Michelle Obama summed up the age we live in when she said in a speech last week, “And I can’t believe that I’m saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women.” She was referring to a video clip starring Republican candidate Donald Trump. Closer home, it looks like assaults related to “cow protection” will soon have their own separate crime category. They already span the gamut from murder to the time one citizen made up a story about being accosted by a group of people who heckled him because he was carrying a leather bag.
The haters are everywhere and social media is the echo chamber through which their vile thoughts gallop unfettered. Not responding/ignoring has been my preferred strategy for a while now, but maybe it’s time to rethink this approach. I’m increasingly convinced that we need to fight online hate without adding to it.
Get organized. There are so many of us, if only we could come together. When Canadian author Kelly Oxford decided to respond to the Trump video by tweeting to women to share stories of the first time they were assaulted, 27 million people responded or visited her Twitter page, The New York Times reported. It became a cathartic movement. Enough people out there will band with you if you want to spread the love, or build a community. You just need to figure out a way to get them going. Why don’t we petition our elected representatives to stop following abusers on Twitter?
The microblogging site now aggressively tackles online hate. In addition to everyone’s favourite weapons—mute, block, report—new quality filters can help filter automated abuses (yes, there is such a thing). Twitter’s #PositionOfStrength campaign, launched earlier this year in India, aims to democratize technology for women’s empowerment. Another initiative helps students understand how to use Twitter for social change. Partner website HeartMob works to help you end online harassment.
Don’t be disheartened if it seems like the haters are in a majority. It’s just easier for them to work together because they usually have a clear target—Hillary Clinton, young girls, the LGBT community, Kashmiris, African- Americans, immigrants, Barkha Dutt.
Stay put. Talking of Dutt, since I wrote a column on her in April, the hatred she faces online has only grown. In addition to attacking her, haters attack the people she interviews or even interacts with on Twitter. “I don’t even see them as ‘people’ with an opinion of me. I just see them as playing to an organized plan to silence me or anyone in my mould,” she says. It doesn’t look like she’s going off Twitter anytime soon.
Dutt is an experienced journalist but these days even teenage girls have somehow acquired the strength to combat the hate, freely visible on photo-sharing sites such as Instagram and mostly centred around body shaming. Who knows what the long-term effects of this abuse will be? In the November issue of Seventeen magazine, 18-year-old TV actor Ariel Winter says it’s hard when the world has instant access to you. “Before Twitter and Instagram, if you felt a certain way about a person you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell them. Now I wake up and I have tweets to me about how I’m a fat, ugly blah-blah.” But she isn’t quitting social media either.
Be a WhatsApp warrior. Don’t let friends and family get away with spreading hateful forwards. Object clearly. Refute something you know is untrue, especially if it’s on a more intimate platform like WhatsApp. When someone on a family group forwarded a long note praising Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard for supposedly saying that “Muslims, who are demanding Sharia law, have been asked to leave Australia by Wednesday because Australia sees fanatic Muslims as terrorists…,” I posted the entry from Hoax-slayer.com that explained how Gillard made no such comment. Request people to send the clarification to the person from whom they got the message.
Brett Christensen, who runs Hoax Slayer, says over email that hoaxes have actually decreased in recent years though scam and malware messages have risen significantly. “However, there are certainly a lot of anti-Islamic hate posts circulating these days,” he says. “A lot of these are not hoaxes as such, but rather bigoted opinion pieces.”
Engage beyond your comfort zone. Talk to everyone, not just people with whom you are comfortable. Be nice, there are enough people bitching and moaning about the crap in our lives. Have diverse interests (don’t constantly crib about the same politicians, for example). Even if you feel strongly about rape, don’t tweet the report of every rape. Tweet instead about the solutions people have found the world over or women survivors who are encouraging others to fight back. This may sound naive but sharing positivity is a business model for successful start-ups such as The Better India.
Stun them with love. It’s the easiest thing in the world to echo hatred. But why not try a slightly different approach? Be inspired by Mata Amritanandamayi, the godwoman who has hugged more than 33 million people in the world. Here’s how I responded to someone’s hate recently: “My ancestors did come from Pakistan. Thanks for the love. Take a kiss.” Then I sat back and smiled.
PS: Of course the usual riders apply when distributing love to Indian men. Teenage girls should definitely avoid this approach.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.
Also Read: Priya’s previous Mint Lounge columns here