The new year dawned for Muslim women in India with the surfacing of yet another case of online abuse against them. On January 1st, many vocal Muslim women found themselves put up for ‘auctioning’ on an app called “Bulli Bai”, an unwelcome second edition of the “Sulli Deals” app that had made news in early 2021. Hosted on GitHub, both apps contained photos of Muslim women stolen from their social media profiles and put up for ‘auction’. The women featured on the apps included journalists, activists, researchers and artists. Even though both apps were taken down, GitHub, its parent company Microsoft, Twitter and all other tech giants have remained silent on the matter, claiming that they are not obliged to share information without a court warrant. Creators of both “Sulli Deals” and “Bulli Bai” have been nabbed by the Police, with the undue delay in booking the perpetrators of the first crime perceived to have guaranteed impunity for the second. It remains to be seen if any steps to contain the larger digital ecosystem of majoritarian radicalism are taken.
The two ‘auctioning’ apps were not isolated instances of online abuse targeted at women and minorities. In early 2021, an elaborate scam that promised a Harvard job to NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan made news. A New York Times investigation published in December 2021 proved that several prominent female journalists who have made public their opinions against the Government too have been targets of this convoluted plot. Much recently, the Wire published its findings on the Tek Fog app that hijacks the trends section of social media platforms and facilitates automated sharing of extremist narratives and political campaigns.
None of this should be surprising given that our country today has a highly radicalised army of online trolls and abusers who subscribe to a very narrow alt-right ideology. An unholy nexus of corporate and technical players facilitates their highly vicious operations. Targeted hate campaigns have become the norm in the digital space and Muslim women face online abuses ranging from privacy theft to sexual exploitation on a daily basis. Trolling and doxxing are seen as the easiest means to humiliate and silence those women who dare to call out the hatred.
Experts claim that tech giants should be persuaded to adopt a proactive policy against such targeted campaigns. The current strategy of waiting for incidents of hate to occur to take action against offenders needs to go. The early stages of technology development itself should be shaped by diversity and anti-bias, such as by involving impacted communities in the cataloguing of hate speech. The fact that the creators of the ‘auctioning’ apps were able to include blatantly derogatory terms in the names of the apps hosted on GitHub point to how Western-owned online platforms need localized strategies to deal with hate in India. Discrimination and violence in the digital sphere can be prevented by developing technology that promotes counter-speech and limits virality. Technology should also be used for protection of vulnerable groups by stopping conversations from evolving into cyberbullying.
Globally, there are many examples for legislations and regulations of targeted online hate campaigns. Australia’s ‘Code of Conduct on Disinformation and Misinformation’ follows a self-regulatory approach wherein signatories commit to adopt scalable measures that reduce the spread and visibility of both disinformation and misinformation. Australia and Germany have passed the Online Safety Act, 2021, and the Network Enforcement Act, 2018, respectively. The United Kingdom published its draft Online Safety Bill in 2021. The Bill was sent to a Parliamentary Committee and the recommendations of the Committee are now being studied. These legislations are indicative of the need for stricter and all-inclusive regulations to make the cyber space safe for all sections of society. Yet, a common concern raised against all three is that they lean towards stifling of free speech, privacy and innovation.
The challenge for India is to formulate an effective regulatory mechanism that tolerates no form of abuse against any gender, caste or religious minorities while at the same time safeguarding its citizens’ freedom of speech and expression.