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Troll armies, 'deepfake' porn videos and violent threats. How Twitter became so toxic for India's women politicians

Editor's Note: (CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, an ongoing series.)

New Delhi, India — Sitting on a wicker chair in her East Delhi office, Kavita Krishnan readjusts her glasses and scrolls through Twitter, surveying the latest slew of abusive messages. In a nearby room, her cat purrs.

The politician and activist, a powerful voice for women's rights in India, says she receives near "nonstop" harassment -- anywhere from 50 to 100 abusive messages a day on Twitter -- for being an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Waving her free hand as she clutches her phone with the other, Krishnan reads a collection of offensive tweets she's compiled, categorized by the type of trolling.

"These trolls ... they are going after me regularly, routinely, for my skin color, for my looks, telling me I'm not worth raping, what kind of torture and rape I should be subjected to, telling me what kind of men I should be sleeping with ... and on and on and on, more and more," Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, tells CNN.

"There is an organized army of far-right trolls on Indian social media, which belong to the ruling party, they are basically trained to target you for anything," she adds.

CNN has made multiple attempts to reach the BJP's social media spokesperson for comment on these claims.

Kavita Krishnan

Trolling has become embedded in the fabric of political life globally, but perhaps nowhere more than in India, home to the world's biggest democracy. Modi, second only to President Donald Trump as the most followed world leader on Twitter, has been slammed by members of the public and opposition politicians for following trolls from his personal account. And his party has frequently been accused of operating a "troll army," which critics say targets Modi's opponents -- especially prominent female figures -- with sexual harassment and abuse.

The head of the BJP's IT cell, Amit Malviya, has said that the criticism of Modi is contorted, that he follows "normal people" and has never blocked or unfriended anyone.

"Mr. Modi is possibly the only leader in the world, who actually follows handles which give rape threats, death threats, actually put out incitement videos, peddle fake news," Swati Chaturvedi, the author of, "I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP's Digital Army."

"The BJP has this ecosystem where everything is geared towards attacking people, particularly sexually ... they share defamatory slurs, sexual slurs on women, journalists, activists, women politicians, who they essentially don't agree with."

Against this backdrop, prominent women politicians routinely find themselves subject to manipulated online posts, a worrying trend in a country where fake news has led to violence.

But while there is anecdotal evidence that trolling is an endemic problem for women in India, there has been limited research into its effect on their political lives.

In an effort to close that gap, Amnesty International tracked the Twitter mentions of 95 female politicians (including Krishnan) in the run up to, during and after the country's general election last year.

According to their findings, first seen by CNN, about one in seven tweets sent to the women were abusive or problematic. The study suggests that women politicians in India face high levels of harassment, including hateful, sexist abuse which could result in discouraging their political participation.

That poses a particularly pressing problem for India, where women are already significantly under-represented in politics. While last year's vote saw a record-setting 78 women elected to the Lok Sabha, India's lower house, that's still only 14% of the house's representatives. A bill pushing for a third of parliamentary seats to be reserved for women -- backed by the BJP and main opposition Congress Party (INC) in the last election cycle -- is still in limbo, more than a decade after it was introduced.

At a time when female lawmakers are quitting over cyber bullying elsewhere -- including in the US and UK -- women's rights advocates say the scale of trolling in India could be an additional barrier to improving gender parity in politics there.

According to Amnesty, women politicians in India receive nearly twice the amount of trolling experienced by their female counterparts in the United States and United Kingdom.

The silencing effect

With the release of the "Troll Patrol India" report, conducted using a combination of crowdsourcing and machine learning, Amnesty has attempted to shed light on how harassment and abuse might deter female politicians from freely posting their views on the platform, or even contesting elections altogether.

More than 1,900 volunteers from 82 countries analyzed tweets sent to 95 women politicians during the general elections, from March to May of 2019.

The volunteers were trained to spot abusive content -- tweets that promote violence against or threaten people based on their identification with a group, like race, gender or religion, which violates Twitter's own rules -- and problematic tweets, which Amnesty defines as "hurtful or hostile content," but does not necessarily meet the threshold of abuse.

Amnesty estimated that, of the 7.1 million tweets mentioning the women, nearly 1 million were abusive or problematic.

That's 113 problematic or abusive tweets per woman per day, on average.

"Online abuse on Twitter demeans women, it invalidates their voice, it belittles them, it intimidates them, and it can silence them," Nazia Erum, head of media and advocacy for Amnesty International India, told CNN.

"The study has found that the more prominent you are, the more abused you will get, which effectively means that a lot of women move back from the amount of engagement that they do on Twitter, they self-censor, or they quit."

Given the sheer scale and nature of online abuse revealed in the report, Amnesty has called on Twitter "to do more to meet its business and human rights obligations and responsibilities," Erum said.

A Twitter spokesperson told CNN that, while it had not seen a copy of the report or data ahead of its publication, abuse and harassment had "no place" on the platform. The spokesperson added that Twitter had taken "strong steps" to address these issues, including during the Indian general election in 2019.

'Trolling is not a crime'

Alka Lamba remembers the horror she felt when she logged onto Facebook to see a fake news article circulating with her photographs. The story claimed that she was the ringleader of a prostitution ring, which was broken up in a police raid on her home.

