Strong legislation needed to combat gender based violence on social media 

  • Tarushi Sinha 

“The vast majority of online adult users, presently, are on at least one social networking site. Out of these, six percent have experienced harassment that is of sexual nature. While six percent may not seem like a very high percentage, when segregated by gender, the statistics are telling. Seven percent of all female internet users have experienced sexual harassment online as opposed to four percent of male internet users (Pew Research Centre) where globally 47% of women and 53% of men areinternet users. These statistics show that women are almost twice as likely to experience sexual harassment online as opposed to men although there are fewer female online users. This demonstrates a gendered vulnerability to online sexual harassment that stems from the unnecessary sexualization of women offline. In fact, aDemos study established that women are significantly more likely to be targeted specifically because of their gender and men are overwhelmingly likely to be the harasser. Furthermore, 38% of women who experience sexual harassment online are more likely to view it as traumatic over only 14% of men who experience it (Pew Research Centre). This indicates that the impact of sexual harassment seems to be greater for women than men. This is not to imply that sexual harassment targeted at men is any less important; it simply highlights the need to approach the problem in a nuanced manner.

The statistical overview shows that online sexual harassment exhibits traits of gender-based violence towards women. Evidence suggests that sexual harassment online has negative psychological effects. It can lead to severe emotional distress and the fear of physical harm. For instance, in 2013, a British journalist and feminist who helped get a picture of Jane Austen on the £10 banknote began receiving more than 50 violent threats per hour on Twitter, related to rape and murder. Her immediate reaction was that she could not eat or sleep- a clear sign of emotional distress.

Furthermore, studies conducted at Sam Houston State University in Texas also show that online harassment can be more than or equally as traumatizing as harassment in person. This is primarily because of the largely public aspect of online sexual harassment. It is possible that when women are harassed online, the impact is exacerbated as the harassment is visible to many more people. In spite of this, the majority of Indian women on social media ignore harassment. In contrast, continued harassment offline elicits a relatively greater effort to report the incident to the authorities. Therefore, while crimes of harassment in person are underreported, online harassment is even less reported.

This situation is problematic. Studies around the world have shown that ignoring sexual harassment on the streets fuels the perception that this behaviour is acceptable. The internet is a large public domain and its many spaces can be viewed as interactions that parallel those in offline situations. Thus, ignoring sexual harassment online will have the same impact on social media platforms, as it will on the streets. This is evidenced by the fact that since most online sexual harassment cases go unreported, India has one of the highest number of tweets (549,033 per year) related to gender based violence.

Cases and consequences in India

Gender based violence through sexual harassment online is prevalent across all social media platforms – especially those in which women of stature express their views and beliefs. For instance, on Twitter, a reputed Indian journalist, was at the receiving end of a slanderous campaign led an anonymous handle known for its sexist comments. Expressing her views against the Twitter handle only resulted in increasing the onslaught of sexist tweets. Shortly thereafter, an FIR was filed against the handle at a local police station under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Outraging the modestly of woman), Sec. 354A (Sexual Harassment), Sec. 499 (Criminal Defamation) and the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Although these actions led to the identification of the users of the now suspended handle, they were not charged with a crime despite the psychological and emotional stress they inflicted. The case is currently inconclusive. However, it is still one of the more successful instances of how gender based violence on social media is dealt with. It has helped raise awareness about the issue and has put an end to one of the many sexually abusive accounts on social media.

In a different instance, another female journalist was at the receiving end of gender-based violence and sexual harassment on Twitter. Not only was she regularly threatened with gang rape and other forms of sexual violence, but information regarding her family was made public. Naturally, this was a very disturbing experience, but instead of retaliating, she chose to stop posting her views on Twitter to put an end to the threats. This is just one of the many cases in which gender-based harassment can impose restrictions on women’s freedom of expression.

While both the examples of online harassment were quite similar, the reactions of the women at the receiving end were very different. Women, more often than not, withdraw from social media platforms if they encounter sexual harassment as opposed to taking actions against the harasser. This is perplexing because there is a higher likelihood of tracking down a harasser on social media than a harasser in person. On the internet, the IP address can be used to block or track down an online harasser, whereas concrete information onpersonal identification is required to track down offline perpetrators.

So why don’t more people take action against online sexual harassers? And why is inaction the most common reaction to harassment? This is primarily because of the high degree of unfamiliarity surrounding the issue. Most men and women are unaware of the legal steps and non-legal options they can pursue. Another factor is that the Indian police as of now are only beginning to acknowledge social media and the psychological effects of online harassment. The police, already overburdened with cases, tend to view online harassment as a non-serious issue. Many of the women who do report cases of online sexual abuse to the police are dismissed due to either ignorance, insensitivity, or both. For instance, when an NGO worker from Mumbai, who faced a chain of online harassment on Instagram, decided to take action against the harasser,a constable from the IT cell of Mumbai Police reverted back asking “”What is Instagram?”” This incident demonstrates that an important step in decreasing online sexual harassment would be to educate local authorities on the matter and on how to deal with it.

Another crucial aspect of dealing with this issue is to increase regulations on social media platforms. Facebook refused to take down a sexually abusive picture of a young woman after it was reported, as it did not violate the company’s ‘Community Standards’. Twitter, on the other hand, has a reporting button with extremely limited utility. It involves a cumbersome process that does not give the user a way to explain that she or he is a target of ongoing harassment. Therefore, in order for there to be change in people’s attitudes on social media, and further – change in legislation, social networking sites must do more than just acknowledge the presence of online abuse.

Need to fill the policy gap

According to the United Nation’s Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women there is a ban on acts of gender-based violence that could lead to the physical, sexual or psychological harm of women. As the statistics demonstrated above, this clearly extends to acts of violence on social media platforms.

In India, however, up until recently, the law governing online harassment was Section 66A of the IT Act which was removed due to its vague language and oppressive nature. Section 66A was misused primarily to censor the media and not regulate it. There is a fine line between censoring content and regulating content on social networking sites; it is important not to cross this line. The Internet Watch Foundation, a non-profit organization in England, serves to reduce the obtainability of material with criminal intent. In essence, it regulates social media and works with both the public and the government to protect the people from traumatic content.

In order to increase content regulation on social networking platforms in India, it is necessary for policy-makers to work with the public to come up with an appropriate legislation. This is the first step in ensuring a decrease in gender based online harassment. Online harassment can lead to mental trauma which, in the long term, can be as debilitating for women as the physical trauma of a real life encounter. Therefore, laws and regulations need to be framed appropriately, and enforced strictly. Now is perhaps the right time to increase efforts in this direction, before India witnesses further online penetration and such behavior gets normalised through inaction. “

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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