PIF Grantee Spotlight: Dr. Shilpi Jha on what it’s like researching online trolls and harassment targeting women in India

A recipient of the 2023 Platform Impacts Fund (PIF) research grant, Dr. Shilpi Jha is investigating the ‘Blurring lines of virtual-real threats on Facebook and Twitter: A Study of Policies, Products and Change in Women’s Social Behaviour and Expressions across Languages in India’.  

In an interview with Dr. Shilpi Jha we captured her experience as a researcher documenting and investigating online gender-based abuse and its systematic weaponization in the Indian context. “It’s been nothing short of a rollercoaster; every interviewee comes with their own trauma. One of the most demanding tasks as a researcher is the need to remain neutral, but as a human it is hard not to get drawn into their stories. These stories remain with me; I continue to reflect about our interactions long after the interviews end. It is imperative to remain patient and understanding”. 

She identifies her research participants through social listening, content analysis, and snowball sampling. Other research criteria are that these women have a minimum of 5000 followers on Facebook and/or Twitter, and have faced constant trolling on platforms that has translated at least once into threat to their physical safety. These participants represent diverse regions in India, faiths, castes, and age groups. Participants are working professionals from various fields who have chosen Facebook and/or Twitter to voice their opinions on issues ranging from religious hatred and casteism to gender discrimination and cases of violation of democratic rights in India. So far, Dr Jha and her team have interviewed forty-one women across ten languages.  Dr. Jha’s data collection goes beyond just documenting cases of online harassment and disinformation. The findings from this study will provide analysis to better understand broader societal consequences and long-term impacts of systemic platform-wide gender-based violence. 

Dr. Jha shared a peek into some of the stories she has come across. “For several participants the trolling has deeply impacted their career prospects. For instance, a journalist lost assignments because her editor knew she was being harassed online by a community of trolls, and that popular sentiment was against her. Similarly, a popular singer recounts having lost her position as a judge on a reality show after she named two of her male counterparts during the #MeToo movement.  For some that are still recovering, recounting their experiences is stressful but a necessary outlet for venting and sharing. Several interviewees have revealed that they have come across their trolls socially on many occasions and in most cases, the same people bullying them online have shown warmth and even apologised for their online behaviour. In one such case, an internationally famed athlete and social media influencer recounted that several of her trolls confessed to bullying her merely to seek her attention and initiate a one-on-one conversation with her”. 

Gendered-based online violence and harassment in India is already a topic gaining researcher attention. Existing reports about politically motivated trolling in India indicate that trolls are either hired or are groups of volunteers, usually with a hidden political agenda. Professional trolls come together to perform a range of tasks online, from working to get topics to ‘trend’ – ensuring high numbers of likes, shares, and comments for posts by certain individuals – to coordinated efforts of attack, abuse, and silencing opposing opinions. Dr. Jha explains that platforms are designed to favour mob mentality, sidelining the merit of the content before taking it down. Her research so far indicates that moral policing and slut shaming through systematic trolling is targeted mostly towards women that are highly active on social media. Research participants further explained that misogyny is blatant, and trolls are becoming very sophisticated at operating across platforms. These findings are in line with another research titled ‘Gendered Disinformation and Online Abuse as a Political Weapon in India since 2014’.  

“Women are subject to obscene content, nudity, and sometimes worse in direct messages. Unfortunately, none of this content is being blocked by the platforms. Perpetrators use a mix of native words and roman script to circumvent any automatic content removals,” revealed Dr. Jha. “In many cases, women feel let down by social media policies. Even those with a hundred thousand followers or more are hesitant to lodge formal complaints with the platforms because they are afraid it will be of no use.”  Dr. Jha further elaborated that, “platforms enable trolls in India to operate as nameless and faceless entities. Most participants voice the belief that platforms have very sophisticated technology to sense threats to users and curate content accordingly. However, there is simply a lack of intention to use the existing technology to stop trolls and gendered violence”.  

Several participants have admitted to seeking professional counselling and even therapy following the harassment. Most have decided to limit their platform presence and avoid talking about issues that may lead to online social lynching. They also carefully avoid exposing their family and friends on their handles fearing it may lead to them being trolled as well. Dr. Jha cautions that this incessant trolling doesn’t just harm the women being targeted, it has an impact on the platforms as well. When these women limit their platform presence, the platforms invariably lose their perspectives and insight, which diminishes social discourse. 

Based on her initial findings, Dr. Jha believes that it’s high time platforms wake up and acknowledge the dire consequences their oversight in policy making has on women’s participation on social media. The policies need to be modified in such a way that they align with the current standards, and make platforms a safer and more inclusive space for women participants. Dr. Jha hopes to have her research published in journals of repute by the end of 2023. Her research will provide insight for platforms to draft community policies that are inclusive of the multilingual and multicultural differences across the country. The stakes are high for social media companies as not only is India the largest market for Facebook, the world’s biggest democracy also has upcoming elections in 2024.