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Unsocial Media: Inclusion, Representation, and Safety for Women on Social Networking Platforms | ORF – Observer Research Foundation

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Introduction

The 4th industrial revolution brings tremendous opportunities for greater connectivity and technological innovation, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data. These same innovations, however, have concomitant challenges. For example, social media[a]—which has permeated the lives of large populations—has both positive and negative contributions to connectivity goals. This paper examines the engagement of women in India with social media. It attempts to answer the question of whether or not these platforms have become more attuned to gender issues including representation, safety and security.

It is an important question, given how the number of internet users in India has reached half a billion as of November 2019 and is growing at a rate of 10 percent every year in urban areas and 15 percent in rural areas. One in every three (35 percent) of these users are women.[1] The growth is reflected globally: data from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)  shows that between 2010 and 2019, the number of people using the Internet more than doubled from 2 billion to 4.1 billion,[2]  and women, in particular, increased their online presence.[3] Social media networks have proliferated, and although men continue to comprise a slightly higher percentage of Internet users than women in most of the world, experts say that women’s presence online has already achieved a critical mass.[4]

An important facet of these patterns is in their geographic distribution. In India, internet penetration and digitisation has risen significantly in rural areas, and one-third of daily average users are from the rural regions.[5]      However, there remain gaps, and bringing connectivity to the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, villages and remote areas across the country will continue to require massive efforts in the coming days.[6]

Over the last 10 years, social media has grown, in terms of number of platforms as well as users, exponentially across the world. The most popular social media platforms today—including Twitter and Facebook—came into existence in the early 2000s. However, it is only in the last decade that these platforms started to have a significant degree of influence on people’s political, social and economic lives. This happened as social media platforms developed their mobile applications, and technologies became more user-friendly and accessible. Today, according to studies, a person spends an average of 145 minutes every day on social media— up from 90 minutes in 2012.[7]

This paper analyses the most fundamental obstacles that deny women in India the opportunity to engage meaningfully with social media. These are mostly Facebook and Twitter which, according to data are two of the most popular social networking sites in India.[8] The first part explores the ten-year arc of social media, both in the global and Indian context. It will examine whether      or not social media has become more representative of women over the past decade. It then describes the current scenario in India, outlining patterns of representation and inclusion (or exclusion); it also evaluates safety mechanisms, if any, against harassment online. The paper closes with a specific set of recommendations to make the social media landscape safer and more inclusive for the women of India.

Women and Social Media: An Overview

The evolution of Social Media in the past decade 

In countries like the United States (US), there was already a fair proportion of women present across the most popular social media platforms in the early years of the growth of social media. For example, a 2013 study by the Pew Research Centre found that over 50 percent of Facebook users in the 18–28, 29–38, and 39–48 age groups use the platform “several times a day”.[9] Before that, between December 2009 and December 2012, according to the same study, women were significantly more likely than men to use social networking sites in nine out of ten surveys that were conducted. During this period, the proportion of women who used social media sites was 10 percentage points higher than men on average. Figures from 2013 indicate that from 2008 to 2013, the average difference falls slightly to 8 percent. By 2013, three-quarters (74 percent) of women online were using social networking sites.[10]

Although in countries like the US, there was a fair proportion of women in social media platforms, they have often been underrepresented, implying that men are the cultural standard and women are unimportant or invisible. Moreover, men and women are portrayed in stereotypical ways that reflect and sustain socially endorsed views of gender. Third, depictions of relationships between men and women emphasise traditional roles and have often normalised violence against women.[11] An online poll conducted by Amnesty International across eight high-income countries in 2017 revealed that 23 percent of women had experienced some form of abuse or harassment in social media platforms, ranging from 16 percent in Italy to 33 percent in the US.[12]

Concerns about the issues of representation and imagery in traditional media play out in the new social media landscape. Dieter’s 1989 study demonstrated a direct link between sexual aggression and one popular form of media, MTV (in the period of 1985 – 1995). The study suggests that heavy exposure to media depicting violence within relationships tends to normalise such abuse, and it ends up being considered a natural part of intimacy.[13]

In the countries of the European Union (EU), a survey in 2014 found that one in every 10 women had experienced online gender-based abuse since they started using social media at age 15. Online abuse took various forms: bullying, stalking, impersonation, non-consensual pornography, revenge porn or image-based sexual abuse/exploitation, and most commonly, hate speech. Worryingly, the study observed that gender inequality in the technology sector reverberates on platforms: algorithms are not immune to gender biases and can contribute to creating toxic “technocultures”, where anonymity, mob mentality and the permanence of harmful data online lead to women being constantly re-victimised.[14]

