Belling the trolls: free expression, online abuse and gender

Freedom of expression is fundamentally about power: about who gets to speak or express themselves and on what terms and platforms.

Bishakha Datta
30 August 2016



Lawyers protest against JNU student union president,Kanhaiya Kumar, arrested and accused of sedition, February, 2016. Manish Swarup/Press Association. All rights reserved. The things you learn from search engines. I’d always attributed this iconic quote to the French philosopher Voltaire: “I wholly disapprove of what you say, and will defend to the death your right to say it.” And then, idly googling the exact phrasing, I discover that this profoundly expansive ‘Voltairean principle’ did not spring from Voltaire’s lips at all. No, this quote is by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who sometimes wrote under the ‘male’ pseudonym SG Tallentyre.

Now, you might ask what this historical misrecording has to do with the price of eggs. Or with freedom of expression. A lot, I’d say. How do we look at a woman’s words attributed to a man’s mind? As a genuine mistake? Sleight of mind? As a manifestation of the assumption that women were not expected to think lofty thoughts at the turn of the twentiethth century? Or a subtle reminder that in speech too, there’s a gender divide, with some genders being given more weight, more freedom to express in the public sphere than others?

In any event, even as we celebrate the 110th anniversary of this enduring phrase, I think it’s time to use it with caution. And with context. Why? Because, err, digital. Given the zettabytes of digital memory devoted to recording, sharing and storing every expressive urge – including those that should have been filtered at the thought level before being typed – this phrase seems a bit like a dinosaur. When the phrase first appeared in 1906, the means of expression were scarce: photography was not even 100 years old, cinema was in its infancy, and the internet wasn’t anywhere near the womb. There was text (not texting), telephones and telegrams. A trickle of speech.

Today, it’s the opposite.

We’re flooded with the means to express, just as we are with the means to remember. In his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, scholar Viktor Mayer-Schonberger reminds us how the advent of digital technology has forever changed the balance between remembering and forgetting.

For centuries, individuals, communities and societies struggled to remember – as technologies evolved from the oral to the written and the printed. Now, for the first time, with digital technologies, including vast storage capabilities, at our beck and call, we’re flipping the switch: remembering is becoming the default, forgetting the exception. “Until recently, the fact that remembering has always been at least a little bit harder than forgetting helped us humans avoid the fundamental question of whether we would like to remember everything forever if we could,” writes Mayer-Schonberger. “Not any more.”

Is something similar going on with expression nowadays? Does the capability to infinitely express oneself help us avoid the fundamental question: to say or not to say? To express or not to express? Or to think before we type?

And are the opportunities for expression being increasingly usurped by those in power?

Speech, expression and power

Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let me explain what I mean. For me, freedom of expression – analog, digital, offline or online – is fundamentally about power. Or about who gets to speak or express themselves. And on what terms and platforms. Just as the struggle for gender equality tries to re-allocate power between the genders, the battle for freedom of expression is about re-allocating the power to speak.

We’ve heard the powerful – individuals, corporates and governments – speak for far too long through mainstream media and the other megaphones of the powerful. For the first time, digital technologies have given us – the less powerful – the everyday means not just to speak out, but to actually be heard. To voice every silent, silenced, unheard, marginal, discounted, or ‘illegitimate’ thought we ever had. Loud and clear. When digital technologies first allowed me to make a documentary about three sex workers, in their own voices, the Indian government banned it, not just for expressing their points of view, but also for the use of ‘vulgar’ language. #Powerplay. It’s deeply depressing to see the growing number of tools being used to quell speech. Law. Mobs. Murder.

That was 15 years back. In the last decade, the battle for speech has only heightened. Even though the avenues of digital expression have multiplied, Freedom House notes that press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015 – as political, criminal, and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power. In Bangladesh, the country that neighbours mine, five bloggers and one publisher have been killed since 2015. Can there be a more disquieting way to quell speech, thought and opinion?

And in India, where I live, laws are increasingly misapplied to curb dissent – or speech that challenges those in power. Amnesty India has temporarily shut its India offices after being unjustly accused of sedition. Greenpeace India was made to shut up (to some extent) through the cancellation of its licence to receive foreign funding or “the government’s latest move in a relentless onslaught against the community’s right to dissent. A group of students in a Delhi university faced sedition charges for organising a dissenting campus event. And an author temporarily ‘killed himself’ as a writer when faced with a mob of opposition in his hometown.

