At the beginning of this month, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on empowerment of women summoned social media giants Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to examine the issues of cyber safety of women and harassment of women online. The all-women panel has a total of 20 members.
The online world is a murky place for vulnerable targets like children and women. The latter group has to deal with a range of issues such as trolling of women on platforms such as Twitter, morphing of profile pictures and revenge pornography, along with frauds and scammers.
Akancha Srivastava, founder of 'Akancha Against Harassment', India's largest social impact initiative against cyber harassment (they run India's only private national multilingual AI chat helpline for cyber safety), says that in the past year, they have filed 187 FIRs. “In 2018, we had about 250 million social app users, and only 27 per cent were women. There has been a subconscious pushback from men who want to claim the online space for themselves,” she says, adding that they were able to fast track these cases because they tied up with the police across the country.
Akancha adds that its usually younger women who face such situations and most cases of online harassment take place on Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram.
“I see most cases of online harassment on WhatsApp. Here, the perpetrators are usually stalkers, people in your second-degree circle, someone from your college or office or neighbours; people who have your number one way or the other. They send threats of acid attacks, death or rape, or send unsolicited pictures of their private parts and nudes. They even use morphed images to threaten women,” she says. On Facebook and Instagram, it is often strangers who try to harass women.
While educated women in a tier 1 city might be able to handle such situations, it might cripple others elsewhere. “I have seen women who have gotten messages that read ‘I know where you live. I will come tonight and rape you’. How does someone cope with such a situation?” she asks.
As for online trolling or negative comments, social media expert Tinu Cherian says it’s best not to feed the trolls. “The best way to avoid social media trolls and online harassers is to not engage them. Avoid or block them as needed.”
What can you do?
Akancha Srivastava admits that a police station is an intimidating place for many and in these situations, they would not know how to ask for help.
“In case you encounter something like this, don’t panic. Inform your family and friends. Take screenshots. Do not delete these messages as it is evidence. Even if you have no idea where the nearest cyber cell is, go to your nearest police station, with evidence, and file a complaint. If you feel like your life is in danger, request anonymity. Ask for an acknowledgement slip. Be persistent, till you get it resolved. Don’t give up until the action is taken,” she says.
Here are some steps to keep in mind to stay safe online
Don’t overshare: The tendency to keep posting pictures and status updates, especially when we are travelling, is overpowering but do remember not everyone on your timeline is your close friend. A stranger can figure out your daily schedule or pattern from the regular updates you post.
Rethink before posting pictures online: Identity theft, morphing, blackmailing — the photos you share on social networking sites can lead to any of these. Some time ago, pictures of a 17-year-old girl from Udaipur, taken from her social media account, were morphed before being circulated on the internet. A Japanese man accused of stalking and sexually assaulting a young pop star told police he identified a train station reflected in the singer’s eyes in a selfie she posted online.
Don’t add strangers: It may seem nice to have lots of online friends and followers on your personal account, but add only people that you know in real life. Also, keep your accounts private.
Check settings regularly: Keep your privacy settings updated; don’t be lazy about it. Frequently clear the location history from Facebook and weed your profiles from time to time to remove people or accounts you don’t know or don’t trust.
Don’t set common passwords: Easy to guess or common passwords are one of the weakest links in our social media fortress. Use a strong password, don’t use the same one for all your accounts and change it frequently. Never ever share your password with anyone, no matter how close you are with him/her.
Don’t geotag your photos: Not only does this give away your location to everyone in your online circle, it can also broadcast to the world that you are away from home. When this is for an extended period of time, someone can break into your house. Turn off your location services in the settings in all the devices you use as well as in your social media accounts.
Watch the Connections: Connecting to the Internet using the public Wi-Fi at restaurants, airports, malls and so on is fraught with danger. Don’t visit sensitive sites, like your banking website, and always use a VPN (virtual private network) for extra security.
Hashtags make you visible: Don’t follow trends blindly. When you hashtag anything and post on social media, it makes you more visible on the Internet.
Log off once done: Keeps you secure and ensures you don’t check social media every two minutes.
Prevent revenge porn: Sexting has become a standard way of flirting in recent times. While sending sexually explicit messages may be romantic, far too many women have had their intimate pictures leaked online by former partners. You know the risks. If someone asks for such pictures, say no. Don’t trust someone who continues to pressurise you to do something you are not comfortable with.