In Focus

Risks of Social Media

Women and children are the most vulnerable to abuse like stalking, bullying, trolling, and offers of friendship via fake profiles, on social media. Manu Shrivastava outlines the dangers.

For a very long time now, social media platforms have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Impersonation, fraud, stalking, blackmailing, identity theft, trolling, pornography, harassment, cyber bullying, violent games, videos of rape and murder, are only a handful of such reasons.

Invariably, these crimes are targeted towards those weaker in the societal hierarchy, mostly women and children, across strata. With more than 196 million social media users in India in 2017, the magnitude of victims and potential targets is concurrently huge.

The last decade and half has witnessed the emergence of some of the most popular social networking and data-sharing services such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whats App, Snapchat, etc. These social media platforms were created to facilitate sharing of information and ideas by means of online communities and social networks.

The other side of the social media coin

As useful as these services might be, they have concurrently led to a sharp increase in the range of cyber crimes and offences perpetrated against women and children, owing to the anonymity afforded by the virtual world.

The most abused of all social media platforms was the erstwhile Orkut, which has now been replaced by Facebook. The large reach, popularity and anonymity the service provides, makes it very easy for a stalker to trace and harass his prey. Quite recently, a 25-year-old marketing firm executive in Mumbai was arrested for stalking and sexually harassing a 28-year-old bank manager on Facebook. The accused had even created a fake profile to stalk the victim. What had started as a regular harmless conversation soon led to the accused posting lewd posts and obscene pictures on the woman’s Facebook profile. He was arrested.

In another instance, in Udaipur, things turned pretty ugly for a 17-year-old student when she received an anonymous message on Instagram carrying her morphed pictures – her face on a naked body. Her ordeal did not end there. When she finally managed to file a complaint after shuttling between police stations, the police officer rebuked her asking why she had put up her photos on social media in the first place, and that she should delete her accounts to be safe. It’s important for the police too to be apprised of the law and the freedom of women to post what they want online, without the fear of being stalked or attacked. Merely deleting accounts and hiding one’s profile doesn’t solve the issue. In this instance, the victim’s sister – a journalist by profession – intervened and the police had to act. The risks of personal information and images being misused by such offenders is only increasing with every passing day.

The curtain of anonymity

It is important to understand that cyber space is never completely disconnected from the real world, and all information one puts on social media accounts can and is used to stalk in the real world. Left unaddressed, stalking leads to rape, murder, acid attack and other gruesome crimes.

Trolling, which is a recent phenomenon, is growing fast, and from what starts as criticising a woman for her views and opinions has now snowballed into threats of rape, murder, acid attack not just limited to the woman, but extends to her family too. Cyber bullying is a testimony to the crude chauvinist mindset towards vocal and opinionated women, fuelled by the anonymity provided by social media.

Stalking is not the only crime made easy by social media. Often, perpetrators create fake profiles to impersonate as ‘acceptable’ profiles to get in touch with young girls and women. Facebook is the most widely misused platform for impersonation and fraud. Gullible and trusting women often reveal information in conversation with imposters, making themselves more vulnerable.

The information a person decides to put on his/her social media account is never verified. This means a fraudster may put any information without being caught. If a girl or woman is not vigilant or aware of the risks of interaction with strangers on social media, she may easily be fooled by misleading and fraudulent profiles.

The information a person decides to put on his/her social media account is never verified. This means a fraudster may put any information without being caught. If a girl or woman is not vigilant or aware of the risks of interaction with strangers on social media, she may easily be fooled by misleading and fraudulent profiles. Social media communities and groups such as those masquerading as music groups, education groups, self-help groups, are rife with self-proclaimed ‘experts’ offering their ‘guidance’. It isn’t a matter of surprise that neither are the ‘experts’ authentic nor is their intention to ‘guide’. The targets almost always are girls from distant towns who once entertaining discussions of ‘topics of mutual interest’ are conveniently misled and fooled into entering nefarious associations. The fear of social exposure and loss of reputation ensure they remain in a quagmire. There is an acute need to expose such elements and prosecute them by laws which need awareness and application.

Matrimonial websites that provide ‘social networking’ services for a niche group of users i.e., those seeking a partner or spouse, are ripe for felons creating fake profiles and impersonating recklessly. In these cases, fraudsters – often married, divorced and elderly – create profiles mostly as ‘Single NRI’ men looking for a suitable bride, and gain the trust of women with the promise of marriage.

The women are then duped for money or tricked into entering physical relationships. Such incidents have been increasing at an alarming rate. In Pune, for example, the first six months in 2017 registered 54 such cases of duping through matrimonial websites. Parental and societal pressure for marriage and the prevalent notion of single women being loose and ‘available’ often push them into believing such men and fall victim.

Need for stricter laws

In the absence of stricter laws and awareness, it will always be risky to put information, images and videos on social media. Most women do not see the risk or think of the possibility of a ‘friend’, ‘mutual friend’, ‘relative’ or even ‘family’ stalking them. The latest Facebook feature of ‘Profile Picture Guard’ only prevents downloading of the profile picture. Privacy settings may prevent access of data especially images to ‘public’ but do not stop a ‘friend’ from downloading the images.

This access to personal images puts a woman at risk in situations of discord with family or discontinuation of a romantic relationship. An ‘ex’ may conveniently use personal photographs to blackmail a woman to establish physical relations, continue with the relationship, or prevent her from moving on. This is what happened with a 22-year-old woman in Noida whose ex-boyfriend posted their intimate photographs on Facebook after their breakup.

Stalking by one’s family is a lot more common than what statistics suggest. Because of the fear of victim shaming and lax attitude of authorities calling stalking by one’s family as a ‘personal matter’, most women do not talk about or report harassment by family members. Instances of broken families posting ‘family’ photographs to project normalcy despite loud and public objections by the woman, are commonplace occurrences. This is done to mislead extended family, relatives and friends, often to the discomfort of the woman who may have severed ties with a dysfunctional family.

While most cyber-crimes are committed through social media and are targeted towards women, children are prime targets too. In 2015, the NCRB data stated 1,540 cases of online child sexual abuse had been registered between 2013 and 2015. A Chennai-based NGO fighting against child sexual abuse reported that 99% of cases it received had an online component.

A major obstacle in the implementation of law is the hesitation among victims and family members in reporting cases, arising from social stigma and an acute distrust in the enforcement agency and legal processes.