It’s been a week since Twitter invited me, alongside 17 other Indian women, to a conference addressing the #PositionOfStrength held by “women who tweet”. It’s always special when women bring forth and bring together their energies and the 26th February conference was no different. The invited included Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi (@priyankac19), Sowmya Rao (@sowmyarao_) – the young Chennai lawyer responsible for such immense and speedy aid mobilization (through Twitter) during the Chennai floods, Cosmopolitan India magazine editor Nandini Bhalla (@nandinibhalla), Anjum Chopra (@chopraanjum) ex-captain of the Indian Women’s Cricket team, Soda village sarpanch Chhavi Rajawat (@VillageSoda), Roli Books head Priya Kapoor (@PiyuK) and top cop Kiran Bedi (@thekiranbedi) who is surprisingly astute, remarkably sensitive and pretty darned articulate when the cameras aren’t on.
As we chatted about what the words “position of strength” mean for us, told some of our juiciest “troll” tales, and sipped chai, Anahita Mathai (@anahitamathai) from Observer Research Foundation (@orfonline) began to present to us the numbers. It takes looking at those numbers to understand the gendered reality of the Indian internet. As women who do actually use the internet – freely and fully, so to speak – it is hard to remember that unlike in real life, in social media spaces we can somewhat choose who we surround ourselves with. Though this is wonderful and empowering it also blinds us to the reality, that much like in any other public space in India, only 1 in 4 present, are women.
As Mahima Kaul (@misskaul) Public Policy head, Twitter India said, “My feed is full of amazing women, so it feels like there are so many of us online.” But, as she goes on to point out, of the 1 billion tweets sent out every two days, only 8% are from women (46% from men). As I write this though, 11 of the 20 most followed accounts in the world belong to women (only five of the remaining nine belong to men, with the last four being companies or groups). This means that once women are online, there is no dearth of popularity they can achieve or level at which they can be heard. The main challenge is to actually “get in the room”, as Mahima says, “it’s the first step to having your voice heard”. The need for more Indian women’s voices online is at this point not a feminist rant or “imagined”. Worldwide, men make up 51% of internet users and women make up 49%. In India, that 49% drops to a measly 29%.
Tania Sachdev (@TaniaSachdev), the 29 year old, vocal, articulate chess champion and commentator pointed out that, “as Indian women, we have always found strength in numbers”. Be it out on the streets or in the webby online world, we need to encourage the visibility of other and more women, in order to increase the safety of all women.
And what does that safety entail? What are social media forums actually doing about safety? Here’s where Twitter’s Patricia Cartes (@Cartes) steps in with the four tools – ignore (or unfollow), mute, block, report – each one just that tiny bit more aggressive, for whatever degree of troll you’re dealing with. Position Of Strength is also about realizing these tools exist, knowing how to use them and being unafraid to do so. The refreshing thing was seeing how serious Twitter is about actual complaints. Patricia stresses this, encouraging the use of the help and safety centers, as Twitter VP Colin Crowell nods enthusiastically. It’s interesting just how many Twitter (and other social media) users do not know the protocol when it comes to being trolled. Kiran Bedi spoke of how she too was unaware of the mute, block or report options initially. Clearly with a lifetime of experience, reporting came easy to her. To me, not so much.
I told my “twitter story” briefly at the conference that day, and I’ll repeat it here now. I joined Twitter, like so many people, when it first came to India. After a few random tweets to friends I zoned out of it, returning to the more familiar Facebook. When I joined NDTV Good Times and began hosting their travel shows though, they urged me to use the platform and I did. I tweeted my episode links, I tweeted images from the places I was traveling to and I tweeted random comments too. I learnt to reply, to re-tweet or RT. And then the lewd comments began. The show I did – Life’s A Beach – required me to wear a swimsuit at certain points (as one does, on a beach). This was seen as far too “sporting”, for Indian television, by a number of Indian men. From the familiarity of their derogatory tweets it appeared the same men telling me to cover up were the ones most avidly watching the show. Many simply could not believe I was Indian. As if to be Indian I had to swim in a sari and not an inch of fabric less. When someone somehow found out my mother was half German, they were triumphant. Of course, only a girl with “white blood” could lack modesty this way.