It’s easy to be lonely in a crowd. And it’s hard to uphold the right to dissent when you’re a minority of one. And it’s deeply depressing to see the growing number of tools being used to quell speech. Law. Mobs. Murder.

As Perumal Murugan, the author who temporarily 'killed himself' said once he started writing again, “A censor is seated inside me now.

Gendered speech, online abuse and #FoE


Fatima Mernissi accepting the Erasmus Prize 2004 (the Netherlands). Wikicommons/Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. Some rights reserved.The speech of the powerless is not what I have in mind when I caution against the untrammelled use of Beatrice Hall’s iconic quote. I’m thinking of other kinds of speech which digital technologies have enabled, and which the digitally powerful wreak on us, day in and day out.

I’m talking online abuse.

Online abuse – especially against women – has now become like one of those rapidly-mutating viruses that resists all antibiotics. It’s everywhere, in many different forms. I’m not talking about the ingrained everyday sexism that’s our daily bread. That we fight, day in, day out. I’m not talking about androcentrism, or the assumption that men, and male experience, are at the centre of the universe. That we fight like guerrillas, constantly rolling our eyes in our heads.

I’m talking rape threats. Gang rape threats. Graphic gang rape threats with vivid descriptions of postures. Death threats. Hate speech that meets the legal criteria for spewing hate. Those, in my view, are not free speech. They’re a call to arms, incitements to violence. More so when it’s an invisible or paid cyber-army behind the threats, backing each other up, preying on a woman. Wilding. Trying to break her. Trying to humiliate her. Trying to get her to shut up, out of the misplaced notion that only men have the right to air their thoughts and opinions online. In public space. We want full citizenship. The freedom to be ourselves. The freedom to loiter online, full-throated.

In one of her essays, Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi introduces the concept of ‘trespassing in the nude’ to explain how men in Morocco think of public space as a men-only zone. Social norms dictate that Moroccan women are not supposed to be in public space; women who break that rule are seen to be trespassing. But women who dare to step into public space without their veils – that’s even worse. That’s trespassing in the nude. And trespass, of course, demands punishment.

On the internet, women who speak out are seen as trespassers. And women who speak out about things that men reserve as their own preserve are seen to doubly trespass. Or trespass in the nude. As British writer Laurie Penny famously said, “A woman’s opinion is the mini skirt of the internet.” Meaning, an excuse to harass.

Women on Morocco’s streets were punished through stoning, as are women who loiter on the streets of the internet. Just think of online abuse as stoning with words – that’s violence, right? When journalist Swati Chaturvedi got massively harassed last year, she wrote about her experience. “Journalists specially women are hunted for sport, abused, slandered and hounded by trolls who hunt in hyena-like packs. The problem is that you have an opinion and are behaving like a journalist, not a cheerleader.“

Many women have grown rhinoceros hides to ignore online abuse. It continues. Others have tried fighting back. It continues. Some have tried humour, including the Peng Collective’s brilliant Zero Trollerance campaign. The trolls march on, undeterred, like Tolkien’s Orcs. Of course, it’s important to distinguish between trolling and abuse, but sometimes when you’re facing the shitstream, there’s just so much semantic jugglery you can take. No matter what you call it, you just want it off.

Some women have stopped expressing themselves for fear of ‘inviting’ abuse. They’ve tied their tongues. Others hold back, or self-censor, again for fear of ‘inviting’ abuse. On the one hand, this is uncannily similar to women and girls not going out at night or not dressing how they please for fear of ‘inviting’ abuse or harassment. On the other, this is also about #FoE. Surely, freedom of expression cannot be defined to mean that only some get to speak – at the cost of others’ speech? And that those in power along the axis of gender should appropriate the means to express?

This is not even just about speech. It’s about digital citizenship. Women are neither interlopers not outsiders in digital spaces. We belong online as much as we belong offline. We want full citizenship. The freedom to be ourselves. The freedom to loiter online, full-throated. To comfortably exist in a space that we can call ours. Without abuse, harassment and violence.

That’s why I say, let’s use that iconic #FoE phrase with caution. And not in all contexts. If I wholly disapprove of what you say, I will not defend to the death your right to say it. Because no one should have the right to abuse another under the guise of freedom of expression.

This piece was first published in India Today on July 13, 2016 and is republished with kind permission here.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData