Opinion | Come back to Twitter Shehla Rashid
After she deactivated her account, Rashid wrote in Huffington Post that the organized hate on Twitter was crushing her spirit
It’s easy to understand why Shehla Rashid left Twitter last week. As American writer, comedian and activist Lindy West summed it up in an article recently: “Being on Twitter felt like being in a non-consensual BDSM relationship with the apocalypse. So, I left." In another piece West said: “I have to conclude, after half a decade of troubleshooting, that it may simply be impossible to make this platform usable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators."
Rashid ticks every box on the A-list targets of the organized Twitter troll army: Woman, articulate, popular, political, Kashmiri, Muslim, Jawaharlal Nehru University graduate and, of course, anti-establishment. Like many digitally savvy women in the public eye, until now she had this on her resume: Survived rape threats and brutal verbal abuse on Twitter for years.
After she deactivated her account, Rashid wrote in Huffington Post that the organized hate on Twitter was crushing her spirit. “Everyday, I wake up and instead of doing something productive I read these abusive comments. This demotivates me, drains me, affects me psychologically. It changes how you are as a person." Rashid has been trolled by all kinds of groups, including those who position themselves as liberals.
In an interview with online news outlet Scroll she said Twitter has enabled a perfect ecosystem for hate. “No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath," she added. Within seconds the “instant abuse" flooded her timeline regardless of the content of her tweets.
If you search for “Shehla Rashid left" on Twitter, you’ll see that her departure hasn’t stemmed the abuses. In the modern-day battle between love and hate that’s playing out across the world, the dark side increasingly has a clear advantage on this microblogging platform.
How can there be any serious deterrent to the vicious attacks when prime minister Narendra Modi himself follows Twitter handles that abuse, among others, prominent female journalists such as Sagarika Ghose, Barkha Dutt and Rana Ayyub?
Ghose continues to use Twitter to engage with her readers despite vicious personal attacks on her family and a couple of death threats. She has complained to the police on two occasions—about a death threat to her and a gang rape threat to her daughter that named her school and its timings. “I used to get terribly sad, cry, spend days in depression but I have gotten over it now," she says.
Ayyub has similar horror stories. In April when someone morphed her image in a porn video, she was scared and disgusted. “Every third tweet was a screenshot of that video. It took a toll on me, I just wanted to leave, I almost pressed the delete button but did not. I feared if I tweet again, somebody would tweet the screenshot of the video in response. I took a break, stayed off Twitter for a month and deleted the app from my phone," she says, adding that the hate is amplified every time she posts on Muslims, lynchings, hate crimes and discrimination.
Like all women who are routinely attacked on Twitter, Ghose has her favoured techniques to immunize herself against the hate. She tweets less; doesn’t fight with strangers; blocks 10-15 accounts a day (“by now I have blocked all the really poisonous ones"); uses the mute button liberally (“the person disappears fast"); and focuses on using the forum to “constructively engage with those who hold a different opinion". A spokesperson says that in the last year, Twitter has made more than 50 individual changes to its product, policies, and operations and increased its “action rates" ten-fold. But despite these multiple tweaks Twitter hasn’t yet been able to effectively shift the onus of dealing with hate from the person who is being abused to the platform.
Like most of us, Ghose has, over the years, modified her Twitter voice. “I used to constantly engage, argue, fight my corner, but I have learned to pick my battles now," she says, adding that she focuses on majoritarian nationalism, media ethics, justice for women and propagating liberal values.
A damning 2018 Amnesty International report titled “Toxic Twitter—A Toxic Place For Women" highlights how women’s voices are being silenced on this platform. “Twitter’s inadequate response to violence and abuse against women is leading women to self-censor what they post, limit or change their interactions online, or is driving women off the platform altogether," the report says, adding that this can have “far-reaching and harmful repercussions on how younger women, women from marginalized communities, and future generations fully exercise their right to participate in public life and freely express themselves online."
Amnesty said Twitter had a human rights responsibility to be transparent in how it is dealing with reports of violence and abuse on the platform. Twitter’s steps to improve women’s experiences on the platform are insufficient to tackle the scale and nature of violence and abuse, the report added.
Yet for many of us, Twitter is an indispensable professional tool. The New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman who covers Donald Trump for the paper said earlier this year that after nearly nine years, Twitter no longer worked for her. “Twitter is now an anger video game for many users. It is the only platform on which people feel free to say things they’d never say to someone’s face. For me, it had become an enormous and pointless drain on my time and mental energy," the political reporter wrote in July.
Of course it’s not that easy to leave if you track a president who routinely breaks news on Twitter, and about a month later, Haberman returned to Twitter and trolling.
The dilemma for most is that Twitter can work in favour of women like no other social platform. The #MeToo movement that shook modern day gender equations was born, and thrived, on this social network. There’s no other platform quite like Twitter to say your piece. It’s a world where a hashtag can actually be the first step to big change.
Women are trolled on Twitter precisely because of the power their direct-to-the-world words wield on this medium. “In the weeks of the #MeToo campaign, Twitter felt cathartic. It became a democratic space where one could speak without fear of gatekeepers," Ayyub says.
“I think the reason why I am so ruthlessly trolled is because my presence bothers them, my work is affecting them. An outspoken Muslim women hurts them more than others. How dare I speak?" she adds.
She’s right you know. It’s okay if you need a break from the abuse. You can change your settings to block out the vitriol and keep telling the world what you think. Come back to Twitter, Shehla Rashid.
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