The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

The Politics of Public Whisper Networks

Esha Datanwala, Class of 2020

This piece is the first amongst our newly instated theme for the month — Sexual Harrasment & #metoo.

— by Kristina Flour

Whisper networks are quite possibly the biggest open secret in modern culture. Women have been creating and sustaining these for decades, keeping each other wary of people in their workplaces, educational institutions — even families. They’re one of the best-kept secrets within the female community, allowing the network to thrive and inform; keeping women wary of men but not enough to move towards some form of due process prosecution. It’s tacitly understood that these networks are to keep women in a community connected with those who have sexual harassment stories related to the people they’re around. With the dawn of the #metoo movement, these unsaid and unseen whisper networks have turned into loud, powerful declarations and allegations, carrying forth the hesitancy of possibly fake accusations but remaining, at its essence, a system to warn and inform.

Whisper networks have never been completely devoid of dubiosity — the possibility of false allegations or inflated accounts was just as real then as it is now. However, the restriction of the network to the women who were directly concerned by it kept those apprehensions buried. It wasn’t a question of who was falsely accused, but instead of who’s left to trust: a question that remains at the crux of today’s movement. Ultimately, though, the #metoo movement is a public whisper network, complete with all of its advantages and faults but massively inflated. This inflation is what has led to the creation of the dangerous yet firm ground on which the movement stands. It benefits most out of the expansion of the network, and yet is susceptible to mis-narration and mischaracterization by virtue of this large base.

Public whisper networks are fundamentally different from private ones because of their politicized nature. They are warped into questions of falsity and ethicality, yanking the narrative away from the widespread abuse of power in nearly every single industry to instead the cases that are innocent until never proven guilty. The solidarity of the network is now lost because those involved within it cannot be trusted to keep the information to themselves and disseminate it only to those who need to know; Twitter becomes a platform where the network dies a brutal death in the arms of a keyboard warrior who would rather fight for the (few) unsung heroes it finds in men who rise above their accusations, than fight for the (many) women who get buried under the weight of their unaccepted truth.

This line of thinking leaves me with one haunting question — can Ashoka sustain its whisper networks in this age of #metoo? Or will names slowly begin to trickle out of the community, leaving no choice but mass public declarations?

It would be foolish to assume that Ashoka doesn’t have its whisper networks — the rooms of SH2 and SH4 have seen and heard conversations laced with secrecy and caution, but more importantly, have experienced the anxiety and fear that comes with telling your story. Ashoka, as a community, is quite possibly not equipped to deal with its own #metoo movement; this campus, as small as it is, is also not enough to contain the sharp tremors that would be felt in our social fabric. Admittedly, there exists distrust around our own internal due processes, and the entire purpose of this public movement is to shake things up where due process was unable to and where laws and policies failed to protect its people.

However, are we equipped enough as a community to even fathom the true impact of this movement seizing Ashoka at its infantile stages? This isn’t a question about how many people may be involved, or which people are involved — it runs much deeper than that. As a community, we have never dealt with something that would run as dirty as the exposition of this university’s whisper networks. But will there ever come a point where these networks can no more serve us in the way they’re meant to? The biggest downside to whisper networks is that they aren’t political enough — they keep stories and accounts contained amongst women in private conversations. The political whisper network is one that is public, and it is one that comes from an ineffective private network. In essence, that’s where the #metoo movement sprung from — the inefficacy of private whisper networks led to the creation of the biggest, most public and political one ever, one that stretches across countries and industries, professions and age groups.

Can a public whisper network at Ashoka handle the onslaught from a community that is small enough for you to be whispering about the person sitting next to you every week?

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