With the granting of bail to Neeraj Bishnoi, the alleged creator of the ‘Bulli Bai’ app, and two of his co-conspirators, all six accused in the case are now out on bail. As the case winds its way through the courts, and the app’s sordid aspects, its creators, and its supposed “purpose” fades from public view, their release on bail reminds us once again of the larger issues at stake – mainly the implications of such abusive online behaviour and its role in normalising violence against women.
The discovery of the ‘Bulli Bai’ app created a media storm. The ‘auction’ site, hosted on GitHub, a code-sharing Internet platform, was taken down and a first information report (FIR) was filed. As GitHub promised help to law enforcement the app, purporting to offer women for sale is just one more horrific example of the objectification and humiliation of women in online spaces.
French sociologist and cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term “symbolic violence” to describe a kind of non-physical violence imposed by a dominant group upon a subordinate group, while other social thinkers have shown how language can be symbolically violent in the ways it is used to sustain and impose relations of domination.
Trolling (also stalking, doxxing, sexting and cyberbullying) are all forms of symbolic violence mainly targeted at women and other subordinate/minority groups as a way to harass, dominate, and proclaim symbolic control over them.
Academic research and public discourse have noted with alarm the steady rise in the prevalence of online abuse, but media framing, government policy, and law enforcement have failed to recognise the real threat to individuals and groups that such behaviour represents.
Unenthusiastic and delayed responses, as well as a lack of follow-up and a failure to impose significant penalties for such actions, belie and diminish the serious nature of such crime. Worse, media framing, official responses, and corporate lethargy often end up throwing the responsibility for managing the harassment back onto the victims themselves.
In India, while trolling is experienced by many individuals, the bulk of the abuse and harassment – specifically including rape and death threats, and sharing of personal information (called doxxing) – is focused on women in the public sphere, and those who are perceived as somehow transgressing societal norms.
Women journalists, activists, academics, and others who speak out in certain public contexts are among those targeted on a regular basis. Death and rape threats, via private messages, trolling, doxxing and sexting in conversational threads on online forums including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media platforms mean that these women are subjected to symbolic violence regularly and relentlessly.
The private corporations that own and manage these social media sites, while quick to take credit for supposedly positive outcomes of social media use, are often less enthusiastic about curbing abusive behaviour on those same platforms citing “community guidelines” that have apparently not been violated.
Law enforcement responses often follow suit, promising to take quick action, but dragging their feet on catching and punishing the perpetrators as well as holding these corporations accountable.
Public discourse tends to create a short-lived moral panic around the issue and then retreats while suggesting to the targeted women that the trolls be “ignored” or implicitly indicating that one must accept such behaviour when one steps out into the public sphere.
These responses show how gendered violence has been normalised in the public sphere and in online spaces, reinforcing patriarchal power structures and regressive gender norms.
Media coverage is often a double-edged sword as on the one hand the women are framed as powerless and without agency, while on the other hand, it is precisely those women who speak out and show agency who are attacked for their behaviour.
British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie has shown how popular media enforces conformity to societal gender norms and often makes women complicit in that enforcement. By asking Indian women – famous or otherwise – to ignore or disregard the pervasive violent behaviour, they are being subjected to by anonymous abusers, we are silencing and forcing them to be complicit, along with us, in their own abuse.
In the present case, the fake auction site was put up for symbolic “sale” of prominent Indian Muslim women who have been visible in the public sphere for one reason or the other. While many are journalists and other prominent voices, the list of women even included a film actor and the elderly mother of a missing college student who has been in the news. The site was a copycat of a similar site set up last year, the perpetrators of which have still not been brought to book.
When actions such as these go unpunished, it emboldens others to act in similar ways as they see no negative consequences to such behaviour, and in fact, helps them achieve certain notoriety and improved status in their own extremist social media circles.
The act of offering these particular individuals, carefully chosen, for sale: women, from a minority community, active in the public sphere, shows how overlapping systems of oppression (intersectionality) converge in a deliberate and de-humanising act of symbolic violence.
All of us online – not just those who have been targeted this time, or those who have been targeted elsewhere – female and male, majority and minority, seen and unseen, need to take a stand and speak out against the threat of online violence.
We are in danger of trivialising the symbolic violence that is being perpetrated and creating a Taliban-like society – both online and offline – that penalises women for simply existing. In such a society, it’s not just women who lose, we all lose.
Sumana Kasturi has a PhD in communication, and studies media, gender, and migration. She is the author of the 2019 book Gender, Citizenship, and Identity in the Indian Blogosphere: Writing the Everyday, published by Routledge.
This article was first published on The Wire.