Online or offline: Sexual abuse and rape threats should not be dismissed

Gayatri Vinayak
·5-min read

Following the arrest of Youtubers Shubham Mishra and Umesh Dada last month for posting content containing abusive, violent language and rape threats against stand-up comedian Agrima Joshua, the Mumbai police have arrested two more people for issuing rape threats to Joshua.

The threats are in context to a show Joshua had done a year ago where she referred to what some Quora users had posted about Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s Smarak that is under construction off the coast of Mumbai. Though her takedown was on the comments and not on the ruler, she was abused online by trolls, while the café that she performed in was attacked by members of the Maharashtra Navinirman Sena (MNS) party.

A class 11 dropout, the Vadodara-based Shubham Mishra is a YouTuber who calls himself a social media influencer and activist and does nothing but spew hatred, use cuss words and derogatory language against anyone who does not follow his ideologies. His inspiration is Hindustani Bhau, another social media influencer whose claim to fame is being a 2019 Bigg Boss contestant and threatening and abusing women. Mishra, Bhau, and many like them, thrive in the adulation and encouragement they receive from their vast body of followers.

Actors, women politicians, celebrities and stand up comedians such as Agrima Joshua have been at the receiving end of vile remarks and rape threats for expressing themselves.
Actors, women politicians, celebrities and stand up comedians such as Agrima Joshua have been at the receiving end of vile remarks and rape threats for expressing themselves.

Hiding behind a vile veil

Joshua’s video has since been taken down and she has also apologised for the joke and for hurting sentiments of the followers of the leader. However, it does not end there. These incidents of online abuse and threat bring to the fore how abuse and rape threats are increasingly going online and being used as a tool to silence women, and even men, who speak out against issues or are perceived to be anti-national.

Mob mentality is rampant in India, and there has been a spike in mob-related violence across the country over the past few years. Correspondingly, there has also been a rise in violent online mobs. With widespread mobile penetration, more people are able to access the internet through their smartphones. The anonymity of the internet also allows many to abuse and threaten those who do not share their views or ideologies, without fear of any repercussion.

The internet is a powerful tool - it gives voice to many while enabling others to try and silence these voices. In a report by Amnesty International, where they studied tweets mentioning 95 Indian women politicians between March-May 2019, in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, 1 in 7 tweets that mentioned women politicians were found to be problematic or abusive in nature. The findings also revealed that women politicians who were more visible on social media received a higher proportion of threats and abuse.

Rape threats have long been used to silence those who speak a different narrative. Stand-up comedians, film actors, politicians, celebrities and even normal people have not been spared vile threats for airing their voice and opinions over religious, national or political matters, for defending rape victims, for calling out instances of misogyny or even for being connected to someone who is perceived as a threat.

Last year, director Anurag Kashyap’s daughter had received a rape threat on Instagram from a troll, who also abused Kashyap. The director, who calls himself PM Narendra Modi’s dissenter, took to Twitter to complain to the Prime Minister and filed an FIR against the troll. Actor Suchitra Krishnamoorthy responded to Kashyap’s tweet and told him that despite being a pro-Modi, she has also received many rape threats both for her daughter and herself.

More recently, Ekta Kapoor had found herself at the receiving end of multiple threats against her family, over a controversial sex scene in her web series XXX-2 involving the army, which has since been deleted. Kapoor had said that the trolls did not even spare her 71-year-old mother or her son.

The controversy revolving around actor Sushant Singh’s death has also spurred much hatred online. While Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter Shaheen Bhatt, recently shared screenshots of rape threats that she and Alia Bhatt had been receiving, actress Swastika Mukherjee, Sushant Singh’s co-star in Dil Bechara, also received rape and acid attack threats over a fake quote that was wrongly attributed to her.

In July this year, investigative journalist Rana Ayyub’s Twitter was flooded with death and rape threats, with some even reminding her of Gauri Lankesh’s fate, after she wrote posts about the killing of a 65-year-old Srinagar resident who was caught in the crossfire between militants and security personnel in Sopore.

The fight for safer platforms

Digital platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have time and again been called out for allowing a toxic environment to survive and for not being responsible for the hate and abuse that trolls spew, targeting any person whose views and ideologies do not match theirs.

While there are various provisions under the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act which prohibit online abuse, stalking and threats, they are not used as often as they should be. Many do not report such threats, are asked to ignore or remain silent or are unaware of such provisions. In some cases, even if they do report such abuse or threat, the response is not positive or is delayed.

Hence, for many, the only option remains to block or ignore the threats, which do not end. Both the perpetrators and their thousands of followers thrive and grow confident in the silence, targeting and abusing many more.

On a positive note, though, social media has also powered conversations about online sexual harassment and rape. A petition on Change.org by Indian Against Abuse against online rape culture that is thriving in the country and demanding for a safer online space for women has received more than 95,000 signatures.

The negative psychological effects of online abuse have been found to be as, and in some cases, even more, severe than physical abuse. Hence, much more needs to be done by authorities and platforms to ensure that the culture of abuse and hate does not continue to grow. Physical or online, conversations revolving around rape and threats of violence need to be taken seriously to ensure that hate does not get amplified.