Social media interactions invariably include trolling, where disruptive or annoying comments are made online, and gender trolling is one aspect of trolling. Gender trolling in India has turned ugly, with mischievous and offensive tweets transforming into threats. However, far too little research has examined the perceptions of such trolling among women. What do Indian women on Twitter feel about trolling? Are they encountering prejudice on the platform as well? How do they cope with vitriolic trolls and online threats? This study employs a feminist narrative approach to evaluate perceptions of gender trolling among women on Twitter in India. The study aims to understand the impact of online trolling among Indian women Twitter influencers. Insights into their online trolling experiences from twenty-five selected women social media influencers on Twitter were gathered through detailed interviews. This study unravelled some critical observations and responses towards gender trolling among women Twitter influencers in India. The research also explored if the regularization of misogynistic laced gender trolling within the Indian online space alters the way women social media influencers respond to trolling.
India’s aggressive neoliberal growth strategy produced by globalization and privatization reforms ensured the extension and intensification of women’s labour and framed neoliberal terms of ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’ through increasingly explicitly patriarchal social programmes of ‘safety, ‘security and ‘protection’ (Wilson et al., 2018). Even as the country marches on, women’s discrimination and marginalization continue at all levels of society around social participation, economic opportunity, economic & political participation, and access to fundamental rights such as education, nutrition, and reproductive health care. Researchers in the past (Moghadam and Senftova, 2005; Sen and Mukherjee, 2014) have focused hugely on how gender discrimination has always been prevalent despite the prospects of policy level inclusions that happened, time to time. Women in India have witnessed a cultural shift with the onset of economic liberalization, where the primary focus of the discussion was on freedom, choice and independence, and in this move, digital platforms or social media played a huge role (Jain, 2020). India’s digital journey has been a milestone achievement in recent times, where it is the world’s second-largest internet population at over 749 million users in 2020, where over 73 percent of internet access happens via mobile phones (Statista, 2021a, b). Doron and Jeffrey (2013), in their book, discussed in detail the trajectory of this growth which is charted out as the following-- starting from the economic liberalization in 1991, the national telecom policy adoption in 1994, the start of spectrum auctions in 1995, establishment of a telecom regulator in 1997, adoption of a second and improved national telecom policy in 1999, strengthening the telecom regulator in 2000, more spectrum auctions, and the arrival of India’s legendary business families to the cell phone game in 2003 which in turn changed the entire chronicle of the telecom business. It established mobile phones in the lives of the people in our country. However, a closer look at the available statistics will reveal the massive gender difference in mobile phone usage and access to the internet via smartphones. The gender inequality in mobile internet use is most significant in South Asia, although the region has also made the most progress. Between 2017 and 2020, the mobile internet gender gap narrowed from 67 per cent to 51 per cent, where women’s access to mobile internet also increased from 21 per cent in 2017 to 34 per cent in 2020, owing to reforms, affordability, enhanced literacy on digital skills and understanding of the relevance of the internet (GSMA, 2021).
With such global digital disruptions, India too has witnessed social media take centre stage, where digital media converted spaces where “protest identities were created, channelled, and contested” (Gerbaudo and Treré, 2015). It is an age where digital advocacy allows for newer ways to share views and build advocates for causes that aid in influencing, coordinating, and mobilizing people (Choudhury, 2018). Social media platforms helped erode social boundaries where women voiced their opinions on gender-based violence and discrimination around them and sought social change (Gurmanet al., 2018). Miller et al. (2016) emphasized the role of digital media in providing empowering tools which enable both women and men to express themselves freely online, moving away from repressive gender norms of the offline world. Unfortunately, such culturally constructed gender norms resurfaced online as abuse. While activists have engaged with social media to counter authoritarian regimes and organized peaceful protests, this has also allowed extremist groups to exploit its benefits (Ganesh, 2018). Social media’s emergence and its significance for gender-related issues have vastly differed from the liberating space welcomed by feminist theorists (Miller et al., 2016). A significant aspect of social media interactions invariably includes trolling and making disruptive or annoying comments online, followed by some cyber-violence targeted specifically towards certain sections and marginalized communities (Norris, 2018). Trolling is a disruptive, anti-social online behaviour that can cause substantial distress to create conflict for one’s amusement (Howard et al., 2019) and refers to posting provocative and offensive messages (Jonathan, 2013).
