‘Gendertrolling’ and International Human Rights Law- SHIVAM KATARIA

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Authors of a recent Amnesty International study on Gendertrolling is an attempt to show how big the problem of Gendertrolling really is. The tweets analyzed included threats of physical or sexual assault, physical harm, death or reference to violent events etc. alongside other racist, sexist and degrading comments. Apart from violating Twitter’s own policies, Amnesty claims that when the complete data is out, due to the sheer amount of online abuse, it would squarely fall into a Human Rights Abuse issue. Key findings of the study show that about 7.1% of all tweets sent to the women in the study were “problematic” or “abusive”. This is based on analysis of 1.1 million tweets mentioning 778 women across the year, or one every 30 seconds. Women of colour, (black, Asian, Latinx and mixed-race women) were 34% more likely to be abused over white women with black women being the most targeted group. The abuse was almost independent of the political affiliation/ideology of the victims.

To better understand the problem, it is beneficial to agree on a definition of trolling. Colloquially, Trolling is any comment that is directed to insult someone in public on social media which is made effective due to its anonymous and fast-travelling nature.

A more technically accurate definition is available on Merriam-Webster:

to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content’.

Karla Mantilla distinguishes ‘Gendertrolling’ from other kinds of trolling since it is a coordinated attack of gender-based insults meant to humiliate women. They often use vicious language, with description of vile and violent graphics that the trolls would do to the victims. Sometimes, they may be even Credible Threats of Rape and death or revealing sensitive information etc. which have been found to materialize in many instances. The most significant aspect of Gendertrolling is that it is almost invariably a reaction to women speaking out against some form of Sexism. Mantilla lists several examples which show that generally Gendertrolling results in victims withdrawing from the social media platforms, leaving their jobs or even shifting their places of residence for their safety.

This is significant since it shows that Gendertrolling much like sexual harassment in the workplace and street harassment aims at ‘patrolling gender boundaries and using insults and hate and threats to ensure that women keep playing subservient roles in male-dominated arenas.’ This significantly affect women’s participation in public spheres.

In a recent paper, Kim Barker and Olga Jurasz acknowledge that although the internet has been a great platform for engagement, activism and contentious debates for Feminism, it is precisely because of this potential that the growing hostility of these platforms towards Women is worrisome. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook which are battlegrounds for feminist advocacy, campaigning and politics are increasingly being used to silence women who do exactly that. The backlash that women receive for speaking out severely undermines the idea of equality of participation in public life.

This confirms the Amnesty international study since the subjects of the study were also Women Journalists and Politicians whose participation itself is a transgression into male-dominated areas and their silencing means taking a back step towards more divided public spaces. They identify ‘Online Violence against Women in Politics (OVAWP)’ as a distinct phenomenon to demonstrate ‘the pernicious nature of the backlash against women who speak out online or offer any opinion—controversial or otherwise—through social media.’

Statistically, the rise of harmful online speech and online violence against women as a phenomenon has is worrisome with 46 percent of women worldwide receiving sexist or misogynist comments.

Barker and Jurasz argue that ‘Digital feminism’ is an extremely potent tool and the widespread success of movements like the Arab Spring and the recent #MeToo movement indicate its success. However, contrary instances like targeting women’s political participation in the UK and Indian General Elections exposes the dark underbelly of the Internet.

The study also makes it clear that trolling, much like Hate Speech is also a new medium of targeting minorities, especially Women in this case. In times where the virtual world was seen to be a great leveler where Women could work safely, trolling poses serious threats to the safety of Women at workplaces. In fact, the net effect of this online Trolling is to silence women. The subject of the study were journalists and politicians for whom Twitter is a work tool and a way to express themselves and online abuse can potentially force them to leave their virtual workspace.

Based on the above observations, Amnesty has claimed this as a Human Rights abuse issue but have not mentioned the specific grounds. This paper will now move to analyze some International Human Rights Conventions to analyze the existing framework that could be invoked to deal with the issue of online Trolling of Women.

According to the author, following are the International Human Rights Instruments that could be invoked to combat Gendertrolling of Women online.

The most important Convention is the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)which, citing the UN Charter, UDHR and other International Covenants on Human Rights, affirms the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and womenand seeks to eliminate all forms of discrimination based on Sex and obligates states to ensure the equal rights of men and women to enjoy all economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.

‘Gendertrolling’ generally violates Article 1 and 3 of CEDAW, by engaging in gender-based discrimination and preventing women’s participation in political, economic and cultural fields’. States are also obligated under Article 11(1) of the Convention to eliminate discrimination against Women in the field of employment and states are also obligated under Article 12 to take care of health (physical and mental) of all women.

The convention ICCPR(International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) also guarantees self-determination (including political, economic and cultural development) under Article 1 and obligates states to ensure rights without discrimination and their equal enjoyment between men and women under Article 2 and 3 respectively.

Other conventions like International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)also obligate states to undertake steps to ensure full realization of rights under the covenant and guarantees rights without discrimination based on sex, among other grounds, the right to work and safeguard it and ensure right to enjoy just and favourable, safe and healthy working conditions.

Apart from these general provisions, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences on Online Violence Against Women and Girls from a Human Rights Perspective has also observed that Gendertrolling aims to preserve gender roles and maintain inequalities.

Despite the obligations, state parties have barely taken any steps are taken by the states in this direction. This is mostly because enforcing these measures runs into the counterargument of Freedom of speech and expression.

Barker and Jurasz argue that Gender equality is rarely viewed on par with other values of democratic societies, such as freedom of expression. Accountability is often averted by juxtaposing Gender equality and freedom against freedom of expression when it comes regulating online gender-based abuse and often steps are limited to removing or abusing the offensive content after repeated complaints. Ironically, the freedom of expression of the victims being affected by Gendertrolling is often ignored. The writers argue that this creates a hierarchy of harms where the cost of regulating freedom of expression is seen to be more than the value of prohibiting gender-based discrimination. Although this challenge to balance the considerations has been recognized in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on 8 March 2017, it has not spurred any action in that direction.

Barker and Jurasz argue that instead of relying on the self-regulation model which has clearly imploded, it is time to hold social media platforms accountable for the content that is posted and propagated on them. Currently, these platforms seem to be operating outside law exonerating themselves based on the freedom of speech and expression. It is time that these platforms address the harms perpetrated through them by first recognizing Gendertrolling as a form of social media abuse and being proactive in issuing appropriate sanctions by holding the platforms accountable. Greater attention also needs to be paid to forms of online harm where it could translate into real world harm and lobby enough support to take these incidents seriously by police and other enforcement agencies.

The 4thwave of Feminism is quintessentially digital and an inclusive, welcoming space is required for its proliferation and propagation. As a starting point, the Summary of Recommendations issued by Amnesty International in their ‘Toxic Twitter Report’ 2018 are noteworthy.

In conclusion, considering the scale of the problem and the ineffectiveness of legal provisions to tackle the same, one’s right to freely express themselves must be tempered by mutual respect for others’ rights and refrain from posting xenophobic, racist, sexist or homophobic content. In the writer’s opinion, instead of removing questionable content altogether, social media platforms should try to educate users on the common values to be exercised in a public sphere.Community-based techniques like‘Counterspeech’which aims at undoing the damage done by the former through dialogues is a practical first step and multiple such groupsare already operational online. This ‘tone down the rhetoric’ approach can be through correction, clarification or calling out the trolls for their problematic statements. Counterspeech can come from anyone, including the Victims themselves thereby increasing public engagement and inculcation of desirable shared values without potentially impinging upon anyone’s right to freely express themselves through Censorship.

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