How long will Twitter stand by as ‘online violence’ curtails our right to know?

The prominent Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub has publicly pleaded with Twitter to take action against the harassment and abuse – described as online violence – she experiences every single day. Incredibly, while the company rarely steps in against the trolls who threaten to rape and murder her, this week it took the extraordinary step of blocking access to one of her posts in India, apparently at the request of the Indian government.

In the past few days, the Indian authorities have arrested two other journalists and human rights defenders – Teesta Setalvad and Mohammad Zubair – on national security grounds for allegedly stoking religious enmity through their reporting and activism on sectarian violence, and it appears they have been issuing orders to censor other journalists on social media, including Ayyub.

There is a symbiotic relationship between online violence against journalists such as Ayyub and political repression. The former chills press freedom, and creates a more permissive environment for the latter. In India, Narendra Modi has been criticised for using his own Twitter account to incite or glorify violence, and maintaining ties with social media accounts involved in the harassment and abuse of journalists and human rights advocates.

Social media platforms such as Twitter cannot pretend to be blind towards this phenomenon or ambivalent about their responsibility to intervene when harassment and censorship reveal themselves. They must find a way to break this vicious cycle that breeds impunity for crimes against journalists and others seeking to hold the powerful to account.

We have just finished studying just over 8.5m tweets directed at Rana Ayyub over a 27-month period as part of an international research project to develop an early warning system for gender-based online violence against women journalists led by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the University of Sheffield.

We have seen up close the level and intensity of the threats, abuse and harassment Ayyub receives at the intersection of misogyny, anti-press sentiment and religious bigotry. It marks her out as one of the world’s most brutally targeted journalists online.

In our data, we see that many of Ayyub’s tweets start receiving abusive replies within seconds. The speed with which these abusive tweets are hurled at Ayyub is extremely unusual, and the pattern indicates that each time she posts online, she is highly likely to be exposed to masses of abusive replies. Such patterns are also associated with coordinated attacks.

For comparison, according to our 2021 study of the torrential online violence against Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, the abusive replies in her case – while plentiful – do not arrive as quickly, and they are more dispersed over time.

There are also chilling similarities between the attacks on Ayyub and those that preceded the murders with impunity of her friend Gauri Lankesh in India and the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017. Online violence does not stay on the internet. Twenty percent of female journalists who responded to a global ICFJ-Unesco survey in 2020 said they had experienced offline attacks, harassment and abuse that they believed had been seeded online. This is also Ayyub’s experience.

And while these attacks go on, states are able to appeal to companies such as Twitter to further enforce their legal repression of press freedom. The day before he was arrested and detained this week, Mohammad Zubair received a censorship notice from Twitter in response to a compliance order from the Indian government. The next day, Ayyub received an almost identical notice from Twitter advising her that her account had been “withheld” in India to comply with India’s Information Technology Act. Censorship of the targets of online violence – including Ayyub – is one of the hallmarks of state-linked digital harassment campaigns.

Ayyub’s response to the rapid-fire online violence she experiences has included multiple attempts – publicly and privately, online and offline – to call Twitter to act against her abusers. Ayyub’s attackers routinely flout Twitter’s anti-harassment and press freedom protection guidelines, as the former UN special rapporteur David Kaye pointed out – on Twitter.

As Ayyub told us when we interviewed her earlier this year: “There is absolutely no sincerity in their promises”. She acknowledged that had it not been for Twitter, “the people of this country would probably not be aware of what I’m facing in India. So, to that extent, it’s a great platform. But the cons outweigh the pros awfully.” And that, she said, “is only because the trolls and the state have realised that these social media platforms are dependent on them. They really are seeing only their market and not the safety of journalists or anybody who’s a public voice.”

Twitter, like other social media platforms, has obligations under the UN’s Ruggie principles to defend human rights, including press freedom, the safety of journalists and access to information. So it is shocking that a US-based platform that once described itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party” would accede to a government directive to suppress the critical speech of a journalist, whose right to practise journalism freely and without fear is protected under international human rights law.

The effect of Twitter’s decision – received as evidence of her “guilt” by the troll armies that caused her name to trend on Twitter in India in the aftermath – is to exacerbate the risks Ayyub faces in the country. As we write, calls for her arrest and detention are going viral on Twitter.

How can Twitter let this stand? Even if its staff face criminal liability for non-compliance with Indian government orders, these developments represent a dangerous pattern of concession to state censorship of critical independent journalists.

The new research on Ayyub’s case discussed in this article will be published later in 2022.

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