This was a user’s message for content creator Aanchal Agrawal in response to one of her Instagram Stories two weeks ago.
Agrawal, who has more than 174,000 followers on the photo-and-video-sharing platform, obliged.
On March 15, she
posted an Instagram Reel where she is taking off her clothes — hung for drying in her balcony.
The first pinned story on her account (@awwwnchal), called “Wall of Shame”, curates her similar witty responses to such trolls sliding into her comments or messages.
Agrawal’s reaction goes against the sage advice for anyone on the internet: Don’t feed the troll.
For women who decide to take up content creation as a career, it’s a cardinal rule they are told to adhere to.
As Scherezade Shroff (@sherryshroff), a Mumbai-based content creator, recalls: “When I started out on YouTube a decade ago, it was like a brief given to you to not respond to hate comments as it will only cause more hate.”
It is hard for anyone to escape trolling on the internet, but the extent and nature of hate gets disturbingly heightened when directed at women.
Body-shaming is probably the worst a troll can do to most male creators. But for women creators, it is common to receive abusive sexual remarks, including descriptive violent rape threats, in their comments and messages.
“I have hardly seen a male creator get rape threats in comments which is an everyday thing for us,” says content creator Sanjana Singh (@_sanjanasays).
“Even if male creators do get such comments, the rape threats are directed at their sisters or mother. Basically, the subject of sexual violence is always the woman.”
Male creators in genres like fitness and personal grooming often get body-shaming and homophobic comments, note influencer marketing professionals.
“But it’s shocking how common it is for any female creator to receive unsolicited d*ck pic in their DMs,” says Viraj Sheth, cofounder of Monk Entertainment, a Mumbai-based talent management and influencer marketing firm.
“We also handle business email ids of some of the creators and often see people asking for sex from female creators on mail,” he adds.
An ET analysis of the worst comments that leading male and female creators receive online, based on data shared by Greenroom influencer marketing firm, shows just how toxic is the comments arena for women on the internet.
Neel Gogia, cofounder of influencer marketing firm IPLIX Media, admits he was startled with the results when we asked him to compare the worst comments based on his creators’ gender. “The hate male creators get is nowhere close to what female creators get on a daily basis. It’s not easy to deal with this level of hate.”
In response, most women creators end up blocking users or muting them. You’ll see some of them put a random profile picture on WhatsApp to hide their identity. They often turn their accounts private to preserve their sanity.
In extreme cases, they stop posting altogether.
Niharika NM stopped tweeting after tweeple incessantly trolled her about her accent in her videos.
Meanwhile, most male creators usually just ignore the trolling and move on.
Giving it right back
Of late, many top women creators are taking harassment from trolls head-on,
primarily because of how rampant it has become, making it imperative to put a stop to it.
Not just that, they are also capitalising on it by using several trending formats, and their wit, to create content on top of the hate they receive in the form of lewd messages and comments from users.
How it started. How it’s going. https://t.co/PQFmVt9nkC
— Aanchal Agrawal (@awwwnchal) 1603160565000
In the process, they are inspiring several women on the internet to not tolerate toxic behaviour directed at them online.
Engaging with trolls does take a mental toll, but tackling their remarks has often helped reduce the amount of vitriol women receive online, even if temporarily.
“It’s like building a fort from all the stones thrown at you,” says Agrawal. “We are doing it to take the power back from those who want to oppress us into shutting up, who want to instil fear in us so that we don’t take our stage back,” she adds.
Creators like law student Esha Bahal (@eshabahal) frequently create
videos to educate users on the various ways they can respond to abuse online from a legal standpoint.
Some, like Amreen Gill (@bhangralicious), post sarcasm-filled
retorts that “kill the troll with kindness”.
Culture of violence
Isha Yadav (@ishalogue), a PhD student and visual artist, is building an online
museum curating rape threats that women receive on social media.
Yadav wants to memorialise the culture of violence against women on the internet in the hope that it will push platforms and communities to understand the gravity of the situation and take the necessary steps to bring about change in their community guidelines.
While most platforms have strict protocols to monitor abuse in English, the ability of AI to catch instances of abuse in local languages is limited, which makes it easier for trolls to use offensive words in their native language, she notes.
Yadav, who once received a rape threat for critiquing a popular Indian male actor, says rape threats against women are extremely normalised on social media.
So far, she has received 150 submissions for her online museum. And 149 of these are directed toward transwomen and women.
The Cost of Fighting Back
These women creators are fighting for their right to be respected online, even if it comes at the cost of being criticised.
When Moose Jattana, 20, posted a
video showcasing how she self-investigated the background of a sexually abusive troll and reported the incident to his school and parents, she was told to be considerate of the boy’s career.
“If I don’t do this now, what if he sexually harasses a woman at his workplace in 10 years,” she asked.
[Sidenote: Jattana’s exposé video has a fitting Punjabi song, ‘Akhan jaddon diyan’, playing in the backdrop that loosely translates to, “You looked somewhere you weren’t meant to look. And now you have nothing left. You’ve lost everything.” The song is carefully chosen to address trolls in the language they understand best, she says. “If I say it in English, no one would care. When I say it in Punjabi, it creates a shock value because they don’t expect it,” she adds.]
Women creators also warn fellow creators against bullies who could be dangerous. “I advise them to be careful when engaging with trolls,” says Amreen Gill/@bhangralicious. “Social media laws are murky everywhere so it’s best to take adequate measures and reach out to the police if a troll seems threatening,” she adds.
Most often, though, a woman calling out abusive trolls is met with apologists on the other side who don’t believe in holding the trolls responsible for their behaviour but somehow make it the woman’s responsibility to save them from the consequences of their actions.
But they are fed up with these apologists now and refuse to go on a guilt-trip for making trolls accountable.
“Even if they have 2% of the followers that I have,” says content creator Janice Sequeira (@janiceseq85), “I want those followers to know that the troll – whom they know or idolise – is getting into my DMs or comments and posting abusive messages.”
“I think there’s a limit to how much we also want to ignore after a point.”