Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Aug 24, 2020
Decoding Gendered Online Trolling in India

Understanding human behaviour has been one of the primary goals of research and inquiry through the ages. The history of psychology and neuroscience offers an insight into how both nature and nurture are situated as dominant contributors to behaviour in academic and public discourse. One key theme has repeatedly stood out—rather than being determined by nature or nurture, behaviour is a product of their interaction, and complex behavioural traits are mostly polygenic (many genetic systems regulating several biochemical and neurological processes moderate complex behaviours)<1><2><3>. Analysing violent behaviour, particularly violence directed towards women in Indian cyberspace, through this lens and that of virtuous violence—which posits that the perpetration of violence stems from a self-righteous and morally grounded position, and perpetrators tend to believe that violence is the correct moral recourse to answer the problem at hand—will help explain how psychosocial factors can moderate the dissemination of online hate speech<4>.

Understanding violence

An array of terms has been used to describe and discuss gender-based online harassment, including cyberbullying, stalking, hate speech, abusive language, sexual innuendo-filled obscenities, smear campaigns, disclosing personal identifying information online (doxing), and sharing pictures or videos without consent that may be explicit<5>. Hate speech, for instance, is a singular aspect of a full spectrum of antisocial online behaviour deployed against women and minorities. Gendered online hate speech can be understood as when a perpetrator weaponises the gender of the victim to threaten, abuse or debase their dignity<6>. Online trolling has been defined as “the deliberate provocation of others using deception and harmful behavior on the Internet which often results in conflict, highly emotional reactions, and disruption of communication in order to advance the troll’s own amusement”<7>. However, in the current context, amusement is not the only relevant incentive; there is also an organised political motive and other psychosocial factors. This essay will largely focus on Hindu far-right troll accounts and the vitriol they unleash on women and gender fluid people with non-conforming sexual orientations for the established reason that the magnitude of the majority can silence every voice that reacts unfavourably to it, irrespective of violence or lack thereof.

In 1974, artist Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm Zero performance demonstrated a few dark facets of humanity—violence escalates if the victim is passive, and seemingly normal people are capable of callous and dangerous cruelty when they foresee impunity and a lack of consequence of their actions<8>. Cruelty as a human trait has been investigated extensively through an evolutionary lens, and the manifestation of hatred by verbal or other behaviour is deeply tied to cruelty as a trait<9><10>. Psychological research has identified several other individual attributes and personality traits that are associated with online trolling behaviour, including the ‘dark tetrad’ of Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy and everyday sadism<11><12><13>. Situational factors like loneliness have been identified as a moderator of the relationship between the dark tetrad and trolling<14>. However, focusing on individual contributors to antisocial behaviour often comes at the cost of letting environmental contributors slide away from scrutiny and discourse. When it comes to gender, a disproportionate amount of socially acceptable justification can be attributed to just biological sex differences<15>. Furthermore, if a genuinely integrative and interactive behavioural model is considered for any form of violent behaviour, then environmental factors must also be considered in addition to the individual factors. Environmental factors are far easier to control, and understanding them usually leads to better-designed interventions.

Online violence in India

India has the largest gender gap (46 percent) when it comes to access to mobile phones and internet in South Asia—79 percent of Indian men have access to mobile phones, compared to 43 percent of women, and only 24 percent of Indian women have access to smartphones<16>. Even when they have access to a device, only 11 percent of women have internet access. This reveals the magnitude of online violence when considered alongside the fact that girls, women and LGBTQI individuals are disproportionately over-represented in victims of all antisocial online behaviour. In a 2017 survey of Tier-1 Indian cities (where respondents are arguably more educated and better informed), eight out of ten individuals reported facing online harassment and 41 percent women reported facing online sexual harassment<17><18><19><20>.

