Image credit: The Atlantic
Last year, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, said that the internet is too often not safe for women. A survey found that 52 percent of young women and girls have experienced online abuse, including threatening messages, sexual harassment, and sharing of private images without consent. Of them, nearly half said that it affected their emotional and/or physical well-being. In total, 87 percent think that the problem is getting worse. In India, the problem intersects with a centuries-old patriarchal setup.
It also affects everyone from the common person to the high-and-mighty. For example, 95 Indian female politicians received nearly 1 million hateful mentions on Twitter during the 2019 national elections, one-in-five of which were sexist or misogynistic. Social media companies take some steps to clean up these online spaces, but their efforts are clearly insufficient. They also struggle to deal with the linguistic diversity and contextual complexity of Indian internet users. In the meantime, nearly half of the population is coerced into silence by this pervasive online gender-based violence.
The primary responsibility to clean up the sexist toxicity online lies with the social media platforms. However, their current inability to do so at scale leaves young women at the mercy of online trolls. This is where a new tool being developed by the Centre for Internet & Society (CIS), Bangalore, may help. CIS will bring together researchers, activists and stakeholders to create an alternative content moderation system. This group will create libraries of common sexist and abusive terms in multiple Indian languages, and use them to train machine learning models. The system will then be made available on a website and as a browser plug-in so that users can explore if specific posts fall within the category of gender-based violence. It will help individuals, especially young girls, to have healthier personal feeds on social media platforms.
Developing such a system will be challenging, precisely because of the linguistic and contextual diversity that social media companies grapple with. To address this challenge, CIS will partner with grassroots organisation at the early stages of development, and ensure that feminist perspectives are reflected in the design of the tool. It will also partner with Tattle Civic Tech, an organisation that has built machine learning tools in Indian languages, to build the tech infrastructure behind the system. Such participatory design is indispensable when dealing with issues as complex and nuanced as hate speech.
Unless that is done, women may continue to be half-citizens of digital India. Nearly a fifth of Indian women who face online abuse leave internet platforms altogether, and another twelve percent change the way they express themselves. We need efforts like the one CIS is about to embark on, to democratise the internet, and ensure that every Indian - irrespective of gender or sexuality - can be on the internet and use its features to create a meaningful life for herself.
To find out more about Centre for Internet and Society, go to www.cis-india.org.
This is the third of a seven-part series on new ideas to make every Indian feel empowered and safe online. The earlier posts featured:
I) World Comics India which is running workshops that train participants to express themselves through grassroots comics and draw out their experiences with the mobile phone
II) Point of View which is developing MeraDost, a platform that gives low-income women daily digital safety information as well as providing them with a helpline service for harassment and fraud
Coming up next week:
Glific: An open source, two-way, WhatsApp-based communication platform that non-profits can use to communicate with their beneficiaries.