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When the virtual world wakes up the real one

by Prasad Krishna last modified Nov 30, 2013 09:35 AM
The unprecedented wave of voices speaking up against sexual harassment in recent times has as much to do with technology as the determination to seek justice. From Twitter to Tumblr, and blogs to pastebin, the internet's anonymity, reach and speed allow small, personal stories of abuse to swell into big stories.

The article by Malini Nair was published in the Times of India on November 24. Nishant Shah is quoted.

The outrage over the Tehelka case started with a post on pastebin, an anonymous document sharing site, on Wednesday evening. It contained the email managing editor Shoma Chaudhury had sent to the Tehelka staff with editor Tarun Tejpal's "atonement" letter appended below. A few hours later, the story had ballooned into a heated debate, and the outpouring forced what was being dismissed as an "internal matter" to be treated as a criminal case.

The two women who recently spoke up against harassment at the hands of a retired Supreme Court judge also used Facebook and the blogosphere to tell their stories, ensuring that the real world was actually moved into taking action. "The social web's biggest comfort is that we are no longer alone," says Nishant Shah, director, Research at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. "No matter what has happened to us, it has happened to somebody else. The possibility of finding credulous and empathetic audiences who but share our pain, understand it, and respond to it is unprecedented." Retweets and comments have often been described as the digital equivalent of holding hands.

Shah's pick of web campaigns that highlighted the problems include Blank Noise which calls women to talk of small, everyday stories of harassment, the Pink Chaddi drive and Why We Need Feminism, a web venture across American universities.

The other reason why the net encourages victims of abuse who might otherwise have stayed quiet to speak out is its "pseudonymity", as Shah terms it. In societies where there is shame attached to talking about sexual assault, the online space saves women from having to put themselves out in the "physical space" while ensuring that the perpetrator is exposed, he points out.

A plus for social web is that it gets other victims to speak up as well, gathering force and magnitude in the process. This happened in the instance of the legal interns. Another instance that surfaced just a month ago was of two American women science bloggers Danielle Lee and Monica Byrne. When Lee refused to write a piece for free for Biology Online, she was called "urban whore" by an enraged editor. She blogged about it and the ensuing storm over social media got her huge support. After Lee's expose, Byrne blogged about an acutely sexual conversation a powerful science writer inflicted on her. The outrage this provoked abated only after he made amends.

As an article in Gender and Culture blog project puts it: "( The digital world provided) a forum for these victims to document their abuse, and a courtroom where the abusers have been judged and found guilty by public opinion".

Of course there are problems with the internet's version of justice — it tends to play judge, jury and executioner with giddy recklessness. In the Tehelka case, the first questionable moment came when the survivor's email was tweeted and re-tweeted with no concern for her requests for anonymity. "The problem with Twitter and Facebook is the incredible and gross violations of privacy of the survivor. And otherwise responsible adults join lynch mobs calling either the survivor or the accused names, making ridiculous allegations, desperately looking for an easy narrative to hang everything on," says author Nisha Susan, who led the Pink Chaddi campaign.

Commentator Santosh Desai says that it is tough to choose between an unbridled but powerful social web and one that is cautious and governed by norms. "Earlier, there were receivers and broadcasters who were few and governed by licenses and a code of behaviour. Now everyone is a broadcaster, everyone is a circulator and everyone is an aggregator. Having no oversight here could be problematic," he says.

Susan says communities need to go beyond social media in such situations. "It should also be a time for us to reflect. On what we would do in such a situation, how we could perhaps prevent it, on the sense of entitlement powerful men have all over the world, on the awful pressures young women face. We should all be reflecting. Instead we are just re-tweeting."

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