Women who are vocal about various social injustices consistently draw more flak<21><22><23><24>. No political establishment has been particularly kind to vocal women in India, despite the Constitution allowing ample protection against gendered abuse. Over the last few years, however, there are very notable changes<25> . Islamophobia has emerged as a dominant theme, and cyberspace has turned increasingly acerbic, becoming near impossible to separate real and virtual violence. A large section of internet trolls has a clear focus on deepening the fault line along the Hindu-Muslim axis<26>. They propagate an upper caste Brahminical version of Hindutva, a homogenous formulation of faith with misogyny embedded in its DNA. In this strongly patriarchal framework that glorifies faith-based violence, a vegetarian diet, extreme reverence of Hindu deities and the cow as the emblematic holy animal, stereotypical notions of gender and sexuality, moral policing of sexuality and its expression, and xenophobia are all virtuous. Anything or anyone that contradicts this belief system, even if in a minor way, is easily vilified, and can then be justifiably threatened, shamed or forced into silence. In this formulation of faith, there is no room for India’s pluralist traditions, and faith-based opinions can dominate logical explanations. The tradition of goddess worship has been appropriated cleverly to binarise women into good versus bad. While good women self-censor themselves, the bad women need to be taught their right place and the right way to behave. It is easy to see how the framework of virtuous violence is applicable. With the online disinhibition effect<27> (the exaggerated expression of feelings using the anonymity offered by the internet), the easy creation of fake accounts and bots, and rampant impunity and an enabling environment, perpetrators frequently engage in extremely graphic forms of online hate speech. Neologisms such as ‘anti-national,’ ‘love-jihad’ and ‘urban Naxal,’ and the reframing of any public debate on sociopolitical critiques, public health and even innocuous humour into a narrative along Hindu-Muslim contention are alarming. For instance, women who respond to rabid hatred and widespread Islamophobic backlash against insurgent attacks in Kashmir that affect Kashmiri citizens are often viciously trolled, irrespective of their background<28><29>.


When it comes to mitigation of online hate speech, the most common recourse for women is the proverbial swallowing of the bitter pill. Feminist scholarship has consistently observed how law enforcement, legal systems and government-funded schemes intended to protect Indian women routinely fail them<30>. Unless the victim is a public figure or the abuse is exceptionally graphic and followed by public and media outcry, arrests for online hate speech are exceptions rather than the norm<31><32><33>. On the contrary, women in India are subjected to widespread victim-blaming, which criticises the use of internet and expressing their views freely as the root cause of trouble<34><35>. Reporting online abuse and seeking redressal often backfires on the woman<37>. Social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can no longer avoid the onus of countering hate speech, and must improve their diagnostic algorithms to detect and prevent hate speech. Counter-speech could be an effective mitigation tactic, but long-term solutions must address and reduce the glorification of gender stereotypes and inherent misogyny that dominates the current psychosocial space, especially when driven by a majoritarian political agenda. Integrative solutions will require significant political will to change the gender discourse from the bottom up.


<1> Daniel W Belsky, Benjamin W Domingue, Robbee Wedow, Louise Arseneault, Jason D Boardman, Avshalom Caspi, Dalton Conley, Jason M Fletcher, Jeremy Freese, Pamela Herd, Terrie E Moffitt, Richie Poulton, Kamil Sicinski, Jasmin Wertz, and Kathleen Mullan Harris, “Genetic Analysis of Social-Class Mobility in Five Longitudinal Studies”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, July 31, 2018.

<2> Peter T Tanksley, J C Barnes, Brian B Boutwell, Louise Arseneault, Avshalom Caspi, Andrea Danese, Helen L Fisher, and Terrie E Moffitt, “Identifying Psychological Pathways to Polyvictimization: Evidence from a Longitudinal Cohort Study of Twins from the UK”, Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2020.

<3> Dean Hamer, “Rethinking Behavior Genetics”, Science 298, no. 5591, October 4, 2002.

<4> Alan Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai, Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

<5> Laura Hinson, Jennifer Mueller, Lila O’Brien-Milne, and Naome Wandera, “Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence: What is it, and How do We Measure It?” International Centre for Research on Women, 2018.

<6> Maya Mirchandani, Dhananjay Sahai, and Ojaswi Goel, “Encouraging Counter-Speech by Mapping the Contours of Hate Speech on Facebook in India”, ORF, March 13, 2018.

<7> Claire Hardaker, “Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication: From User Discussions to Academic Definitions”, Journal of Politeness Research 6, no. 2, 2010.

<8> John Doppler, “Reality 0 — What We Can Learn From This Terrifying Experiment”, The John Doppler Effect, 2014.

<9> Victor Nell, “Cruelty’s Rewards: The Gratifications of Perpetrators and Spectators”, Behavioural and Brain Sciences 29, no. 3, 2006.

<10> G. Randolph Mayes, “Naturalizing Cruelty”, Biology and Philosophy 24, 2009.

