Journalist Rana Ayyub was in Delhi on April 22 to accept an award from a media house, which had nominated her as the youth icon of the year, when a friend of hers called her, confounded by a tweet, purportedly on a popular TV channel’s social media account, quoting her on the Kathua gang-rape. Confused, Ayyub asked what the tweet said.
The last three days there has been a concerted effort in the form of multiple fake tweets, photoshopped tweets, morphed videos on twitter / fb that even the most sensible have fallen for and have gone viral. Those asking me to clarify, please use your own discretion. pic.twitter.com/alf3qkiQSq— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) April 23, 2018
What she heard made her deeply uneasy, mainly because she immediately knew what had happened, and more importantly, what was about to happen.
A Twitter handle, mimicking Republic TV’s official handle, had posted an image of Ayyub with the following tweet: “Minor child rapists are also human, do they have no human rights. This Hindutva Government is bringing ordinance for death to child rapists just to hang muslims in larger numbers. Muslims aren’t safe in India anymore”.
Ayyub had not made that comment. Most people who have been at the receiving end of vicious trolling on Twitter know the cycle of abuse only too well. They know the ease with which apps allow users to create fake tweets and Facebook posts mirroring the original, and put in any text. The morphed post then makes its way into the ecosystem of paid trolls, who use it to whip up anger and hatred towards the targetted person.
Ayyub, the author of the book, The Gujarat Files, based on her investigation into the 2002 Gujarat riots, knows this cycle intimately. She routinely calls out the current dispensation on policy and governance. She has come often under violent trolling from right wing handles determined to drown her voice.
Her most innocuous posts are greeted online with accusations of being a sell-out and her religion is called into question (Ayyub is a Muslim), she is regularly slut-shamed on online fora where images of her private outings are leaked, which then find their way to ultra-right WhatsApp groups and are shared on Facebook pages for moral scrutiny.
Despite all that, Ayyub says what she faced in the days following that first call alerting her to the fake tweet is something she would not wish upon her worst enemy.
It almost broke her, and she had to go to the hospital for an emergency health check-up.
“I couldn’t sleep for three nights. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was numb. My parents called me to see if I was OK,” Ayyub says. “The trolls posted my phone number, the address of my house online.” She feared for her safety. “If this is the depth of their hatred, what will stop them from coming into my house as a mob and kill me?”
The next few days played out like chapters from a nightmare. Trolls came to her Twitter and Facebook page and posted hateful comments. A friend told her that she should be ashamed of herself. A concerned Facebook user inboxed her a message with a screenshot of someone’s comment.
“First, get her gang-raped, then ask her what punishment is OK for rapist,” one user allegedly said. To call what happened trolling would be delegitimsing its viciousness. “It was an online lynch mob,” Ayyub says.
An alarmed Ayyub decided to nip the snowballing cycle of hate in the bud. She clarified on Twitter: “The enormity of the fake news business in India. This tweet has been shared by thousands on whats app/ twitter/ fb. Am receiving messages asking for an explanation. Few realised its a fake twitter profile.”
Bharatiya Janata Party’s Asma Khan Pathan quoted the fake tweet, giving it further legitimacy, saying: “WTH....are you out of your mind???? Atleast learn to appreciate someone’s good efforts towards society rather than criticising aimlessly..” Ayyub responded to her saying that the quote was tweeted from a fake handle. Then another fake tweet showed up which quoted her as saying that she “hates India and Indians”.
Like all people, especially women, who are trolled regularly for their opinion on Twitter, Ayyub thought that the storm would blow over, as they do in the never-ending cycle of priority news on Twitter and Facebook.
She explained to whoever reached out to her privately that she had not made those comments. She wrote to a networking group of women journalists that she was being harassed relentlessly, but asked them to wait before making a statement because she was thinking of taking legal action.
“I want to keep you, some of the editors / writers in the loop because these threats are serious. I am still waiting for the commissioner to give an appointment but we are filing a criminal complaint today,” Ayyub wrote in a note to some of the country’s most senior editors.
Then an obscene video appeared online, with her face morphed in it. Overnight, her life turned into a living hell. The clip spread like wildfire on WhatsApp groups, was shared on her Facebook page, appeared repeatedly on her Twitter mentions. She sought legal help.
Those who saw and spread the fake video, messaged her at all times with sexually explicit comments, asking for sexual favours, slut-shaming and threatening her.
“Look, Rana Ayyub, what they’ve spread about you. Don’t ever dare to speak about Hindus and Modi again,” a Facebook user wrote. DailyO has accessed some of the screenshots of the messages sent to Ayyub.
Ayyub was distraught. She reached out to several friends in Delhi, wondering how to stop the attack. A couple of friends advised her not to stay alone at her hotel room and came to meet her to show solidarity. She called a senior journalist in the wee hours of the morning, after an anxiety attack. The journalist calmed her down and asked her to fight back.
She decided enough was enough. Accompanied by lawyer Vrinda Grover, Ayyub filed a criminal complaint at the Saket Police station on Thursday. The offences registered under the IPC and IT act include morphing of videos and images. But her ordeal hadn’t ended. A policeman at the cyber crime cell asked her “why she did not file the complaint at a police station in the area in which she first saw the fake tweet.” After much persuasion by her lawyer, the police accepted the complaint and promised to send it for further investigation to the special cell.
“I told my lawyer, you see the video, I can’t bear to see it. I can’t bring myself to look at it. How will I live this down? I know this isn’t my shame, it’s theirs,” says Ayyub. She says she’s feeling much better after having lodged the complaint.
As Ayyub awaits justice, she relives the trauma over and over again – of strange men sending her obscene morphed clips, abusing her non-stop in the filthiest language, her inbox filling up with anonymous trolls mocking her looks, calling her a slut, unknown men and women sending furious messages condemning for “defending rapists” and the alienation of friends.
It’s a chilling thing to process that men rabid with hatred have access to her personal details. Men who know where she lives. Most importantly, it’s heartbreaking to know that Twitter and Facebook, media of mass communication, completely fail in checking this hate.
Women have complained again and again of Twitter’s inaction in countering hate targetted at them. Often if an abuse is written in Hindi, it slips through Twitter’s algorithm.
Also, in most cases, reporting a tweet results in no action. Police over-burdened with a criminal caseload are often ill inequipped to handle mass cyber crimes. The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party has made “Beti Bachao” its catchphrase of good governance. The government’s response to Ayyub’s ordeal will prove its seriousness and impartiality in handling violence directed at women.
“I’ve been trolled before, but I have never faced anything like this. I don’t know what else I have to fear after this. There are marches when people are killed. I’m repeatedly telling the state that I’m under attack and I fear for my safety. Will they take action only after something happens,” she says.