"They say that the truth cannot be hidden and that the truth will always be revealed, but by the time the truth does come out, the lies have gone on for so long and the damage is done," Lamba, an INC party politician and until recently a member of the New Delhi legislative assembly, told CNN.

Alka Lamba

Faced with an overwhelming swarm of accounts spreading the disinformation about her, Lamba says she considered getting off social media entirely. But, in the end, Lamba decided she didn't want the trolls to feel they had succeeded in silencing her.

Instead of leaving the platforms, she filed a complaint to India's Cyber Crime Investigation Unit.

Six months after first reporting the disinformation, and working to track down the trolls, Lamba asked the unit what progress they had made.

"I was shown the profile pictures of all the men against whom I had filed the complaint. They showed me that all of them were standing next to the Prime Minister in their profile pictures and they are all being followed by the PM," she recalled. "They said that, 'to tell you the truth, nothing is going to happen, and this is just a waste of time.'"

Anyesh Roy, deputy commissioner of police, Cyber Crime Unit, told CNN he was not aware of the complaint filed by Lamba, but that if "criminal offense is seen, then appropriate legal action is taken." A news report from the time did indicate that charges were filed in the matter; it's unclear how the case was disposed.

"Trolling is not defined as a crime. It all depends on the nature of the content. According to that, we ask the host to take the content down," Roy said.

Seeking cyber justice

There aren't many legal avenues for women to take when confronted with online abuse. India doesn't have any uniform law to specifically address alleged digital crimes targeting women. Response from authorities to online threats of gender-based violence is often insufficient or reactive, and reporting mechanisms are in need of re-evaluation, Dr. Debarati Halder, managing director of the Center For Cyber Victim Counseling and co-author of Cyber Crimes Against Women in India, says.

"We do not have any focused law to prohibit and penalize online bullying, trolling, including gender bullying and ... doxing [publishing a target's personal details online]," Halder told CNN.

Those who do report cyber harassment to police, or take cases to court, often get "victim blamed," she says, adding that, as a result, online abuse is often under-reported by women.

Halder, whose research has looked at the trolling and abuse of women politicians, journalists, celebrities and activists, says that India's patriarchal social structure has taken on a new dimension online, where men vandalize women's internet profiles, use filthy language to describe their sex appeal, publish intimate images without their consent or share doctored imagery -- known as "deepfakes" -- depicting them in pornography.

India's youngest parliamentarian, Chandrani Murmu, was subjected to such a "deepfake," with her face superimposed onto an obscene video, before she was elected last year.

'I did not sign up to politics to be abused'

Though Amnesty's research has not linked abuse on Twitter as originating from specific political parties, it did show that women politicians from the BJP were less likely to be trolled than their peers.

But Shazia Ilmi, Delhi BJP vice president and spokeswoman, challenged the suggestion that her party is to blame for the toxic atmosphere female politicians face online, saying it was "completely false."

Ilmi, who is Muslim, says she too has been on the receiving end of harassment on social media.

Shazia Ilmi

Ilmi has been the subject of a torrent of sexual harassment on Twitter, including threats of gang rape, and has blocked almost 200 accounts as a way to cope. On Facebook, she recalled a case in which a troll shared images of "skimpily clad" women with her face morphed onto them, claiming to her friends and family that she ran a brothel.

A Facebook spokesperson told CNN that the company had developed "clear policies against behaviors that disproportionately affect women," and that it continues to work closely with women's safety experts in India "to make sure we're doing everything we can to keep women safe on our services -- whether they are private individuals or in the public eye."

"Anybody can pick up any porn movie, put your face on one of the characters and send it to everyone you know. And you know who all read it, they are my mamus and my khalas -- my uncles and aunts -- they are there, they see it. You know how embarrassing it is?" Ilmi said.

"I signed up to be in politics, but I did not sign up to be abused and have sexually explicit comments made at me ad nauseum."

Ilmi said she also reported her harassment to India's Cyber Crime Investigation Unit, which wrote back to her after two years to say they had been in touch with Twitter, but could do nothing else. The deputy commissioner of police for the Cyber Crime Unit said he was unaware of Ilmi's case.

Misogyny on social media

Female politicians, women's rights activists and experts say the volume of abuse online reflects the cultural realities in India, where patriarchy is deeply rooted and gender inequality rife. Social media platforms, like Twitter, have become a double-edged sword: offering women a platform to speak their minds freely, and yet another sphere to be harassed.

One in every five tweets sent to the group of female politicians and flagged as abusive or problematic was identified as sexist or misogynistic, according to the Amnesty study.

"You have to recognize that this kind of political violence exists both offline, as well as online, and it works to try and intimidate women, not just women in politics but women who are stepping out of line socially anyway," Krishnan said emphatically, gesturing to the street outside.

The headquarters for her political party is in a busy part of India's capital city, a crush of crowded six-story buildings, where many young people and professionals stay in cheap guest accommodations so that they can work or study. It's not a place many women might feel particularly safe after dark.

Krishnan, who was heavily involved in protests over the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old Delhi student in 2012, says the atmosphere for women -- both online and off -- has worsened in recent years as mob violence has become normalized in Indian politics.

"The violence is there to intimidate and dissuade us and it is far worse than ever before in our country today, because we have a fascist, far-right politics that is trying to push back the gains of several centuries of women's struggles," Krishnan said.

"I believe that we all either have to be in it or all of us lose."