Women navigate through a pandemic of cyber harassment as they share how easy it has become for harassers to attack them online.
Bengaluru: It’s worse than you think it is.
Imagine this: It’s a Friday. You wake up with your phone blowing up with notifications. It’s seven in the morning. What could possibly be wrong? The perplexion doesn’t last much longer, for you see the horrors of being a woman on the Internet play right in front of your eyes. There are hundreds of strangers visiting your Twitter account; mocking, abusing, questioning you. You blink, unaware, and notice the familiarity of your phone number #99XXXXXXXX displayed in a stranger’s tweet. 500 retweets, it highlights. You question the course of events that might have led to this; and the sad reality of thousands of women dawns upon you.
In 2020, The Central Division of Cyber Crime Police Station, Bangalore, recorded 490 cases of cyber-related crimes and 118 cases in the first two months of 2021, according to Mohan Kumar, Sub-Inspector. The crime is now increasing.
However, the data on different nature of crimes that fall under the category of online harassment in India is unaccounted for, according to M.D. Sharath, Superintendent of Police, Cyber Crime Division, Crime Investigation Department, Bengaluru.
Now what I asked you to imagine in the beginning is known as the act of doxxing; an increased nature of cyber crime against women that finds its easy way to surface throughout the Internet. It includes revealing someone’s personal information — name, address, phone number, or similar info — to the Internet without their consent. Following that, a person is often harassed online and in real life.
“It feels extremely unsafe,” said Y*. “I’ve faced a lot of attacks by right wing trolls just for voicing my opinion which they didn’t agree with.”
For Y*, a woman who lives in the National Capital Region (NCR), simply existing on the Internet has become a nightmare.
They** (Y) shared their story: “I got active on Twitter during lockdown last year, with a following of around six thousand followers. Once in response to one of my posts surrounding news and politics, I got called extremely vile and sexist slurs.” They added that although they blocked all the big accounts spreading hate, it didn’t work. “Turns out, these men were following me through their burner accounts. After they got angry by one of my tweets, they amplified my tweets like wildfire. Even though I deleted my tweet and apologized, I received multiple death and rape threats, asking me to kill myself.”
They continued, “These abusers found out my private information — my full name, contact number, my work etc — and posted it all publicly online. Now, it was a free game for anyone who wanted to harass me. They’ve doxxed other women too, where they posted their phone numbers, including information about their family.”
Y said that they could not believe what had happened as they were as anonymous as possible on social media. “This is what we are forced to do, to go by pseudonyms on Twitter. A lot of us also refrain from posting our photos in order to avoid harassment,” they said.
The survivor sighed, “I had breakdowns everyday because of this. My mental health was in shambles. I still live in constant fear because my personal information is out there in the open.”
Y is not alone. Zinia Sengupta, from West Bengal, is another woman who feels the same way as them. She said, “The incidence of women facing online harassment has increased way too much during (COVID-19-induced) lockdown. People have so much spare time to waste and they do it by harassing a woman online because we seem easier targets.”
74 percent of 4,500 women surveyed across 45 different countries expressed concern about online abuse escalating to offline threats, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit report 2020. The same report revealed that the overall prevalence rate of doxxing is 55 percent, along with the following:
Women online face multiple discriminations on grounds of their identity, sexuality, and caste. 20 percent of Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) LGBT people experienced abuse online, according to a 2017 LGBT organization Stonewall report.
Travel a few years ahead and you’ll find not much has changed.
Online is Offline
Sailaja Darisipudi, Communications Manager, End Cyber Abuse, a non-profit organisation and a collective of lawyers, researchers, said, “There has been an increase in digital gendered violence during this ongoing pandemic. It is important to remember that the digital space is simply a reflection of the physical world that created it. Accordingly, digital abuse does not occur in a vacuum.” She added, “Online harassment, including image-based sexual abuse (posting or sharing intimate images of another person without their consent) stem from deeply rooted misogyny in our society as well as other structural inequalities and power imbalances that enable them.”
She emphasised that although digital violence can escalate to physical violence, online threats are real-life threats with long lasting implications, regardless of whether they turn into or start with physical threats or not.
“For example, a survey of 2,060 people by the UK based charity Refuge revealed that 83 percent of respondents who suffered from image-based sexual abuse reported that their mental health and wellbeing suffered. Digital violence may start on a screen but it can end up spreading far beyond it,” she said.
“A significant increase of image based abuse and online harassment is due to the fact that so many people are now using technology as a tool of abuse,” said Katy, a survivor of image-based sexual harassment, and the founder of Amplifying Survivors, an online community page.
Recently, a woman who was looking for oxygen resources for her mother faced harassment by one of the suppliers online. She said, “He refused to give me oxygen unless I agreed (to his advances). It’s a criminal offence!”
