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Faceless perpetrators make online space unsafe for women

Faceless perpetrators make online space unsafe for women

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The murder of a fan of Kannada actor Darshan has sent shock waves across not just Karnataka but elsewhere as well. But the spotlight on the actor’s role in the crime has the focus away from where it all began: the victim, Renukaswamy, was sending obscene messages on social media to Pavithra Gowda, Darshan’s alleged partner, which triggered an act of revenge that went terribly wrong.

Working under the alias of Goutham K.S., Renukaswamy had sent obscene messages and photos of his private parts to Pavithra. Investigation revealed that he was a habitual offender and had sent similar pictures and messages to many women, especially social media influencers in the Kannada space.

Several similar cases

This case of harassment is not an isolated incident. Most women active on social media in Bengaluru say they have received inappropriate messages or obscene photos. It’s worse when it comes to women who have a public profile or are celebrities.

According to Bengaluru City Police data, as many as 47 cases of online sexual abuse have been booked this year alone. Last year, it was 156, and in 2022, the number was 28.

As in the case with Pavithra, many such cases never reach the police since victims find the task of taking the legal route too daunting. Those who do, don’t always get justice, given the myriad challenges such crimes pose to law enforcement agencies.

A 28-year-old Bengaluru resident was shaken upon learning that her pictures were being misused by someone who had created fake accounts on Instagram and Facebook. According to the First Information Report filed in the Central Cybercrime, Economic Offences, Narcotics (CEN) police station, the perpetrator had created two fake accounts on Instagram and two fake accounts on Facebook using the woman’s pictures.

The culprit was sending posts to the public and friends of the complainant that for ₹100, they could make obscene video calls to her. A friend of hers noticed the post and made the payment to the specified number, only to be blocked by the perpetrator. This was then brought to the attention of the woman, which led her to complain to the cyber police. Investigation is underway in the case.

Advent of internet and smartphones

While reporting of online sexual harassment has increased now due to increased awareness, these cases go way back to the time of the advent of the internet and smartphones. Bhavana Belagere, a journalist and contestant on a popular reality show, received obscene messages for 20 days in a row on social media.

“Around six years ago, I started receiving nude photographs on Facebook from a man’s account. He was also sending vulgar messages and asking me to send my nude pictures. I ignored him for 20 days, but it continued and even the frequency of messages increased. Then I complained to Subramanyapura police station,” Bhavana said.

The police found the perpetrator, a man from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, who was using a fake account. “When they asked what steps I wanted to take, I told them to warn him and leave it at that. I know I could have blocked him (instead of going to the police), but I wanted to take some action, and hence, lodged the complaint,” Bhavana added.

This complaint, however, did not put an end to such messages. “Even now, I get vulgar comments and thousands of dirty messages. Initially, it used to frustrate and irritate me, and I could not ignore it. But now, I have understood that everyone who is in the spotlight goes through these things.”

Apart from obscene messages, trolling, vulgar comments and phone calls with an intent to abuse are among the different ways women are harassed in the digital space. What is alarming is there is no pattern or specific criteria for perpetrators to attack women in the virtual world. Surprisingly, even the women working in Namma 112, Bengaluru Police’s emergency response service, are not spared. 

A woman in her late 20s, who was among the phone operators who work in Namma 112 (police have outsourced the call centre to a private firm), said she gets at least two crank calls every day from men.

“From using abusive language to saying ‘I love you’ on the phone, the callers say all sorts of things. Some invite us to go for lunch with them. Some call just to listen to a woman’s voice. In fact, male colleagues say some callers insist on speaking with women. We cannot permanently block them either, as we are an emergency response team,” she said.

While urban women often brave such calls, those coming from rural backgrounds or socio-economically backward families are affected the most. “Sometimes, they start crying and are in a bad mood throughout the day,” the woman said.

What leads to online harassment 

In the Renukaswamy case, he was reportedly upset that Pavithra was causing what he felt was a rift in Darshan’s marital life. In a few other cases, especially those involving social media influencers and public figures, harassment begins with moral policing. A woman posting photos with male friends, seen consuming alcohol, or sporting a bikini are easy targets for trolling and harassment.

“When society sees women, be it on any platform or field, there is a mentality to judge them and form opinions about their character. With social media, it has become even easier to gain access and moral-police women. As a society, we need to come out of the mindset that makes judgements about women’s characters,” said K.S. Vimala of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).

Elaborating on how access has become easier now, Chetana Thirthahalli, a women’s activist, said, “Earlier, harassment used to take place in other spaces. But now, it has shifted to the online space. Earlier, men used to pull women’s hair or resort to catcalls. But it takes courage to bully someone face to face. In the virtual space, they can do it anonymously using fake accounts. Easy accessibility is what has changed in recent years.

“I have been seeing cases of cyber harassment since 2010. Now, because more people have access to the internet and more people are using it, we are seeing more cases,” says Thirthahalli, who helps women navigate the problem of cyber harassment. She advises women to report the crimes to the cybercrime police, especially if it begins to affect their daily lives. “The third thing would be to speak out and call them out by tagging their profiles. Even in cases where a woman might have responded to such messages in a weak moment, but it has turned into harassment, it is better to call them out instead of hiding it and suffering.”

She stressed that such incidents should not lead to women losing their social space. “We do not have to stop posting photos or writing on social media. It is important to speak up, act, and claim our space. The support of parents and family members is essential in such instances.”

Mental health professionals are seeing more women facing harassment online. Juhi Pandey, psychologist at the Mpower Helpline, said, “We get 15 to 20 calls every week on our helpline from all over the country from women who are mentally affected by online harassment.”

Women who go through harassment often exhibit signs of guilt, shame, low self-esteem, anxiety, sleep disturbances, social isolation, and even self-harm. “Depending on the severity of their conditions, we decide if they need psychotherapy alone or medication with therapy,” Pandey said.

On what drives people to harass others on social media, she said, “These are people who usually suffer from issues like sadism and narcissism, or have a history of substance abuse or have anger issues. Social media provides them an anonymous, non-confrontational space to express their desires.”

Acknowledging that the number of reported cases is far fewer when compared to actual incidents of online sexual harassment, experts say this is because many women feel that cybercrimes are not taken seriously, even in dedicated police stations.

“It is safer to lodge complaints under criminal laws in law-and-order police stations rather than reporting them as cyber crimes. It is not the department’s problem. It is a problem with the system where the concept that women can get harassed online is yet to sink in,” Thirthahalli said.

While there were some expectations that there might be newer laws to deal with online harassment in the newly introduced Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita, there have been no significant changes in this regard. “Online harassment continues to fall under cyber laws. The laws have not changed much. It is just that the language is slightly different,” said Mirza Faizan Assad, advocate of Legal Tree Law Firm, which specialises in cyber laws. 

“The conviction rate in these cases is very low. As the data is all online, it can be deleted at any time. By the time the police gain access to it, it might already be late. There is a delay in getting information from sites like Facebook or X,” Mirza pointed out.

B. Dayananda, Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru, said, “We have made it possible for citizens to lodge cybercrime complaints not just in cybercrime police stations, but also in law-and-order stations, and even online. We follow all protocols as laid out by the law and investigate the cases based on the FIRs.”

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