Taking a step back

No Title Illustration Taking A Step Back Pranisha

A 2014 Pew Research Study found that of the people who took steps to address online harassment, 13% changed their usernames or deleted their profiles, 10% withdrew from an online forum, and 8% stopped attending certain offline events or places.

While these may seem like really negative outcomes of harassment (and in many ways they are), they also represent some of the choices and decisions made in the face of persistent or threatening online abuse.

Taking a step back can range from slightly adjusting what you talk about, to taking a social media hiatus, to disconnecting from interactive portions of the internet.

I have had people coming and sending me messages like 'I hope your snotty nose children end up turning into lousy failures in life' over email and [blog] comments. The negativity plays on your mind […]. Do you want the bad vibes directed to your children? Do you really need such negativity in your life? So I have stopped writing about current affairs. Each one of these incidents made me realise that I should not invest in so much.

- Trishna, interviewed for Don’t Let It Stand

Taking a step back, in whatever way works for you at the time, has a lot to do with self-preservation. It is a completely valid and understandable response to abuse – and you should never feel guilty for doing it.

When 24-year-old blogger Agratha Dinakaran wrote a blog post accusing Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan of plagiarising content from a speech by JK Rowling, she was entirely unprepared for the shitstorm that was about to be unleashed.

Fans took to Twitter and spread the link to her personal blog far and wide. They then flocked to both her blog and Twitter profile in rage.

She writes of the incident,

It seemed to give wings to the desperate Shahrukh fans who really couldn't figure out a way to defend their idol. Instead of logically arguing with me on Twitter, I had fans who splashed that link all across Twitter while spewing all kinds of inappropriate words at me.

While many abusers deleted their tweets after the media’s coverage of the backlash, she managed to screenshot two of the ‘kinder’ ones.

Abusive tweet that says 'I'll make sure she eats her own shit before the controversy fizzles out. She enjoyed the fame part. Let her enjoy this too'.
Abusive tweet that says 'Don't ever come to Bangalore and talk about King Khan again. We SRK fans know your address.

Credit: MeLaNGe, Agratha's personal blog

I could only take in so much, and after a point, I ended up having a nervous breakdown. I have never been subjected to hate in such a heinous manner before and somehow, I couldn't cope with this kind of bullying. I apparently wasn't strong as I thought I was, and I was suddenly filled with fear.

Agratha deleted her Facebook account after someone sent her a message detailing a family member’s workplace address. She couldn’t leave the house for ages due to incessant threats, and was constantly worried for her family members and friends.

I probably faced less than 1% of cyberbullying than most other victims around the world did. But that was bad enough for me. Enough for me to go into "digital hiding". Enough for me to stay locked inside my house. Enough for me to experience, for the first time, to fear for my life.

Agratha feels the hardest lesson she learned was about free speech.

The experience was painful and harrowing but it was more depressing to learn that this is what free speech in this country means […]. It means that if you lend your support to anything that is morally right but remotely controversial, you will be forced into silence.

Today, she’s cautiously making her way back online, but like many others, she closely guards what she does.

I’m trying to put it behind me, and moving on. Still, I am cautious about where I go, what I do online and try to protect as much as information about myself that I can.

Takeaway

After facing large volumes of abuse (and sometimes all it takes is one bad stretch), women and gender minorities often become more strategic about how they share their information and data, and with whom. How much to say, how to say it, and whether to be on social media platforms at all are questions many of us grapple with.

Some topics seem to attract particularly high levels of abuse online. In 2011, British writer Helen Lewis wrote in the New Statesman,

On the whole, I’ve managed to avoid the worst threats and misogyny that other women writers endure but I don’t think that’s luck or because my opinions are well-argued. I think it’s because, very early on, I became conscious of how my opinions would be received and began watering them down, or not expressing them at all. I noticed that making feminist arguments led to more abuse and, as a result, I rarely wrote about feminism at all.

Seven years later, feminism is still a topic that seemingly accrues the worst types of online hate.

