family members and relatives. The first time I posted the message on Facebook, I deleted it in five minutes. But then I thought to myself if this man is not practising restraint while sending me a message like this, why should I feel embarrassed about putting it out there? After posting a screenshot of his message on my social media pages, I just took a step back and did not check my phone for a few minutes because given how much I am trolled in general, I thought some of my trolls would latch on to it and post nasty messages. To my surprise, even my detractors were disgusted by it. Some of them even went on to say that we may not agree with her views, but this is shameful.

The prompt action taken by the authorities in the UAE has been widely lauded. Do you think this incident could open a new chapter on online abuse in India?

It has been one of the biggest surprises of my life. Leave alone someone getting sacked, I did not even think he would be held accountable. When the Gurmehar Kaur episode happened, she had been receiving rape threats every few minutes. The matter was brought to Kiran Rijiju (MoS Home, India) attention but nothing happened. The reason I assumed no action will be taken in my case is because I am already someone who is condemned on social media. When I heard that National Paints is taking an action, I found it a little hard to believe. The best part was when their officials called to say, 'Ma'am, we want to apologise', I thought someone was prank calling (laughs). Was this for real? Apologising on behalf of an ex-employee? In India, employees often are misbehaved with but organisations often tend to wash their hands off the incident. And here was a UAE-based organisation that was profusely apologising to me, saying they wanted to send flowers. It was too good to be real. They have simply been out-of-the-world good to me! If this is the norm in the UAE, then I salute the country. This is also a big learning for us Indians. We claim to be the world's biggest democracy and yet we are not able to bring justice to most women. A lot of people who send these abusive messages to us on Twitter are actually NRIs who think they can get away saying anything because they are in another country. Following the precedent that has been set in this case, I think these online perverts will think twice.

When exactly did you foray into social media?

I first joined social media in 2011 when I did an expose on BJP leader Amit Shah. The abuse started pouring in right after he went behind the bars. My reportage on Gujarat was, by and large, the reason I have been trolled so much because then it becomes about how can you speak. I am a woman, was an investigative journalist with Tehelka. I was condemned because I spoke against Narendra Modi and the BJP. You see, every box was ticked. I get twice the amount of flak as compared to other women personalities on Twitter because my name is attached to it. Nobody else will be called a Jihadi Jane, but I will be. I know it's normal.

But this kind of trolling, where a woman is sexually abused online, has intensified in the last couple of years with social media becoming a driving force unto itself?

I think they (trolls) have emboldened over the past two years because they know that no one will actually take action against them. There is a sense of entitlement that the trolls have, which is getting worse by the day. The reason this guy (the former UAE resident who sent the messages) had the guts to message me without hiding his identity is because he thought nothing would happen. A reason why the step taken by National Paints has set a huge precedent.

Has social media activism also taken away from us the instinct to actually do something about issues in real life? The tendency is to feel that if you have tweeted about an issue, you have done your job. Is that enough?

I think social media is a great platform to put forth your views and have arguments. But one notices in India, every time there is a real issue, you end up talking about something else on Twitter. There are farmers who are committing suicide in the country, and suddenly we are discussing gauraksha. We create hashtags and make them trend. People don't want to get into the real politics because desktop journalism is easy. You tweet and you are done with your responsibility. We take Twitter and our views on Twitter a tad too seriously. And when you cannot win an argument, you don't have to concede defeat, but don't abuse either.

How did your family react to this incident initially?

I usually try to keep them away as much as possible. When I put the message up, they did not even know what had happened. When they heard he had been deported, their immediate reaction was: what if he finds you address and comes home to attack you or something. My mother has often tried to dissuade me from tweeting. There are times when my father goes out with his friends and they tell him what people talk about me. He comes home and asks, 'Why are people abusing you?' I tell them it's just trolling and use the very excuse that no one is actually coming home and abusing me. He asks: what if they do? I tell them we'll cross the bridge when we come to it. I understand their fears. Recently, my sister-in-law cooked biriyani and I posted a picture of it on my social media. In a few minutes, she walked up to me and said, 'Remove that picture.' She had read some sexually violent tweets that were posted in reply.

Debates on social media in India are increasingly becoming polarised. What are the biggest challenges for journalist right now?

To stand by one's beliefs. I am not going anywhere. I am not apologetic about my identity. Nobody reminds a Sikh journalist that he is Sikh or a journalist who is Kashmiri Pandit, that he is Kashmiri Pandit. Then why am I constantly reminded that I am a Muslim journalist!

   Social media victim, story of shame, abuse and courage