Twitter in India saw a 74% year on year increase in the daily active users of Twitter in the quarter of October–December 2020 (Money Control News, 2021), and the platform offers its users compelling options to send out a 140-character mass text to everyone, share small snippets of story, content, ask questions and share views (Forsey, 2021). Also, the additional feature of “Retweet”, which allows users to engage with someone else’s content to show agreement or disapproval, makes the platform unique and vulnerable at the same time.
In 2019, IT for Change, an Indian NGO working to enable digital technologies to contribute toward human rights, social justice, and equity, came out with a report titled “Born digital, Born free? A socio-legal study on young women’s experiences of online violence in South India” (Gurumurthy et al., 2019) and the report findings concluded that cyber-violence was pervasive, over 3/4th of their respondents were victims of gender-trolling, the impact of cyberviolence ranged from physical, psychological to social, functional and aspirational impacts. Further, the report also concluded that most victims of gender-trolling chose to adjust to the pervading culture of cyberviolence to preserve their space of agency rather than seeking support (Gurumurthy et al., 2019). In another recent report, Amnesty International India (2020) used crowd-sourced research and data science to measure the scale and nature of online abuse faced by women politicians in India during the 2019 General Elections. The report revealed that abuse experienced by Indian women politicians was extraordinarily high and supported a notion held by many women that the social media platform had turned into a ‘battlefield’ (Amnesty International, 2020).
Given these specific Indian contexts, trolling is a sensitive issue as it takes an ugly turn with its offensive content. It remains unabated in the popular discourse in the media globally; however, especially in the Indian research context, it has significantly taken a spiral of silence. With research and studies on reporting and noticing the prevalence of gender-based trolls online, a deep understanding of Indian women influencers’ perceptions of such trolling behaviours is still under-reported. Thus, this research aims to explore further to understand:
RQ1: How do online trolls affect or impact the Indian women influencers on Twitter?
RQ2: What are their perceptions of gender trolling?
RQ3: What are the coping mechanisms they employ to respond to the trolls, and what impact does it cause on their content and them?
Who is a troll?
Derived from a fishing technique, trolling is an activity where instigators say their thing and watch as the world bites into this bait online (Klakegg et al., 2016). Ronson (2015) denotes trolls asoutrage mobs where troll armies descend upon the targets and terms trolling as the modern-day equivalent of a ‘town square flogging’. The troll lures internet users into engaging in conversation to trick, belittle, or embarrass the target (Jay, 2018). Hardaker (2010) presented a working definition of a troll as a “computer-mediated communication user whose real intention(s) is to cause disruption and to trigger or exacerbate conflict for their amusement” and drew four critical characteristics of a troll—aggression, deception, disruption, and success. Stein (2016) termed trolls as people who relish online freedom and turn social media into a giant locker room in a teen movie, with towel-snapping racial epithets and misogyny. Trolls walk a fine line between tolerability and legality (Fichman and Dainas, 2019) even as they disrupt conversations by posting “divisive, sexist, racist, and xenophobic content” to hijack social media interaction (Shetty, 2016). Trolls have also been labelled as aberrant “snorts” (Suler, 2004) who make anti-social remarks and disrupt discussions (Sun and Shen, 2021).
What is trolling?
Historically the term “trolling” was first employed in the early 1990s when it referred to tricking, pranking or fooling users under fake pretences to make fun of them. While there has always existed a certain degree of argumentative communication on the internet, it is only recently that Twitter trolling/e-bile has become far more prevalent, rhetorically noxious, and gendered (Jane, 2015); however, some see trolling as the online world’s status quo (Lanier, 2011). Some others define it as an act of deliberately instigating emotional reactions from others through inflammatory or offensive interactions online (Burcham, 2016) with instances of persistent commenting with unfair interpretations of another’s views or tedious nit-picking and derailing (Moriarty, 2019) that causes considerable, negative concerns for its victims (Howard et al., 2019).
Cyber-trolling was the internet manifestation of everyday sadism (Buckels et al., 2014), and the rapid escalation of conflicts in online discussions quickly spiralled out of control, degenerating into angry exchanges of insults known as ‘flame wars’ (Angouri and Tseliga, 2010). Epitomized as harassment, bullying, and sometimes even terrorism (Phillips, 2015), trolling is repetitive, disruptive online deviant behaviour by an individual toward other individuals and groups” (Fichman and Sanfilippo, 2016) to engage people in a pointless and time-consuming online discussion (Herring et al., 2002) to augment an online user’s status by disturbing others via heated debates to attract attention (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2014).
What is trolling behaviour?
Past research identified trolling behaviour as manipulators, psychopathics and sadists who indulged in trolling as a form of online sadism. Typical trolling behaviour is an initial provocation to bring forth an angry response to hijack the discussion and move away from the actual topic to focus instead on intense personal attacks (Buckels et al., 2014). Psychologists’ explanation of “deindividuation” has also been used to describe trolling behaviour. Trolling is akin to the way some people who get behind the wheel of a car feel compelled to abuse the woman driver in the front who is slow in turning right (Adams, 2011). The heightened intensity of antagonism in the act of trolling is because of zero face to face interaction, which is further intensified because of the anonymity of online participants in discussions (Hopkinson, 2013). Asthana (2020) scrutinized trolling behaviour, especially assassination attempts and dismissive, inferiority complex driven attacks and categorized them as impugning motives, religious bigotry-driven attacks, diversionary and wrong ‘facts’ attacks, sexual innuendoes, threats of violence or sexual violence, flaunting omnipotence of their object of veneration and threat of abuse of legal process. Owen et al. (2017) studied three distinct characteristics of a troll: the ability to ‘create and define victims’, try and exert ‘power and dominance’, and their innate nature of ‘hunting in packs. Nevertheless, what encourages the troll is the power of anonymity which Fuchs (2018) puts in perspective when he submits that anonymity on social media is often ‘hierarchical, gendered and political’.
Forms of trolling
From being an activity indulged in reinforcing identities (Ortiz, 2020) to a political strategy that infuses irony into politics and identity, it is often reported that there are paid trolls and organized forms of digital propaganda where governments and political parties have invested in digital infrastructures in recent years (Udupa 2017, 2019; DeCook, 2020). In fact, in India, political sponsored trolling is not new. Chaturvedi (2016), in her book, discussed how the digital army and its tactics are centred around trolling. Udupa (2019) also analysed the trolling tactics that different people employed to discourage people from posting opposing political views. Coles and West (2016) put forward four repertoires: easily identifiable trolls, nostalgia, vigilantism, and nasty trolls in a piece of work. Herring (2002) explored further the classification of cyber violence, while MacKinnon and Zuckerman’s (2012) compared trolling to virtual shouting matches, where aggression in the online form was the modus operandi and preferred form of online provocation. Recently, trolling has adapted to self-defeating humour styles (Navarro-Carrillo et al., 2021), and continues to be equated to deviant online behaviour online (Jane, 2015).
Nature of gender trolling
The internet is inherently gendered (Vaidyanathan, 2019). It has created new opportunities and platforms for social discussions, debates, and interactions and inadvertently constructed a new combat zone to exhibit the worst human behaviour (Shantharaju and Vagdevi, 2018). Morahan-Martin (2000) and Jeffner (2000) discussed the internet’s innate potential to enhance women’s space for action and emphasized that online spaces, with their lack of physical presence, anonymity, and dis-inhibition, could project an ambience that would foster open communication and feelings of safety. Nevertheless, ironically, the same qualities are now behind the rise of unhindered men’s intrusions on various social media platforms (Suler, 2004).
Mantilla (2013, 2016), highlighted gender trolling as coordinated, relentless and sustained participation of groups of people in a concerted manner to inflict gender-based insults and threats using offensive language. Further, this kind of online harassment holds a pretext of maintaining the online space as a male-dominated arena free from anti-patriarchal and feminist ideas. The argument of gender trolling (a term coined by Mantilla in her book, “How Misogyny Went Viral) at the core is about power centred on male entitlement, where while in general, trolls engage in trolling for their own “enjoyment and amusement”, gender trolls on the other hand hope “to inspire fear in their targets, and to win the battle, which is to drive the target, along with her objectionable opinions out of public discourse online”. Gender Trolling is elevated so that it inflicts the most painful and shameful words targeting women, which have become a modern-day weapon of patriarchs wanting to control, threaten, and silence women (Dutt, 2017).
Herring (2002) suggested that the experiences of gender trolling are similar to sexual violence, where the victims are predominantly women while the perpetrators are primarily men. Gendered cyber-hate or gender trolling is made-up to inflict significant psychological, social, reputational and economic distress and harm upon women, limiting their ability to engage in meaningful activism to respond to the challenge of gendered cyber-hate itself (Udupa et al., 2019). Escartin (2015) distinguished trolling and cyberbullying by stating that trolling aims to get a reaction from online users; cyberbullying, on the other hand, is deliberately done to instil fear in a specific victim. Thus, gender trolling shares commonality with sexual harassment at the workplace and even street harassment (Mantilla, 2013) and therefore is fearsome when anonymous men sexually abuse women on social media platforms (Chapman, 2014), particularly when it is viewed as an organized effort to silence their voices (Paananen and Reichl, 2019). Cole (2015) further adds that gender trolling is all about power where the female body is the ‘contested site of control, subjugation and surveillance’. Some researchers found that trolling is more often done by males (Akhtar and Morrison, 2019; March and Steele, 2020); however, some studies also showed that while women also trolled, however, their motivations are viewed as being more ideological than malicious (Fichman and Sanfilippo, 2014).
Gender trolling in India
Digital space opened up an exciting new frontier for Indian women’s public expression; unfortunately, the norms and practices of digital space did not seem to erase gendered hierarchies (Gurumurthy et al., 2019). Online gender trolling is a testimony of the pervasive male hegemony that pervades the internet, making it an economic and political form of control (Vaidyanathan, 2019). Ghosh (2020), in her recent study, revealed that often in India the victim of gender trolling was blamed. Norris (2018) reported that 73 percent of those surveyed had experienced gender-based violence online. A recent survey titled ‘Spotlight on online habits of young Indian women’, conducted by Verizon Media in July 2019, claimed that 40 percent of Indian women fear irrelevant comments being trolled and followed (MediAvataar’s NewsDesk, 2019).
Indian women journalists have been among the main targets of trolls in India and have been facing massive online abuse and trolling due to reporting any political issue, a socio-cultural event, or national or international occurrences (Rego, 2018). In 2018, journalist and author Rana Ayyub became a doxing victim after receiving rape and death threats online; the matter attained international attention when five UN special rapporteurs called upon India to protect Ayyub from the ‘online hate campaign’ (Salim, 2018). Salim (2018) further added that online violence against women was simply an “extension of the offline violence directed at women” because of their gender, where the intention was to “target their sexuality, reduce them to sexual objects”, and reinforce gender stereotypes.
Journalist and The News Minute Editor-in-Chief Dhanya Rajendran was trolled for several days owing to her tweet where she equated a movie that she had walked out of to another movie several years ago, Sura, starring Tamil Film star Vijay. The film star’s fans vented their ire at Dhanya on Twitter by abusing her with remarks and issuing rape threats (The News Minute, 2017). Noted investigative journalist Neha Dixit went public with her experience of being stalked in September 2020, and in January 2021, someone tried to break into her home and fled when she shouted and opened the door (Philipose, 2021).
While these are the cases reported against gender trolling online, many women do not report the trolls or the trolling. A Feminism in India (2016) report found that Indian women were more likely to ignore or block online assailants than report them and, therefore, reduce their online participation. However, most women who encounter gender trolling understand that the cyber violence they face is an expression of the deep-seated misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism and transphobia that permeates deep in our societies (Norris, 2018).
This study employs a feminist narrative analyses approach to evaluate perceptions of gender trolling among women on Twitter in India. Feminist scholars view narrative analyses as another way to engage personal accounts of the everyday social world as more than personal experiences (Kiguwa, 2019). Twenty-five women participated in the study and shared their everyday encounters with trolling. This study discusses how Indian women who have a considerable following on the Twitter platform deconstruct gender trolling and navigate cyber violence.
Via an exploratory approach, this research aims to evaluate perceptions of gender trolling among women influencers on Twitter in India to gain deeper insights and is divided into two phases. The first phase is pilot-testing via an online survey to understand the perception of trolling among respondents from all genders. The survey broadly tried to gather views on gender-based trolling and hence reached out to people who were very active on Twitter with their content and in some ways can be termed as Twitter Influencers/micro-influencers. The sampling technique is both convenient and snowball sampling. The researchers attempted to reach 200 respondents on Twitter, where 161 showed interest in the preliminary study and agreed to participate. Further, efforts were made to connect with 35–40 women influencers on Twitter who were also part of the pilot survey and twenty-five of them agreed to the in-depth interview/discussion (via email/ call). The online survey questions focused on understanding the common perceptions of a ‘troll’ and general insights on the gendered aspects of trolling.
Participant profile (women influencers)
The women who were part of the in-depth interviews were in the age bracket of 25–60 years and hailed from diverse social and professional backgrounds such as—Journalists (Print and Television), Authors, Artists, Corporate Communications Executives, Political Party workers, and Academicians. The participants have a considerable following on Twitter, where the followers ranged from 16000 to 1.4 million. This put them under the clear distinction of Micro/Macro Influencers (Schabdach, 2020). The participants reside in India’s urban localities—Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune, Bangalore and Mumbai. The interviews were conducted to probe deeper and comprehend perceptions about trolling, misogyny, their response to trolling, and their coping mechanisms. Some participants preferred to interview on the phone, and others preferred to respond via email. The study identified and captured the perceptions toward gender-based cyber violence in a detailed and systematic manner.
Primary survey to gauge perceptions of trolls and trolling
The researcher inducted a primary survey to gauge the basic understanding of the Trolls and the phenomena of gender trolling. This was done to perceive the initial response of people participating in the survey and their response to the word “troll” or “trolling” and learn if they had heard or encountered gender trolling or were victims of online abuse. The preliminary finding of the survey is highlighted below:
The survey was responded to by 47 percent male (n = 76) and 53 percent female (n = 85) active Twitter users.
From the responses, it was evident that female users post content more frequently on Twitter than males. The survey responses reveal that the tweet frequency (which is very frequent for females, almost multiple times in a week) of the female is 76 percent compared to the male, that is 24 percent. In addition, the active age group (female) is between 25–45 years.
The same age group were actively involved in online engagements and were also victims of trolling.
The male respondents within the 25–45 age group were also the victims of trolling; however, the trolling propensity is not as much as what was encountered by the female respondents (as the responses were marked from very severe to moderate).
Around 75 percent of the women (n = 64) respondents shared that they faced trolls on the platform, ranging from mild (faced online abuse that included harsh comments and body shaming) to severe (death threats, rape threats, body harm, etc.), while 24 percent of males respondents (n = 18) confirmed encountering online trolling.
57 percent of women (n = 48) on the platform agreed that the intensity or propensity is similar to offline bullying, while 43 percent (n = 37) strongly believe online trolling is harsher than bullying.
Similarly, 21 percent of males (n = 16) believed that online trolling is harsher than bullying, while close to 79 percent (n = 60) agreed there is no difference between bullying and online trolling.
Thus, from the preliminary exploration, it is evident that gender trolling is no longer an unknown phenomenon, and young women are more frequent victims of gender trolling online. However, the survey only revealed some basic preliminary understanding of the subject. Therefore, to delve deeper into this issue, the researchers reached out to 40 women influencers (based on their followers’ count) and convinced 25 women influencers on Twitter to participate in in-depth interviews. The participants for the in-depth interviews were filtered and selected using these criteria
Considering their Twitter Followers
Those who frequently post on Twitter (content ranged from their work, discussions on social or political issues, viewpoints on a particular story, discussions, etc.)
They were also a part of the survey and consented to participate in the interview.
The participants who agreed to have a telephonic conversation were contacted as per their preferred time and convenience, and the duration of the interview ranged from 45 min to an hour. Few of them preferred replying via email. A total of 25 interviews were conducted with the women Twitter influencers/micro-influencers. The participants requested to keep their identity anonymous, and therefore is not disclosed in this research. The questions focussed on prompting responses from the women on aspects and their views on the following:
What was the perceived reason behind trolling, and how do they perceive it?
Is trolling gender-biased?
Could gender trolling have anything to do with the number of followers these women have on Twitter or the impact that they create through their presence or their work?
Their response when they were being trolled
Did trolling discourage/frighten/scare/upset them?
What were their coping mechanisms when they were trolled?
Insights from the interviews
The responses from the interviews brought forth specific aspects around gender trolling that were further distilled into key themes that ranged from online misogyny, gender discrimination/ targeted because of gender, kinds of online threats, coping mechanisms against trolling, reasons behind trolling and making platforms safe.
Presence of online misogyny
A parallel can be drawn to how the survey respondents and the participants who responded to these trolls are categorized. A majority of the influencers responded that the kind of gender trolling they were subjected to could, in all certainty, be termed as misogyny at work. One of the influencers who encountered vicious trolling attacks shared that “trolling on Twitter was merely misogyny in the online forum” and added that trolling was “an extension of what we women experience in our day-to-day life. It is practised openly without any pretence”, which was echoed by another influencer who added, “Twitter can only reflect gender hierarchies in the real world, so women face trolling in terms of very personal slurs like body shaming, character assassination and much more.” One respondent put forth that misogyny was the norm on Twitter because “calling a woman a Randi (Hindi term for prostitute/sex worker) is considered acceptable and not an insult, and men have the privilege to get away with it.” Another respondent shared that every blatantly regressive behaviour finds a home on Twitter and other social networks. In contrast, another influencer respondent said that feminist” liberal men also often tend to mount sexist, misogynistic attacks on conservative/right-wing/extremist women instead of attacking the merit of their argument”, thereby showcasing that trolling could come from anywhere and anyone, even from perceived liberal men!
Targeted because of gender
A majority of them had faced trolling when commenting on politics or religion for their posts. One respondent alluded that gender trolling was simply because “women are always easier targets, especially women who talk about gender, feminism, equality, are targeted”. Another influencer minced no words when she said that “gender trolling should be called sexual harassment because that is what it was”. One respondent said, “often the man will not face the kind of escalated abuse and sexual trolling that a woman does”. In contrast another respondent candidly shared that “even members from the LGBTQI community were trolled, so basically only the Cishet men were the ones who were safe!” One of the influencers who also differed on this precisely mentioned that “there were unpleasant people on Twitter who are unpleasant across genders without really thinking about whom they are talking to”.
Another influencer respondent believed that “though men make most trolls, women also troll and troll primarily other women. Their language is no different from men”. Interestingly, there seemed an almost tacit agreement among most women respondents that the online world was a microcosm of the offline world; hence, it was not “any less misogynistic or more, but social media gives anonymity emboldens certain attitudes and traits”. Another woman interviewed said, “My seventy-five-year-old mom is also a recipient of such messages. I am sure if my father had been around, he would have discouraged her from using social media platforms!”
Types of threats via trolling
The participants spoke of the type of trolls and threats they were subjected to, ranging from bodily harm to rape to all forms of character assassination. They were also at the receiving end of name-calling and often felt like they were being “publicly lynched”. Sexist remarks and body shaming were also ways the trolls responded. The influencers commonly experienced the usage of derogatory language and unsavoury memes by trolls. Some participants shared that trolls called them liberal presstitutes, and some resorted to morphing their faces over pornographic photographs. One of the influencers shared that although she was trolled quite often, she never expected to receive threats online; she shared that “one man threatened to find out where I lived and rape me. Another man threatened to hunt me down at a public event and throw acid on me”.
Coping mechanisms against Trolling
On the question of coping mechanisms for trolling, most women respondents either blocked the trolls or did not engage with them. Some chose to ignore or mute trolls. However, almost all chose to report trolls who issued rape/body harm threats. A couple of participants also claimed that homophobia was also rampant among trolls. While close to half of the respondents used to engage with their trolls, this behaviour was cut short after becoming too deafening, especially when they realized they were perhaps bot trolls. An influencer responded that it took her “a year of crying and mental stress to develop a thick skin”. In one case, the participant wanted to understand the reason behind the hate in the vitriolic trolling behaviour and realized that it was “best to block, mute and report the handle”. For most of the influencers interviewed in the study, their initial response was to ignore the troll and not engage in further conversation.
Similarly, another influencer who considered herself a combative person, therefore, used to engage/ argue with the troll, but within a year, she realized it was not worth it, so she began to mute and limit her interactions with people she knew/ those who seemed sensible to her. She shared, “silence is the best answer. If they persist in coming back and react to my tweets with spite, I block them. I believe that we are the creators of our timelines; we should not lend that power to the trolls”. However, there were quite a few influencers who decided to take action, one of them decided to name and shame their troll, she shared, “I decided to shame them instead of the initial bit about feeling a sense of shame about myself and putting these abusive messages in public”. Another interviewee frankly stated, “those of us who have devised strategies to cope with it, probably have understood that the solution to online abuse is not in shying away from platforms but from owning our space and freely reporting, naming and shaming or plain ignoring via ‘mute’ or block’ buttons”.
The majority of the participants also felt that limited access to the internet among women meant far fewer women on the platform, and that gender trolling was just a reflection of what happens in the real world. One participant quoted author Laurie Penny and said that “gender trolling was sexual harassment”, while another felt that gender trolling was “online bullying at its worst”. The participants were alike in their reading of the gender trolling they were subjected to, which to them was merely a reflection of the gender discrimination and patriarchal mindset that one witnesses in the real world. A couple of the participants believed that anonymity provided the added cover for trolls to spew venom and continue their spiteful trolling. An influencer shared that she had contemplated leaving Twitter “because of the incessant trolling but did not do it”. Another participant shared that sometimes minorities were trolled just because they belonged to a particular religion or caste. She shared that if one was studying trolling behaviour, one needed to also bring in “intersectionality as a vital prism from which to look at all sorts of oppression”.
Can twitter safeguard against gender trolling?
The women respondents believed that while Twitter is a platform for all, it needed to be safer against vicious trolls or trolling. Interestingly only a couple of influencers had thoughts of leaving the platform. Nevertheless, all influencers felt hurt, mentally upset and scared by the trolling, especially when the trolls issued rape and body harm threats. In a couple of instances, trolls also shared personal details of the influencers online, making the threats seem all too real and no longer contained within the supposed safe realms of the internet. The influencers also hoped for better, robust platform measures against gender trolling by Twitter. While they were happy with some immediate measures to tackle trolling, the platform offered that; however, many believed much more needed to be done.
One influencer felt that “Twitter needed to closely monitor trolling in various Indian regional languages and not just English and Hindi”. One influencer also said she wanted Twitter to take “faster and stricter action for repeat offenders who make rape threats every day”. Another suggestion from one of the influencers was that the political leadership needed to act; “the leader also has to talk and reinforce the idea that women should be welcome and men should stop misogynistic trolling”. In most cases, the women respondents believed that gender trolling was political, and therefore, political parties needed to play their part to rein in the trolls.
Discussion and contribution to Theory
Even as trolling in India seems to have become commonplace on the internet, ironically, so has gender trolling. The narratives drawn from the interviews with the 25 Indian women influencers around gender trolling speak volumes about the gendered online space in India. The fact that words like sexual harassment and bullying find expression in how gender trolling is perceived among Indian women Twitter influencers makes it amply clear that trolling is equally disturbing in the online sphere and equally daunting, if not more than the actual act of sexual harassment itself. The misogyny practised by trolls seems to mirror the everyday gender discrimination and hate practised around us—gender trolling is just one more way of doing the same. Gender trolling is being practised with an intent to hurt, vilify, present falsehoods, and therefore project patriarchal thought in the online world, in this case, on Twitter. Twitter is a mere platform and mirrors the inherent patriarchy present in the offline world.
Remarkably one must concede that even though far lesser women are on the Twitter platform as compared to men, the trolling patterns alter when it comes to women because trolls seem to transcend the issue being discussed to that of a personal vendetta to shame them, to call them names, to discredit them, to issue body harm threats, or to issue rape threats. It is also equally important to note that most platforms claim to be gender agnostic; however, they require a gender lens when protecting individuals from cyberhate prevalent on such platforms.
During the interviews with the Twitter influencers under this study, it was apparent that trolling had visibly disturbed them. Further, the influencers were not very happy with the platform’s response to trolling-related complaints. The triggers behind trolling could be anything, a photograph, an opinion, and sometimes the fact that a woman made the tweet! The swords used by trolls, although mere words in ether, in some sense, are weapons that have the power to get women off platforms where opinions are being shared and heard.
The playbook of gender trolling seems universal across geographies, and India seems no different. However, while previous studies on trolling in India have included aspects connected to the reasons behind trolling apart from delving into the types or kinds of trolling, what has not been ventured into are the perceptions of the recipients of vicious troll attacks and their coping mechanisms to defend and combat trolls. The Indian women’s Twitter influencers’ narratives described trolling as akin to cyber-bullying/ cyber violence. Further, they also articulated online misogyny as practised on the Twitter platform and highlighted how they responded to gender-based trolling where in most cases, they preferred to not engage in trolls to continue holding onto their agency and their space to express themselves. Thus, perception wise, the research gives a detailed picture of how the victims of trolls feel and how despite being transparent and open about the fact that not everything they cover/create/discuss will be perceived in a better way, they continue to be impacted profoundly. The respondents were open to constructive criticism but not to abusive behaviours. They believed that policymakers and the platform’s creators needed to bring in stringent gender-sensitive regulations and policies to safeguard everyone.
Limitations and future scope
The study took an exploratory approach which can be further generalized to a mixed-method approach expanding the sample size. The study also focused on one social media platform. Therefore a cross-platform comparative study could also be undertaken with other women influencers across social media platforms to understand further if the trolling phenomena and perceptions are the same or different. Future research could also include reasons behind women’s continued participation on Twitter and the platform’s affordances. Future discussions in this direction will also help platform creators upgrade and ensure better safety and security apart from blocking and reporting. This study’s future scope can also include detailing male Twitter influencers’ perceptions of trolling and coping mechanisms.
The data supporting this study’s findings are available with the corresponding author.
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Pillai, V., Ghosh, M. Indian female Twitter influencers’ perceptions of trolls. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9, 166 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01172-x