A 2015 article in the Washington Post speaks about the mental and emotional costs of online abuse for feminists. Some have taken several steps away from the interwebs as a result of this personal toll.

In 2013, when American pro-choice activist Jaclyn Munson wrote about going undercover at an anti-abortion pregnancy centre, she began to receive numerous death threats from a stalker. A year and a ton of threats later, she pretty much gave up publishing her writing online and deleted her Twitter account. She explains,

It was just becoming really emotionally overwhelming to be on the front lines all the time.

For many women and gender minorities, speaking on the Internet really is like being on the front lines of a war, in which the battle scars are sometimes too much to bear.

Emily McCombs is the executive director of young feminist website xojane, ‘where women go to be their unabashed selves’. Specialising in raw, first-person narratives, xojane is a beautiful project – but one where not many writers last. As Emily explains in an interview with the Washington Post,

We bring someone here, we develop them, they are able to make their name and their brand online, and the first chance they get they go somewhere safer, like print. Part of that is definitely not being able to handle the harassment […]. I’ve watched a lot of women in this industry burn out.

Namrata, interviewed for Don’t Let It Stand, talks about her early days of blogging, when she ran a blog tracing the history of a feminist movement. The blog had very few readers, but it was here that she received ‘three explicit rape threats [where they spoke about] hunting me down and raping me, slitting my throat and raping me.’ She says of her experiences across the Internet,

Talking about rape means that people say you deserve rape.

Following these threats, Namrata shut down her blog, and only re-entered online public platforms much later.

Feministe is one of the oldest feminist blogs around, and after years of relentless abuse, its creator Lauren Bruce no longer has any online presence at all.

I had to completely cut that part off in order to live the rest of my life. In order to work, have a nice family and feel like I was emotionally whole, I could not have one foot planted in a toxic stew.

Takeaway

Feminists face tons of online abuse for voicing their opinions, and their decisions to leave online spaces, like those of other women and gender minorities, are often linked to self-preservation and emotional wellbeing.

Twitter is a super public platform where pretty much everything you say is visible to pretty much everybody else, for better or worse. So it’s no surprise that many women online feel they need a break - either temporary or permanent - from the harassment they face on Twitter.

News presenter Sagarika Ghose, who used to be very vocal on Twitter on a range of political subjects, for a while decided to stick to tweets about programmes on her news channel. She explains,

This is the social media version of gang-rape. They threaten you with rape and public stripping and beating. They are brave when anonymous, and hunt in packs.

But if privileged women who are outspoken are at considerable risk of being harassed on Twitter, the cost of being vocal is many times higher for those who occupy several marginalised identities at once.

In 2018, Kashmiri human rights activist, Shehla Rashid, announced that she would be leaving Twitter permanently, not returning for the foreseeable future.

Like many activists, Shehla was quite active on the platform. She would regularly tweet her own thoughts about the political landscape, share interesting factual and opinion pieces, and retweet crowdfunding requests for those in need. All this, to over 4,20,000 followers.

Yet, without fail, her every online move would be received by a constant barrage of Islamophobic and misogynistic hate that would arrive like clockwork.

I literally wake up to thousands of toxic comments every day that drain my energy even before I start my day. ... It affects my sense of self-worth. It makes me feel drained even if I have slept for 8 hours.

Even simple tweets about pop culture would be fair game for her dedicated abusers. A national debate (more like a 'national altercation') about Islamic liberalism in India and Kashmir broke out because of a sweet message Shehla had posted about popular Irish singer Shuhada' Davitt (previously Sinead O'Connor).

Shehla said about her decision to leave Twitter,

Everyone gets trolled, isn't it? I should grow a thick skin, ignore, block, etc. But here's the thing. I'm a real person, and I want to remain human.

But since 'the stakes are high', as she puts it, leaving is not an easy decision either.

And after a break of several weeks, Shehla decided to return to Twitter after all. Thanking her followers for their warm support, she is now once again a powerful online presence as an activist and organiser. More power to you, Shehla.

