While Indians are scandalised by the latest Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, it wasn’t surprising for internet nerds. People who spend most of their time interacting with strangers online are not just aware of these facts, but have used it to remain within their own circles since the genesis of the internet. Countering mass platforms has been a closely held tenet to escape surveillance by the state, which is now being actively supported by giant tech businesses. Techies have been creating unregulated, unsupervised spaces on the internet, a phenomenon now termed ‘splinternet‘.
Online privacy in these spaces is a much deeper concept than just personal identity. It is not simply a set of tools – it’s disclosure. Information is kept encrypted in many ways which are invisible to an untrained eye. Interactions are driven by symbolism and signalling which is only known to the people for whom the communication is designed. In mainstream online media, this takes the form of the “meme”, which means “imitate” in Greek and “same” in French. Through establishing a format, messages can be propagated to large audiences without explaining their complex background.
How internet messaging with strangers can get sinister is well portrayed in the 2019 Netflix documentary about a serial killer, Don’t F*ck With Cats. It is a sordid saga of a young man becoming an exhibitionist killer on the web. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.
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Exhibitionism has become a serious problem online, where men are deriving sadistic pleasure from exposing others to shocking visuals. This goes beyond websites like 4Chan where users are mostly participating with consent. Protected by anonymity and same-interest groups, there are sections of men online who feel justified in their stance to attack chosen victims. In mainstream social media, it has taken the form of d*ck pics and dubious links that are sometimes disturbing videos of men harming themselves. For women in India, this onslaught intensified after the 2015 porn ban.
This spectacle of our society is mainly a crisis of women being viewed as a sexual commodity; requiring a critique of sex work which goes beyond its decriminalisation and monetisation. After all, Facebook was a website to stalk hot women and hence its rejection of our humanity through programming is not exactly a fresh discovery. The original Facebook investors are now launching a new platform, ominously titled ‘Telepath’ with the motto “be kind”. Realising their errors as the analog world devolves into chaos for what they built online is just the beginning of the tech world’s politics of recuperation.
In India, we are seeing an escalation of this behaviour in the news too. Videos and photographs of shootings, lynchings, women bashing are uploaded mostly by men on the web and get re-shared by millions within minutes. The element of shock is necessary to catch the user’s attention, and so often the victim is from a community facing political persecution. There is no journalistic integrity exercised in these cases. The brutality of the crime is the only focus. And unfortunately, in a world where people feel voyeuristic pleasure in watching violence committed on their imagined enemy, this is fodder for their most gruesome fantasies.
Attempts by platforms to control visual violence through sensitivity warnings has been in vain. Most times, these warnings only act as censorship on content shared by activists or are incorrectly applied to harmless, artistic visuals.
At the same time, mass conversations are being easily swayed by people creating malicious trends and hashtags. Online awareness campaigns like ‘Suicide Prevention Month’ are being used by many men to desensitise their audiences. Men who feel ignored in the conversation around mental health, use incredibly provocative images to express their suicidal thoughts during such campaigns, while blaming rejection from women as the primary precursor. Which begs the question – how much longer can we view the sharing of such content as a coping mechanism, and how much it is a public health crisis magnified because of social media.
Since platforms continue favouring men through community guidelines, men’s control on these conversations is by design. Facebook especially is dominated by male programmers and any accounts or actions considered ‘misandry’ are promptly banned on all its platforms as ‘hate speech’. People speaking against the government are only now experiencing this censorship, which has been enforced on women by these platforms for years. I am personally banned from a few dating apps too, where men reported me for my feminist views, in private conversations with them.
Eventually what keeps getting ignored are the men behind such manipulative manoeuvres, who are disparagingly referred to as ‘incels’. These are men who believe in male supremacist ideologies of female subjugation, and argue that they are disadvantaged by the rise in the number of empowered women. These men continue to propagate the belief that they are entitled to sexual and romantic satisfaction from others. And they further claim intellectual superiority by the virtue of their “superior male brain”. Ironically, they are unable to deduce the need to build their own self-esteem for espousing such violent, authoritarian ideas – instead using outdated Freudian theories to justify their hostile actions against the few women who remain active online.
