How bad can it be?
The biggest problem when it comes to online interactions is that the anonymity of the internet often emboldens people to do and say things they wouldn’t even consider saying in a face to face setting. In fact, 76% of women under the age of 30 have faced some form of anonymous online harassment or stalking. The casual sexism faced by women and gender minorities in their ‘offline lives’ (comments on their looks, body, attire, etc) are only amplified online. It’s no secret that many women online face harassment in the form of insults, taunts and, death and rape threats. You need to only go to the Twitter feed of any female celebrity to see this happening. While these tweets or comments are usually from random trolls online, women also receive similar treatment from people they know personally. For example, as work has become remote due to COVID-19, instances of sexual harassment have also shifted online.
So, why specifically women?
According to Bishakha Dutta (2016) a filmmaker and a women’s right’s activist, when women enter these online spaces, they are seen as trespassers in a public space that is considered the sole domain of men. The internet provides these men a form of anonymity which they can’t afford offline. This apparent lack of consequence boosts their confidence to commit these crimes without fear.
What does this look like online?
These crimes may include:
1.) Trolling where you publicly insult someone on social media platforms like Twitter. For instance, when MS Dhoni’s daughter was trolled online and even sent rape threats for her father’s performance on cricket field.
2.) Cyberbullying or the use of electronic communication to send messages of an intimidating or threatening nature. A recent case of cyberbullying would be that of Sajana, a trans woman from Kerala who sold Biryani after getting bullied by online trolls, attempting to end her life.
3.) Cyberstalking or the use of the Internet to repeatedly harass or frighten an individual. In 2003 an employee of an embassy from Delhi Seema Khanna (name changed) got an email from a guy asking her to pose nude or pay him rupees 1 lakh, otherwise he would morph her photo and put it on a website along with her personal information.
4.) Revelations online of personal communications, sensitive personal information, etc. Cyber criminals can pose as a legitimate institution (like the government) to gather personal information (also known) as “phishing”. Recently the government of India warned people of scamsters directly messaging people on Instagram asking them to open a link which would allow them to control their account which they can use to contact their friends.
5.) Revenge porn or the distribution of sexually explicit images of individuals without their permission. For instance, the Noida Police arrested a man for putting the private photos of her ex-girlfriend on several porn sites.
What makes it worse?
Lack of recourse on social media platforms against such cyber crimes
These crimes are aggravated because the victim is left without any recourse. When a victim reports a harassment complaint online there is little to no follow-up action from the platform. The platform operators respond to different crimes like spamming and unwanted messages, in the same way as they do for a case of harassment. There is no differentiation based on the severity of the crime. Moreover, in a study conducted in 2016 there is no consistency in how harassment itself is defined across platforms like Instagram, Twitter, etc.
The impact of this is serious, these threats and experiences can limit women’s participation in online spaces. One in five girls have either significantly reduced or left social media platforms entirely due to online abuse, according to a global study by Plan International. This also has a knock on effect on other aspects of a woman’s life. For example, in the US it has forced girls to not go to schools and is a major reason why Katie Hill, a politician, resigned from the US Congress. In India the situation is similar. 95 female politicians between March and May received around a million hateful mentions on Twitter according to a study by Amnesty International.
So what can we do about it?
We need to build an online culture that is inclusive and safe for people of all genders and sexualities. To start with, this means having these conversations with friends and family to make these experiences more visible.
There are also a couple steps you can take to protect yourself online:
- Verify the authenticity of new social media profiles before interacting. Fake accounts usually have few pictures, low quality images, or none at all. Mutual contacts/connections are likely to be few or none at all.
- Take screenshots of harmful messages, photos with date and time.
- Report inappropriate actions or messages to social media platforms directly or file a complaint with the authorities.
- If you want to know more, head over to https://reclaimyourprivacy.in/