The UN’s Human Rights body issued a statement on Thursday urging the Indian government to protect independent journalist Rana Ayyub from a sustained online hate campaign. Ayyub has been at the receiving end of intense abuse ever since she published Gujarat Files, a 2016 book where she used secretly recorded interviews that implicated bureaucrats and politicians of complicity in aggravating the 2002 Gujarat riots. Two days before the UN’s statement, Ayyub had written an op-ed for the New York Times describing the torrent of abuse that she regularly faces — everything from WhatsApp messages urging people to gang-rape her to outright death threats.
On Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, fake quotes attributed to Ayyub circulated, professing hate for India and support for child rapists. There was even a fake pornographic video circulated claiming to be of her, Ayyub said, forcing her to file an FIR to try and stop it from spreading on social media.
The UN’s independent experts, who issued the statement, urged the government to protect journalists, even those that are critical of them. “We have previously urged the authorities in India to take active steps to reverse a political climate that, in recent years, has become increasingly polarised and hostile, especially to the media and those exercising the freedom of expression,” they said in the statement.
Our take: What’s going on, Twitter?
When Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative provocateur, posted tweets that contributed to abuse of actress Leslie Jones on Twitter, she received a phone call from Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO. Dorsey apologized for what she went through, and Yiannopoulos’s account was permanently banned.
Meanwhile in India, if WhatsApp and Facebook are the end-points of abuse of and misinformation about journalists and critics of the government, Twitter is where that abuse attains legitimacy. Take people like Abhishek Mishra, a social media adviser for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Just last week, Mishra quote-tweeted the UN’s statement on Ayyub, and said that if she feels unsafe, she should just leave the country, adding that “if she lives in Islamic country then she pack inside Burqa,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Mishra is verified on Twitter, and in April, bragged about cancelling an Ola cab because the driver was a Muslim. Mishra remains on Twitter.
Or take @RepubIicTv (where the lowercase ‘L’ has been substituted for an uppercase ‘i’). This handle, which despite being thoroughly unfunny and repeatedly spreading fake news, called itself a parody. Even if you have a taste for the likes of Faking News, ‘parody’ is a bit of a stretch. @RepubIicTv was responsible for the fake quote attributed to Ayyub supporting child rapists. Despite this handle consistently spreading falsehood after falsehood that people fell for (it wasn’t even in compliance with Twitter’s bare-minimum rules on fan or parody accounts), it remained active. The handle was voluntarily deactivated by whoever ran it, after Twitter passed on multiple policy violations and let it stay.
The infiltration of legitimized trolling in Twitter is deep — even the trending list for India has been hijacked by organized political trolls. While a Twitter India representative has repeated international talking points on bot removal statistics, little has been done to contain the continual and ceaseless abuse that journalists like Rana Ayyub face. Sometimes the company even invites prominent political figureheads who encourage this culture of abuse on their handles onto a series of panel discussions called #TweeSurfing that it holds in partnership with the Centre for Social Research.
Leslie Jones’s highest-profile attacker was permanently suspended in a matter of days. He had over 100,000 followers. Ayyub, and others like her, have faced abuse for years. Whether Twitter is complicit, or lacks spine, or is unwilling to dedicate resources to shield them from abuse is irrelevant. The end result is the same — that Twitter users in different parts of the world have different levels of security and protection from abuse. And that discrimination does not favour critics of the government.