<11> Natalie Sest and Evita March, “Constructing the Cyber-Troll: Psychopathy, Sadism, and Empathy”, Personality and Individual Differences 119, December 2017.

<12> Adrian Furnham, Steven C. Richards, and Delroy L. Paulhus, “The Dark Triad of Personality: A 10 Year Review”, Social and Personality Psychology Compass 7, no. 3, March 2013.

<13> Erin E. Buckels, Daniel N. Jones, and Delroy L. Paulhus, “Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism”, Psychological Science 24, no. 11, 2013.

<14> Keita Masui, “Loneliness Moderates the Relationship between Dark Tetrad Personality Traits and Internet Trolling”, Personality and Individual Differences 150, November 2019.

<15> Ibrahim Ismail, Andy Martens, Mark J Landau, Jeff Greenberg, and David R Weise, “Exploring the Effects of the Naturalistic Fallacy: Evidence That Genetic Explanations Increase the Acceptability of Killing and Male Promiscuity”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology 42, no. 3, March 2012.

<16> DIRSI, LIRNEasia, Research ICT Africa, “AfterAccess India: ICT Access and Use in India and the Global South”, LIRNEasia, August 2018.

<17>Study reveals widespread online harassment in India”, Deccan Chronicle, October 9, 2017.

<18> Yuthika Bhargava, “8 out of 10 Indians have faced online harassment”, The Hindu, October 5, 2017.

<19>Online Harassment in India rises, Mumbai leads”, The Indian Express, October 4, 2017.

<20> Karan Choudhury, “Eight out of 10 Indians suffer cyber harassment: Norton study”, Business Standard, October 4, 2017.

<21> Charvi Kathuria, "Indian Female Journalists Battle Threats For Having Opinions”. Shethepeople TV, June 12, 2018.

<22> Audrey Truschke, “Hate Male”, The Revealer, July 14, 2020.

<23> Siobhán O’Grady, “An Indian Journalist Has Been Trolled For Years. Now U.N. Experts Say Her Life Could Be At Risk”, The Washington Post, May 26, 2018.

<24> Tina Das, “Agrima Joshua Is Everywoman On Social Media With A View. We Know Why She Apologised”, The Print, July 13, 2020.

<25> N.C. Asthana “Inside the Minds of Internet Trolls: A Psychological Analysis”, The Wire, April 28, 2020.

<26> Maya Mirchandani, “Digital Hatred, Real Violence: Majoritarian Radicalisation and Social Media in India | ORF Occasional Paper 167”, Observer Research Foundation, August 29, 2018.

<27> John Suler, “The online disinhibition effect”. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, no. 2: 184-188, 2005.

<28> Rohit Khanna, “Facebook post: Kolkata girl gets rape threats, stalked offline”, The Times of India, February 20, 2019,

<29> Piyasree Dasgupta, “Rape Threats, Fake News, Mob Violence: How Right Wingers Attacked People For Facebook Posts After Pulwama Attack”, Huffington Post, March 5, 2019.

<30> Indira Jaising, “Men’s laws, women’s lives: a constitutional perspective on religion, common law, and culture in South Asia”, Women Unlimited, 2005.

<31>Troll Sacked By His Company And Deported To India For Sending Sexual Abuses To A WomanThe Logical Indian, April 11, 2017.

<32> Brendan Dabhi, “Shubham Mishra arrested, his cellphones sent to FSL”, Ahmedabad Mirror, July 15, 2020,

<33> Jasmine Bal, “Kolkata Girl Gets Graphic Rape Threats on FB, Stalker Arrested”, The Quint, October 12, 2017.

<34> Anja Kovacs, Richa Kaul Padte, Shobha S.V., “‘Don’t Let It Stand!’ An Exploratory Study of Women and Verbal Online Abuse in India”; Internet Democracy Project, April 29, 2013.

<35> Richa Kaul Padte and Anja Kovacs, “Keeping Women Safe? Gender, Online Harassment and Indian Law”, Internet Democracy Project, June 29, 2013.

<36>Arrests Have Riled up More People, Receiving More Threats: Agrima Joshua”, The Wire, July 14, 2020.

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Simantini Ghosh

Simantini Ghosh

Simantini Ghosh is an Assistant professor of Psychology at Ashoka University India. Her research interests lie at intersections of gender-based violence and discrimination and mental ...

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