As a woman engineer, I can attest to the widespread prevalence of male supremacist ideologies in the scientific community. On Indian campuses and in research labs, men continue to snub and sabotage women through bullying. Women in science are subjected to daily harassment belittling their intelligence, and they simply learn to live with it.
In fact, over the past year of writing for LiveWire, I have had many such experiences where young men challenge me to a war of wits through anonymous accounts, to test my knowledge on digital media. Deliberately portraying their self-diagnosed mental illness and lack of sexual activity as a crutch, they invade women’s spaces demanding answers to theory and guidance for their personal lives. There is no real face behind these accounts, so no way of confrontation with the actual perpetrator who uses fear and invisibility to their advantage.
People who have intensified introversion into isolation can be easily found in the gaming and digital content communities. These men are increasingly distancing themselves from non-sexual, non-romantic interactions with women. Therefore, the alienation of men in their own bubble of masculinity remains, as they refuse to gently venture into women’s spaces that are completely different in its values and ethos.
This isolation has only been magnified with the pandemic, with a drastic decrease in physical encounters. Misogyny is such a deeply inculcated tenet of fascism in educated men, that it is women who have to take the burden of becoming men’s allies for the benefit of their own gender rights movement. And it is women programmers who are now leading user studies which demonstrate the racial bias in AI and pushing legal interventions for sex workers for these platforms which are mainly based out of the US.
The growing dialogue on sexuality and queer rights by men is not bereft of this misogyny. There are many accounts of how misogyny is perpetrated by queer men, written by femme presenting trans people. Drag queens on the internet are subjected to some of the most hateful, coordinated cyberbullying by queer men who have internalised this gender based bigotry. Ultimately, this shows that the understanding of gender roles has not transformed significantly in the queer community. Cis-men who expect a woman to be the nurturer, continue to relegate our usefulness only to the kitchen or the bedroom.
Meanwhile, the bullies are taking advantage of their literacy in the ‘woke’ narrative. They create devastating ways of suppressing women’s voices by stealing their private content. Through plagiarism and co-opting feminist dialogue, they continue to take away agency from women. This is 21st century intellectualism that deems women too low in intelligence to credit and engage with, meaningfully. This is why some of the largest feminist accounts on the internet are actually run by cis-men, further perpetrating the male gaze. Yet the men in tech fail to recognise this patent crisis of toxic-masculinity enacted as a school of thought on the internet.
Also read: Lessons I Learnt Outside the Classroom
The ‘incels’ hiding behind a screen are extremely specific about the information they choose to disclose when committing illegal or unethical acts. Anonymity gives them a license to do whatever is considered unacceptable in a civilised society. The success of an exhibitionist lies in making the unseen, seen. Therefore the more that is expected to be hidden in society, the better is the opportunity for the reveal.
What the internet exhibitionist desires by revealing humanity’s most intimate and fragile occurrences to the public is a moment of reckoning they have been denied in their personal lives because of trauma and shame. The increasing suppression of transparency in Indian society and unnecessary bans on apps is therefore only exacerbating women’s issues online. Since we are being programmed by the algorithm to exist within familiar spaces, women have to create safety for ourselves by limiting our digital actions. Think twice before clicking on unknown links or accepting message requests from strangers. This further reduces our reach – that is if we are not shadow banned already.
So my message is to the techies who can not see the obvious flaws in the genesis of their sexist designs – you have fed a system that ignores the ugliest aspects of our society, because you have not understood how fragile masculinity begins establishing itself online, by committing violence on women. It does not take a lot for misogyny to transform into a profound hatred of the ‘other’ and manifest itself as conspiracy theories or mass hysteria. It is a design logic that magnifies distrust in the guise of privacy, and keeps pushing men further into isolation.
And to any ‘incel’ reading this, if you can, please switch off your device and go meet more women without a purpose. Engage in dating and courtship old school style, with dignity and patience. You will find the shock value of nourishing human interaction infinitely more satisfying. Perhaps it is only your own mind which makes you believe that you have to hide behind anonymity to be seen as worthy. And the algorithm that your ‘bros’ designed which further reinforces it.
Sumedha writes to highlight the need for non-conformity and for practical politics free of labels. She is also a certified cat lady.