She was doing what a lot of people do — using her Facebook page to voice her opinion.
She didn't expect to be called a prostitute — and see her son attacked as well.
Preetha G. Nair, a 41-year-old single mother of a 12-year-old, lives in a small town in the southern state of Kerala, where she's working to set up a school. She uses Facebook to engage with others about social and political issues. After former Indian president Dr. Abdul Kalam passed away in late July, she posted a link to an online article titled "Kalam was no great man: don't let news of his death confuse you." The article described Kalam's ties to right-wing Hindu nationalist groups.
And then the abusive comments began. "Bastard daughter, you should blame the one who made you," wrote one commenter. "Kalam was not a great man but preetha is. This is wat [sic] is called broken condum [sic] effect," wrote another. More than one person called her a slut. Then, someone created a Facebook page named "Preetha Prostitute." They used her picture for the profile of this page and littered it with aggressive and lewd remarks.
They posted a picture of her 12-year-old autistic son on this new page, copying it from her Facebook page. "They were asking who is his father?" recalls Nair. "They called him mentally retarded."
Nair is used to be attacked online for voicing her opinions on a range of issues on her Facebook page. But this time, she felt the attackers had taken things too far. "To even bring my son in this issue, I feel really bad."
And then the attacks went global. Over in Miami, Florida, Inji Pennu learned about Nair's experience through her Facebook network and decided to blog about it. Originally from Nair's home state, Kerala, Pennu wanted to show solidarity, but she too was attacked online with abusive language and threats of violence. One commenter threatened to choke her. Soon, her Facebook page was blocked by Facebook because someone had complained to Facebook that she had a "fake" profile. Pennu thinks trolls were responsible for this. She had to send Facebook a proof of identification in order to unblock her page.
Pennu and Nair's experiences are not unusual. As more and more Indian women become vocal in the online space, they are increasingly the target of online abuse. Some are ordinary citizens. Some are well-known. Sagarika Ghose, a journalist with CNN-IBN who is vocal on Twitter and has 608,000 followers, has repeatedly received threats of rape. In 2012, Meena Kandasamy, a poet and activist, was threatened with acid attacks and "televised gang rapes" when she wrote about a Dalit festival where beef was served. Eating beef is a taboo among upper caste Hindus, and Kandasamy was attacked for writing about eating beef.
The abuse is often sexist, according to a 2013 study by the non-profit, Internet Democracy Project. The researchers did detailed interviews with 17 Indian women active in the online space, either on Facebook or Twitter or on blogs. Richa Kaul Padte, one of the study authors, recorded death and rape threats as well as sexualized messages and gender based slurs.
"We're not saying that men don't face abuse [online]," she says. "But they don't face abuse on the basis of their gender."
The phenomenon isn't unique to India. It has been documented in the West too. As British journalist Laurie Penny wrote in 2011, "A woman's opinion is the miniskirt of the internet." It doesn't matter what she's saying so much as the fact that she's saying it. Still, there are certain issues that are more likely to attract online abuse says Kaul Padte. Politics is one of them. So is gender. "When women express their opinion on gender, that's another trigger," she says.
Kaul Padte's study also explored how women react to online abuse. "We wanted to know how many women actually went to the police," she says. "No one really wants to go to the police station in India. You know you're going to have a really s****y experience." The Indian police force's gender insensitivity has been a topic of public discussion lately — there are many accounts of the police blaming victims of sexual abuse.
Kaul Padte and her colleagues further confirmed this by speaking to the Mumbai Cyber Cell, where an officer put the responsibility of avoiding online abuse on women themselves. "Females should not find themselves in a position where they have to go to the police," the unnamed official told the study authors in an interview. "They should not give their personal information and should not post their original photographs on the Internet. Anyone can snatch the photograph on the Internet and use it for their own purposes. One should do those things to avoid probable offenses."
What does seem to work for a lot of women is calling out the abuser online and threatening to report him to the police. "One or two women found it was enough of a deterrent," she says.
For most women, such abuse takes an emotional toll, says Pennu, who herself has been attacked for writing about eating beef on her food blog. "You wonder if it's worth it," she says. She's since changed the url for her blog, blocks it from search engines and only sends the link to people she knows and trusts.
There's one silver lining, says Pennu: "More people are coming out and saying that this kind of harassment is not OK."
Ultimately, it is important that women don't disappear from the online space, says Nair, who has returned to voicing her opinions on her Facebook page. "Everyday, again and again I put post," she says. "I never backed [down]."