After I quit NDTV, bored of what was meant to be a career in travel but was mistaken often as creating masturbation material for a nation, I once again fell into a period of Twitter silence. Then came the “Nirbhaya” rape case. In the aftermath of the horrific and fatal assault on Jyoti Pandey I was among those who took to the streets to protest. I sat at Jantar Mantar, I called on friends to come out and raise their voices, I marched past India Gate and I held banners high. I used Twitter as a weapon and a megaphone both, and I saw the power it wielded. At this point I thought I had truly seen the phenomenal reach of social media. Then I wrote a poem.
The day Paris was attacked – 14th November 2015, I woke up and wrote a poem about it. I uploaded it to Instagram in the form of a square image with text. (Shown below.)
I linked this image to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and then I went back to sleep. An hour later I woke up to 10,000 shares on my Facebook. By the next morning it hit 100,000 likes and 165,000 shares. On Twitter, the poem was shared as an image repeatedly. Because the image did not have my name on it, there was no way of tracking how many times it was being shared, liked or read. There were up to 10,000 retweets, but those who shared just the image alone, were untraceable.
When something goes “viral”, it is in essence simply managing to replicate itself over and over again. Exactly like the virus that inhabits a body, something going socially viral also manages to mutate over time. And it did. I saw it firsthand when the hate began. “Being white has nothing to do with it you f*cking c*nt,” “You stupid moron”, “You’re part of the problem you piece of shit,” “You’re a pseudo intellectual,” “You racist b*tch, you’re a f*cking idiot.” Classy stuff. I could be disdainful about it of course, but it stung. The open profiles on Instagram and Twitter suddenly felt like an open invite for the “trolls” to violate me. One Instagram user Tana Schott (@elementalhealingarts) wrote to me saying this – “It went viral because you spoke the truth and that truth is uncomfortable.” I’d like to choose to believe her, even if only for my own peace of mind. For a moment in the midst of all that hate, I almost wished I hadn’t put it out there in all its rawness that I now could not polish.
But then Milind Soman shared it. And Victoria’s Secret angel Doutzen Kroes. And Finn Jones of Game of Thrones. And musician Lykke Li. And inexplicably the entire cast of The Vampire Diaries.
And then Paulo Coelho shared it.
With his 10.6 million followers on Twitter.
Without my name on it.
And…he changed the words so that they would be less “offensive”.
I sat there slightly unsure of what had just happened or what I felt about that. I was humbled and at the same time amazed by the power of the Internet. I sat back and took note of the various kinds of trolls I had experienced over the years. The lecherous men who wrote to me about my body when I used social networks as a television anchor, the sexist and pro-Congress haters who berated me for being an imbecile during the Delhi rape protests of December 2012, and finally the white supremacists, atheists and aggressors post-Paris. The one largely uniting thing about the trolls was that they were mostly male and they mostly used my “femaleness” as the put down. I was too fat, too thin, too tattooed, too bold, too dumb, too compassionate, too feeble-minded. Too underdressed, too overdressed. Too mouthy. Too quiet.
I was put down for my body and mind in turn. As kind people applauded both, others mocked both. I could not imagine the hatred or boredom or incentive it must take to trace the writer of a poem simply to tell them to “get a life” as a certain @zefbank did. But what I could understand was this - that an Assyrian woman from Baghdad living 25 years in the US wrote to me telling me it made her cry. Or that young girls in Mexico were making my poem their profile picture. That Chinese boys were translating it and friends and strangers alike from Colombia and San Fransisco, Brazil and Bangkok were writing in to tell me how much it moved them.
This I could finally understand:
the power of the Internet.
As the controversial poem faded away into the recesses of the Internet and some cat video replaced it as the latest rage, I was left raw, but stronger for the beating. Though I’d lost some sleep over the whole thing, I had in turn gained two things I hadn’t had before. 1) A far vaster platform for my voice (which to be fair I’m only just finding), and 2) the means to protect myself from the voices of those who did not speak to be heard but spoke to drown out others.
In a sort of ultimate teaching of the entire lesson, my friend Nayantara Rai (@NayantaraRai), CNBC-TV18 journalist, showed me how I could get a number of people to tweet at Paolo Coelho. After a few days of people incessantly asking him to give credit where due, he took the post down. Cowabunga.
So, don’t be afraid. Get in the room. And get yourself heard. And therein, lies your strength.