(Trigger warning: The story contains mentions of suicide, visual and textual descriptions of queer-phobic, transphobic slurs and hate comments. Readers discretion is advised.)
"His pronouns are now was/were."
"Main toh kehta hoon saare makeup karne wale ladko ko mar jana chahiye (All the men who wear makeup should die.)"
The online hate against 16-year-old queer make-up artist Pranshu continued to trickle in on their Instagram reel – even after their death by suicide on 21 November.
A class 10 student of Ujjain Public School and native of Madhya Pradesh, Pranshu was subjected to online bullying and harassment after their reel in a saree went viral during Diwali – which allegedly led them to take the tragic step.
Even as members of the queer community fondly remember Pranshu, they know that they were not the only queer individual to face online hate – and they won't even be the last. From death and rape threats to homophobic slurs, for many creators and activists from the LGBTQIA+ communities being subjected to cyberbullying on social media platforms is an every day thing.
As we speak to them, we try to find out why social media platforms like Instagram – where most of the LGBTQIA+ artists have an active following – are failing to provide them with a safe space.
'Comments Make You Mentally Unsettled, Vulnerable'
Nineteen-year-old Sanat, who identifies as a transperson, explained how she felt unsafe after a person sent her a "vile" message on Instagram with transphobic slurs and threatened to come to her house and hurt her. Delhi-based Sanat is a part-time creator and make-up artist and has almost 40,000 followers on Instagram.
"It's one thing if you are just trolled online. But it's another thing to see someone send you your address and threaten you. It makes you feel helpless, unsafe, and vulnerable. It also subconsciously affects your self-esteem," Sanat said, adding that the trauma lasts for several years.
Rie Raut identifies as a non-binary person and has over 7,000 followers on Instagram, where they use their handle to advocate for Dalit and trans rights.
Now studying at the University College London, Rie turned to crowdfunding to meet the expenses incurred for the gender affirmation procedure in 2021. But they were met with bullying.
"At first, the comments were filled with love and support from friends and queer individuals. But soon, I began to receive a lot of hate where people were transphobic, casteist, and homophobic. People said things like 'why should we pay for your sexual fantasies,' 'you should jump off your terrace'. Some even called me an 'e-beggar'."Rie Raut to The Quint
Rie said it is hard to reply to comments when the other person's intent is "not to respectfully understand us," but to "attack and dehumanise us."
'Level Of Hate For Us Is Unbelievable'
The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) data in 2021 showed a 36 percent increase in cyberstalking and cyberbullying cases in India post the pandemic.
In the United States, a 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health showed that 45 percent of LGBTQ youth considered suicide in the past year, and 73 percent reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety.
In India, there is no specific government registry or data that tracks crimes against queer and transpersons.
Patruni Chidananda Sastry, a bisexual drag artist based out of Hyderabad, said that they have "developed a thick skin" against trolls over the years. However, what bothers them is when online comments attack their partner or their families.
"We have developed a thick skin when someone comments about you. But, what bothers you is when they come behind your partner or your children. My partner has received rape threats too. What they don't realise is that we too have friends and family who read the comments and get affected," Sastry, a content creator with over 11,500 followers, said.
Thirty-year-old Roshini Kumar, a multi-disciplinary queer artist, activist, and model based out of Mumbai, told The Quint that the level of hate people have for queer individuals is "unbelievable."
"They (bullies) want us dead. They don't care. From name-calling to wanting us killed, these bullies have no face or accountability. Of course, it affects our mental health. If it doesn't get to you today, it will get to you tomorrow. Yesterday, it was Pranshu. Tomorrow it might be someone we know," Kumar, who has a following of 41,500, said.
'No Safe Space For Us'
In its community guidelines, Meta – the platform that owns Instagram – stated: "We're working to remove content that has the potential to contribute to real-world harm, including through our policies prohibiting coordination of harm, sale of medical masks and related goods, hate speech, bullying and harassment, and misinformation that contributes to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm."
However, queer activists pointed towards Meta's inaction against the rise in queer/transphobic remarks and bullying directed towards their posts.
A 2023 LGBTQ online safety report by GLAAD, a US-based non-governmental media organisation working towards LGBTQ+ advocacy, showed that all major social media platforms do poorly at protecting LGBTQ+ users from hate speech and harassment – especially those who identify as transgender persons, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.
The report stated that there is an "anti-LGBTQ rhetoric on social media," which translated to real-world offline harms and how platforms are "failing to mitigate this dangerous hate and disinformation and inadequately enforce their own policies."
Speaking to The Quint, Jeet, the founder of YesWeExist, an online community that promotes LGBTQIA+ rights, said:
"Several queer India users have experienced that Instagram often fails to remove harmful, violating content despite reporting it and despite appealing incorrect decisions, corroborating the concerns raised by Meta's Oversight Board and Haugen. This has discouraged queer users from reporting content."Jeet, Founder, YesWeExist
"Instagram has failed to provide a safe space for people within the LGBTQIA+ community. Every time you report you hate comment, there is no action that's being taken. There have been several instances where I receive vile hate comments and to highlight it, I post it on my story. Instead of taking down the original comment, my post was taken down for 'harassment and bullying'," Roshini told The Quint.
After Pranshu's death, all the four queer individuals The Quint spoke to shared posts highlighting queerphobic comments on their Instagram. They all received hate.
"It's like almost Instagram doesn't care about us. People literally came to my profile and said 'when you will commit suicide,' 'you should die'. We already face bullying and harassment outside. This shows they don't care for us queer individuals," Sanat said.
In an e-mail response to The Quint, a Meta spokesperson said, “We have clear rules against hate speech and bullying, and take action on this content when we become aware of it, whether that's through our proactive detection tools or reports from our community. We’re committed to ensuring that Instagram is a positive experience for everyone, particularly teenagers and members of groups that may be vulnerable.”
But, Why Has No Action Taken?
According to Meta's website, it uses technology and review teams to "detect, review and take action on millions of pieces of content every day on Facebook and Instagram."
Jeet explained to The Quint that Meta had a list banned words in multiple languages. So if you include those words in your content, it gets taken down.
"I suspect that Meta has not included any trans/homophobic slurs in South Asian languages, which is why certain slurs like Ch***a, H***a are not taken down when used," Jeet said.
"Most hateful comments, especially transphobic and homophobic comments and casteist slurs never get flagged and Instagram doesn’t these as slurs since it is in regional languages. That's not fair," Rie Raut told The Quint.
"For them, hate is equal to engagement. At the end of the day, it is a business which is run by a corporate. It might not matter to them to solve every situation, especially hate,"Patruni told The Quint
Meanwhile, Meta told The Quint that around 40,000 people are working as moderators to review content in South Asian languages.
"The teams have the ability to review content in 70 global languages, including 20 Indian languages," a Meta spokesperson said.
So, is there anything that these social media platforms can do at all? Jeet has three suggestions:
First, Meta must consult with the queer communities in India. Understand the context of Indian languages to understand and recognise queer and transphobic harassment.
Two, they must heavily invest to ensure that content moderation is overseen by a team of human beings and not Artificial Intelligence (AI) models, because the latter don't recognise hate languages.
Third, social media companies should ensure that there is diversity and inclusion of queer people in their workspaces. This will help in understand us better.