In several cases, perpetrators of harassment online are often people the survivor personally knows. Such is the story of A*, who lives in Ghaziabad. “I was stalked last June 2020 by a distant family relative whose family wanted me to get engaged with him. He had my contact details for emergency purposes as the whole city was under lockdown. But after I refused to receive his calls, he started stalking me,” she said. “He knew the exact time I would take my dog out for a walk. He gave my number to some of his friends and they all started texting me on WhatsApp. I would get calls from random numbers late at night. Around 30 fake accounts started following me on my Instagram.” She added that although she filed a complaint at the cyber cell with all the evidence — screenshots and call recording — she never got a response.
Unlike her, twelve-year-old E* didn’t have any knowledge of cyber reporting when one of her friends had harassed her. She’s 21 now, still struggling to feel safe. “One of my friends harassed me on Facebook after I had politely declined his advances. He blackmailed me, threatened me, and even stalked me in real life,” she said. “Since I was only 12, I was not aware where to go and who to ask for help.” She added, “I still do not feel safe on social media, I still get anxious with making new friends.”
“Younger women are more likely to have personally experienced online violence,” according to The Economist Intelligence Unit report. Globally, the overall prevalence of online violence against them is 45 percent.
Survivors ask for change. Y said, “It’s difficult to create a free and fair platform but abusers need to be held accountable.” Zinia said, “There’s a need for more cyber cells for women. Since harassers are often anonymous, tracing and locating them is the main key.”
“Twitter is still not doing enough to protect women from online violence and abuse”, says a 2020 Amnesty International analysis. It included Twitter’s response that said “its combination of human moderation and use of technology, allows it to take a more proactive response to online abuse”.
But according to Ambika Tandon, Researcher, Centre for Internet & Society, relying on algorithmic systems is very difficult in terms of content moderation systems. She said, “Since social media companies also had to cut down on staff members during the pandemic, they too were relying on algorithms, and those can be quite insufficient. The algorithms don’t consider context.”
For women who come from a conservative background, E said that there rather needs to be a stronger helpline that provides immediate assistance.
Pramila Naidu R., Chairperson, Karnataka State Commission for Women, said that they provide assistance to the survivors until their case is solved. Further, she mentioned, “We had the option of financial assistance for the survivors before, but now it stays in the hands of the Supreme Court.”
India does not have a dedicated cyber security law.
The link between cyber-security—virus, hacking etc, and gendered cyber harassment— using those tools to take advantage of women’s personal information, remains ambiguous.
“Legislation surrounding technology facilitating gendered violence (TFGV) can be vague and confusing,” said Sailaja, from End Cyber Abuse. “The 2021 Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, require due diligence by intermediaries, who must block access to unlawful content — such as image-based sexual abuse — within 36 hours upon a Court or government order. Unfortunately, even this lengthy time period can be too late for the takedown of intimate images; by this time, an image or video could easily go viral.”
She added, “The Rules that currently require due diligence for any content — “defamatory, obscene, pornographic”, “is harmful to a child,” or “is patently false and untrue…” — are overbroad definitions that can easily be misinterpreted. Moreover, its provisions such as Section 67A — publication and transmission of any material containing a “sexually explicit act or conduct” in electronic form, criminalize even the consensual sharing of intimate or sexual images. This results in the possibility of the survivors, as well as sex workers, being criminalized for taking selfies or sharing intimate images of themselves with a trusted person.”
Sailaja said that the key is to rewrite these laws to allow for bodily and sexual autonomy, while banning only non-consensual, abusive, and harassing behavior. Researcher Ambika said, “The fact that we do not have adequate laws to deal with this entire spectrum of violence is definitely a challenge.”
“As physical movement curtailed during lockdown last year, access to NGOs and organisations was completely blocked. It then became quite apparent that we need to have better mechanisms in place to be able to deal with gendered violence online,” said Ambika. “We need to invest more in grassroots initiatives such as Point of View; and digital security programs, like the one run by Samabhavana in Kolkata for the transgender community — aimed at providing skills to girls and women to protect themselves online.”
She added that social media companies and governmental bodies should rather identify and support these women networks; partner with them to try and understand their experiences on the ground. “Authority should work with community,” she said.
“There’s a big need for strong allyship,” said Vandita Morarka, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, One Future Collective. “Awareness works only to a certain point, we need effort for behavioural change.” Further, “Companies need to alter their platform design — accounting for different lived realities and different identities,” she said.
“We need to educate men better,” said Isha Yadav, founder of Delhi Art Slam, and curator of Museum of Rape Threats & Sexism. She added that by educating society about rights and responsibilities of active citizenship, one can introduce the reality of online women harassment in day-to-day mainstream conversations.
End Cyber Abuse talked about individual responsibilities. “Use your privilege to help marginalized people: be proactive in ensuring any digital spaces you create are a safe space for all people and shut down any abuse that occurs,” said Sailaja. “Most importantly, listen to survivors.”
Note: *denotes survivor who chose to be anonymous; **Y go by they/them pronouns.