Actress Kelly Marie Tran – the first woman of colour to play a leading character in Star Wars – found herself in a similar situation as Shehla. Her standout role as Rose Tico helped her gain thousands of fans, but unfortunately also brought her a torrent of racist and sexist abuse.

Several weeks after silently deleting all her Twitter and Instagram posts, she wrote a moving op-ed in the New York Times, in which she says,

I want to live in a world where women are not subjected to scrutiny for their appearance, or their actions, or their general existence. I want to live in a world where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings. This is the world I want to live in. And this is the world that I will continue to work toward.

Kelly's Twitter and Instagrams are still up. Both are inactive, but her simple and fierce bio for each speaks volumes about her path going forward.

Afraid, but doing it anyway. 🦁

Takeaway

Those who occupy several marginalised identities at once are often faced with even more abuse than more privileged women, and taking a step back can be a crucial strategy in dealing with the fallout of that abuse.

Taking a step back doesn’t only mean censoring yourself or disconnecting. Apart from being about a good, healthy dose of self-care, it can also entail leaving abusive spaces to find or create friendlier, warmer spaces for interaction.

So while there’s nothing new about newsletters, what’s interesting is how many have turned to them in recent times. As of 2014, newsletter platform TinyLetter (owned by MailChimp) had 1,26,117 users worldwide, and a slowly increasing number of newer users who are women.

Kate Kiefer Lee, content manager for MailChimp, says,

TinyLetter feels like a safe space […]. You know who’s on your list, and you don't have to post your newsletters publicly.

Writer Sarah Galo started a weekly TinyLetter about her everyday experiences, mainly because of the intimacy and personal connections it enabled. She writes in the Guardian,

The act of sitting down each Sunday to collect my thoughts and share them with my subscribers, who I consider a community, is grounding.

Newsletters are slowly becoming popular amongst South Asian women as ways to reach out to friends and audiences online as well. Nidsitis, a writer and poet, was surprised by the response received by her online newsletter on 'food, poetry and thoughts'. She tells us that,

... I have always felt [that a] newsletter can be a distant idea of a community. But my own experience has changed this idea. People write back with warmth, kindness and reflection. That is wonderful to have in the internet world.

Newsletters are also a great space for marginalised groups of women. Writer and sex worker Charlotte Shane recalls,

When I had my blog, I – particularly from men – got a lot of emails that were really, really presumptuous and sort of acted like we had a relationship because they had read what I wrote.

But on her newsletter, Post Prostitute, things are different.

The feedback is overwhelmingly sensitive and undemanding and mercifully somewhat rare, too. Which is probably the greatest compliment of all – people just keep reading with just a few encouraging and grateful words here and there but without trying to strike up extended one-on-one correspondence about it.

In this way, moving away from public platforms to the more intimate space of newsletters allows the fostering of communities that are supportive and genuinely interested in each other's words and ideas. True, these spaces are much smaller, but many say they prefer smaller, engaged readerships.

(Many of the examples in this section have been taken from ‘Are Newsletters the Internet’s New Safe Space for Women?’, an article by Lyz Lenz for The Cut)

Takeaway

Newsletters have become an important and more intimate way for women to express themselves and foster engaged, encouraging communities.

In Summary

Taking a step back

  • Taking a step back is an important means of self-preservation in the face of abuse.
  • This can entail changing what you say, how you say it, or which platforms you choose to be on.
  • Aside from being careful about what they say online, folks are also learning to guard their data and information closely.
  • Those who occupy multiple marginalised identities at once are often subject to particularly aggressive online abuse, and many are taking various steps back from online engagement to deal with this.
  • Feminists, too, frequently resort to such strategies, and for similar reasons.
  • Because Twitter, in particular, can be a really vicious space, it’s not uncommon for women and other minorities to take breaks – either temporary or permanent – from the platform.
  • Newsletters have become an important and intimate way for women and gender minorities to express themselves online.