Toxic on twitter

September 27, 2020

These numbers indicate that there exist a nexus between online violent extremism and misogyny

The emergence of violent trends is a regular phenomenon on Pakistani Twitter and other social media platforms. Table A outlines a few violent trends which are sexually derogatory and misogynistic in nature, in which three categories of hashtags occur; first asking for public hanging of rapists, second sexually abusive and thirdly promoting a violent narrative.

Table A

An analysis of these hashtags reveals that:

With the passage of time the violent hashtags are increasing in number or trending for a longer duration

The average number of participating users is increasing. This could be due to violent users joining or existing Twitter users becoming more pro-violence.

A decrease in the average number of tweets by a single user with hashtags asking for stricter punishment of sex offenders. This shows that hashtags are becoming more organic in nature, rather than being propagated by media cells. For instance RapistQanoonNafizKarohad an average outdegree per tweet of 3.8 but this decreased to 1.9 for #HangRapistsPublically.

Table B

When user tweets were cross referenced across various hashtags and sexually abusive phrases, it showed that these people contributed to multiple violent hashtags.

For instance, after recent motorway rape incident, there were people who were debating whether a woman should ever travel without a mehram. Out of these users, 27 percent were those who tweeted the hashtag asking for public hanging of rapists. Ironically, many of these users used derogatory words for women in their recent tweets. 13 percent of “travel with mehram“ advocates used abusive words like randi in their recent tweets while addressing some women on social media.

Table C shows the number of users who supported #HangRapistsPublically and contributed to other violent and sexually offensive hashtags. While reading the table, it is important to consider the fact that many hashtags were propagated a year ago. Research showed that on Pakistani Twitter roughly 10 percent accounts are suspended/blocked or inactivated annually. By these calculations, it is safe to say there could be an upto 15 percent increase in users who contributed to violent and derogatory hashtags. Moreover it is worth considering the fact that the network size for each hashtag varies, hence while the total number of tweets may not seem large, its percentage within a given network may be quite 

Table C

Although the numbers are not very large they do indicate that there exist a nexus between online violent extremism, misogyny and toxic masculinity.

One of the most important reasons such violent social behaviours take place online is that our society has adopted a naïve attitude towards understanding and proposing solutions to one another. Two factors dominate this social issue – first that many of us have created and idealised a self-image of our society (in terms of gender) where women enjoy respect, status, safety, family care and free will regarding mobility and decision making.

Conversations around rape, are often stymied by saying that western countries have more cases of rape than us, in order to protect our idealised “self image”. But if someone keeps challenging patriarchal oppression and traditional gender roles, they are labelled as “enemies”. Yes, a creation of “enemy image” is the second dominating factor to address our issues. Creation of the enemy image and idealised self-image are both cause and effect. An aggrandised ideal self is created by putting negative self-characteristics unto others and creation of in-groups and out-groups. Once this in-group, out-group divide is established- violence against out-group is justified as it purges our aggrandised ideal self. We fall into delusion of cleaning our collective self by supporting and promoting violent measures against out-groups. This externalisation disorder comes into play when there are people who question hyper-nationalism, who highlight plight of minority rights violations, men who deviate from standards of hegemonic masculinity, women who refuse to subjugate to patriarchy. These dissenters are out-grouped and labelled as ghaddar, ghustakh, na-mard/beghairat and prostitutes, respectively.

The same framework is being used in response to increased reporting of sexual assault cases on social media. This time perpetrators are solely men, so it shatters the ’ideal self-image’ of Pakistani men as protectors of women and upholders of decent cultural norms. To save their aggrandised ideal collective self they out-group perpetrators of sexual violence and label them as darinda, wehshi and haiwan. Now all the abuse and aggression turns toward this enemy image, the solution lies in terminating these enemies immediately and brutally. Hence violence is used as a justification for purging society.

Talking from a gendered perspective, there exists a gap between the numbers of male (64 percent) in comparison to 32 percent who identify as women and 4 percent who don’t disclose their gender identity. This digital gender inequality makes Pakistani Twitter predominantly a male forum, which feels threatened by the presence of women rights voices. The women who were claiming offline public spaces and expanding their digital footprint were stepping out of their traditional submissive role, so they were instantly labelled enemies and categorised as out-groups. Derogatory and violent hashtags are propagated against women. For instance, #StopAuratBarbadiMarch, #FahashiMarch, #ExpireKhusray, #JabSabzSabzLehrayGa, etc. Similarly there is a list of abusive words that is used against women who challenge patriarchal norms: kan**, ghash**, bay sharam, beghairat, tawaif, ran**, gandiaurat, fitna, etc.

When a man deviates from the standards of hegemonic masculinity he is labelled as na-mard, beghairat, zanana, khusra. This abusive behaviour is not a one-off outburst. It’s a trend that is followed regularly on twitter. While beghairat and khusra are used for both men and women, there is a huge difference in the meaning for both genders. If a woman is beghairat she is not following traditional dress code, does not follow mobility restrictions and claims her share in public places. When the same word is used for a man, it means he is unable to control women in his family. It is neither about men’s dressing or presence in public spaces. So is the case with khusra. In patriarchal societies like of Pakistan’s, a woman is considered a sex object with “defined measurements” Now if a woman does not fit into this absurd patriarchal categorisation, she is a lesser “woman and labelled as khusra. But when the same word is used for a man, it is a judgment on his actions rather than body.

Why is it easier to out-group a woman as compared to a man on social media? There exists an inherent bias against vocal and strong women in the society. So whenever a disagreement comes from a woman, an instant response is to label the woman as out-group. I will cite just one example here to elaborate this point. A few months back on Pakistani Twitter two trends appeared. Both were about blasphemy allegations. One was against a woman – Arfana Mallah, and the other about a man – Ashraf Jalali. Both trends were politically motivated due to personal grievances. Asharaf Jalali was accused of blasphemy with words like ghustakh, gumrah and la’een. But the whole campaign against Arfana Mallah focused on her role in bringing fahashi to Sindh by promoting mera jism meri marzi.

Escaping blame is a tool frequently used to shift blame unto others and then to justify the violence against them. Focusing on sustainable and workable solutions to social issues require patience and real effort.

The writer is a social science researcher and development consultant

Toxic on twitter