December 16, 2018

Nothing ‘virtual’ about the impact of abuse in the virtual world

By Talal Raza and Annam Lodhi

“Digital threats are real. They not only have psychological implications but also physical implications.”

This is what a digital security trainer stated with while he was delivering training at a local hotel. As these remarks were made, the expressions on the face of the participants made it clear that they did not completely buy this argument. At the end of the day, for many of the human rights activists and journalists, the question is, how can an online threat physically hurt them?

The real damage of online abuse

For Rana Ayuub, the digital threats did have implications for her psychological and physical well being. As an Indian Muslim and an “anti-establishment” journalist, she has always been the target of the online abuse for her work. As she noted in her article: “People have called me ‘the most abused woman in India’. If I even put one full stop on Twitter, I get a thousand replies.”

However, things began to change for worse in April 2018. When an 8-year-old girl was raped and murdered in Jammu and Kashmir, Rana was invited to speak on BBC and Al-Jazeera. Since the local politicians affiliated with right wing Bhartia Janta Party [BJP] were rallying around the accused and claiming that the rape charges were framed because he was Hindu, Rana took a firm stand against the accused while talking to international media. She noted that India was bringing shame to itself by standing with the rape accused.

This did not go down well with the BJP’s cyber trolls. They stared off with a series of fake tweets that were posted in her name. However, the trolls did not stop here. They also began to circulate deep-fake pornographic clip online involving Rana Ayyub. In simpler terms, ‘deep-faking’ involves superimposing images or facial expression of Rana Ayyub onto the face of the person in the actual pornographic video. Rana got to know about this clip after an anonymous source within BJP sent her the video clip.

Not only that, somebody also shared her number online with a message “Hi! This is my number, I am available here”.

Unsurprisingly, afterwards, she received many messages asking for her ‘rates’.

All this took a toll on her physical and mental health. She was hospitalized, experiencing hypertension and other physical symptoms of stress.

The act of targeting women who are politically vocal and dare to dissent is not limited to India. Parallels can be found in Pakistan.

The dirty side of online political campaigning

Renowned journalist Asma Sherazi became the victim of the cyber bullies in July 2018. She was travelling with other foreign journalists and covering the return of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz [PMLN] leader Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz to present themselves for arrest in corruption cases. After the political leaders were arrested, the next day a series of carefully edited video clips began circulating on social media showing a “leaked” conversation between Nawaz Sharif and Asma Sherazi. While there was no doubt about the authenticity of the video, the conversation did not happen in secret [as alleged] but in front of many Pakistani and foreign journalists as they interviewed Nawaz Sharif. Along with this “leaked” video being circulated with a fabricated context, other false notions related to her began to circulate on social media as well.


When the video began circulating, she faced a wave of online trolling and was being framed as if she was a ‘paid stooge of the PML-N leader’.

“It is very painful [still] and was too [at that time too]. I have never faced online harassment before this incident. This was a very well coordinated campaign against me, since 13 July and continues to this day” said Asma while talking to DRM, “It felt for the first time that curses are worse than a bullet. I was faced by all types of fake news, abused and faced character accusation on all social media and even WhatsApp”.

The double victimization of survivors of harassment

Tanzila Mazhar, a journalist and an anchorperson, faced severe online abuse after she took a stand against sexual harassment within her former organization Pakistan Television Network [PTV]. She filed a complaint against then Current Affair Director with PTV management. Talking to DRM she shared that she was maligned through fake accounts, fake screen shots when she came forward with the harassment complaint that she filed within PTV.

“Whenever a woman is targeted, she is targeted for her looks and appearance”, says Tanzila.

“It is easy to focus on women’s looks, bodies and character while completely ignoring the merit of what she is saying”, said Sadaf Khan, co-founder/director, Media Matters for Democracy, “The patriarchal system that we live in benefits from reducing women to a bare minimum. So even when a female journalist or an activist is under attack for her work, the abuse will be sexualized and focused on objectifying her”.

As many as 93% of women journalists who participated in a self-censorship focused research by Media Matters for Democracy said that it was ‘important’ to self-censor and seven in ten said that self censoring made them feel safer. As the gender ratio within the media and the development sectors demonstrate, women are already unable to participate equally in journalistic and political discourses. The silencing and chilling effect of online abuse on women shows a double-bind situation, which leaves women voices further marginalized.

Written by

Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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