Within 14 hours, the tweet had gained instant traction generating over 215,000 retweets and 555,000 likes. This resulted in a vicious trolling campaign against her on Twitter and other social media platforms – a very predictable phenomenon in the current political climate.
— Rihanna (@rihanna) February 2, 2021
The trolls called her a “Khalistani”, a “Pakistani” and what not. As a woman with a controversial opinion on Twitter, she was also subjected to slut shaming and character assassination – a rhetoric often used to shame women into submission and silence. Actor Kangana Ranaut in a series of tweets referred to her as a “porn singer” and also reduced the winner of 9 Grammy Awards to someone who can only “shake her bum cheeks and expose her ass crack”. Many trolls also dubbed her as “bar dancer”, a label that has also been used against Congress party president Sonia Gandhi in the past.
This kind of a sexist onslaught against women in positions of power is unfortunately extremely pervasive and stems from normalised misogyny. It is reflective of a societal reality wherein the greatest insult that can be meted out to a woman is by sexualising her and construing her liberation as promiscuity. Usage of such gendered insults also reinforce idealised forms of femininity – where women are supposed to be moral paragons and bereft of any sexual autonomy in order to be deserving of any respect.
Thus, labelling a woman as a “bar dancer” or a “porn singer” implies that she has the audacity to defy the gendered norm of sexual inexperience and must therefore face persecution. Highlighting this hostility towards sexually liberated women, actor Kangana Ranaut even posted a tweet wherein a pictorial comparison is made between herself and Rihanna: she is clad in a saree and appears to be worshipping whereas Rihanna is scantily dressed and is in the middle of a performance. With the tweet, she tried to perpetuate the stereotype that a ‘sanskaari’ woman should be idolised and a seemingly ‘unsanskaari’ woman deserves to be shamed and targeted.
As if such blatantly misogynistic trolling was not enough, right-wing trolls also began glorifying singer Chris Brown for assaulting Rihanna back in 2009. Disturbing images of Rihanna’s bruised and battered face from her 2009 attack started circulating on Twitter with some of the trolls justifying the violence against Rihanna by insinuating that Rihanna must have done something to instigate Brown.
In February 2009, a 19-year-old Chris Brown was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna, who was 20 years old, during a violent confrontation. Brown later pleaded guilty to the assault and was sentenced to five years of probation, community service and domestic violence counselling, in addition to a restraining order. In a 2009 interview following the attack, while discussing her traumatic experience Rihanna had mentioned that Brown allegedly threatened to kill her, “to scare” her. “All I kept thinking was, when is it going to stop?” she said. In a 2017 documentary Chris Brown: Welcome to My Life, recalling his abusive relationship with Rihanna, Brown acknowledged that “he felt like a monster” after assaulting her and that the incident would haunt him forever.
In India, such extensive online trolling involving domestic abuse is akin to the vocalisation of a culture where domestic violence is still trivialised and is often repressed in order to protect the family’s honour. The National Commission for Women registered an increase of at least 2.5 times in the number of domestic violence complaints since the imposition of the nationwide lockdown. The indiscriminate online transmission of Rihanna’s photos taken soon after her assault, has the potential to trigger flashbacks for other victims of domestic violence and could also discourage victims from reporting their abuse.
Remedies and preventive measures
India has no dedicated legislation that deals exclusively with the abuse and violence that women experience online. Provisions to deal with such aggression are scattered across laws, but the two primary legislations employed are – the Information Technology Act, 2000 (ITA) and the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC). Women facing online harassment can resort to Section 506 of the IPC which deals with criminal intimidation by anonymous communication and covers online trolls within its ambit. Other penal provisions such as Section 66E of the IT Act, Section 354A and Section 354D of the IPC are also effective alternatives to combat sexual harassment through electronic communication.
According to American psychologist John Suler online environments unleash aspects of our personality that we normally keep under guard – a phenomenon he referred to as the “online disinhibition effect.” By being able to conceal their identities, abusers online are not only able to avoid accountability for their actions but also dissociate their online selves from their real-world selves. Since online platforms do not facilitate an inter-personal interaction, abusers tend to see their victims as faceless, imaginary cutouts devoid of any real emotions and unworthy of empathy.
Since today’s children are raised in the social media limelight, it is very important to teach them how to develop an online identity that does not compromise their moral compass in the absence of normal social cues. Psychological interventions in the form of inhibition training, empathy training and cognitive bias modification are effective in rectifying one’s online conduct and can help prevent the inception of trolls and cyberbullies of the future.
Considering how women in India are daily subjected to rape threats and other forms of sexualised verbal abuse online, the question we must all ask ourselves is – why aren’t we talking about this enough to foster any real change?
Aaratrika Bhaumik is a final-year student at National Law University Odisha.
Featured image credit: Reuters