India’s Story

In India, where the number of internet users is pegged at half a billion, 26 million new female users were added in a period of a year, as of November 2019. Indeed, the rate of increase in female internet users is higher than that of their male counterparts: in 2018-2019, the number of female users grew by 27 percent, higher than the 22-percent rise for males.[15]

In absolute numbers, however, India’s female online population is only half that of males; the gap is worse in the      rural regions. It is important to bridge this gap in order to expand economic or business opportunities for women, as well as their means of communication and social interactions, and opportunities for political mobilisation and participation. The skew is sharper in the social media space: as of 2019, only 33 percent of women in India used social media, against 67 percent of men.[16] Data also shows that 52 percent of women users in India do not trust the internet with their personal information. Women are 26 percent less likely to access mobile internet due to misogyny, harassment and revenge porn.[17]

To be sure, analysing trends in social media and gender in India is difficult because there is a lack of gender-specific data for these platforms. Neither the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) nor Google has such gender-aggregated data for India; according to sources from Google, most platforms do not even provide country-wise user numbers, leave alone breakups by gender or other variables.[18]

Why Social Media Matters for Women

Digital tools like social media have not only democratised information but have also served as a crucial medium to engage the public in social and political issues. Its very nature allows for open expression of ideas and sharing of information through real-time collaboration among content providers, enterprises and users.

While the tools of social media vary, their broad functionalities include economic or business opportunities, means of communication or nurturing social bonds, and political mobilisation and participation. Unlike in traditional media, the content on social media is created also by users instead of only professionals; the platforms are not just for broadcasting, but more for being avenues for dialogue. The swift dissemination of knowledge and information across borders allows transnational networks to build. For women, increased social connectedness allows them greater participation in the economic and political spheres.

Connectivity

Social media platforms allow users to build social capital and nurture interpersonal relationships, overcoming barriers of time and space. More than two-thirds of the youth in India use social media to stay in touch with their families and friends.[19] These platforms are also important tools for entertainment, information-sharing, and psycho-social support.

Twitter’s survey of some 522,992 tweets from 10 cities in India, conducted between January 2019 and February 2021, indicated that for 24.9 percent of Indian women, the most popular subjects of conversation are on individual passion points like books and entertainment,[20] followed by current affairs, celebrations, finding camaraderie and support, and social issues. The same survey found that about 20.8 percent of Indian women on Twitter used the platform to stay informed of local and international news; and 11.7 percent of them, to find like-minded peers by utilising the power of hashtags.[b],[21]  Meanwhile, 6.9 percent of Indian women tweeted about their daily lives,[c] and around 4.2 percent engaged in personal conversations around topics like romantic relationships and mental health.[22]

Figure 1. Indian Women on Twitter: Themes of Conversation

Source: India Today, March 2021

Social Commerce

In India, women entrepreneurs face constraints related to low access to capital, limitation of property rights, and restricted mobility. The loan rejection rates for women-owned SMEs in India are almost double than for those owned by men.[23] As a result of these limitations, most women-owned businesses in India are micro-enterprises; of all micro-enterprises, less than 10 percent are owned by women.[24] As the internet has become more accessible and digitisation is increasing, however, new opportunities are opening up for women-owned enterprises.

Social media branding has become a necessary strategy for most businesses, and not only in India. According to a study called, ‘Empowerment zones? Women, Internet cafés, and life transformations in Egypt’,  social media use by women entrepreneurs in emerging economies increases a woman’s self-efficacy and social capital.[25] It provides scope for women-owned businesses to increase their growth and access formal financial services. It allows women to conduct their business online, thus eliminating the need for investment in physical spaces. Social media platforms also pave the way for better engagement with other businesses, closer customer interaction, and more efficient response to customer feedback. Social commerce[d] enables more personalised engagement between the buyers and sellers as compared to e-commerce platforms.

Social media can also be a useful resource for entrepreneurs to learn new skills that will benefit their businesses. These benefits are derived even by small-scale businesses in conflict zones. In Kashmir, for instance, many women use social media to promote the products they make in their informal, home-based enterprises—such as jewellery, Kashmiri craft, and textiles. According to the president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, there are approximately 4,000 women-led online businesses in the Kashmir Valley.[26]

According to the Women’s World Banking Report 2019, women micro-entrepreneurs in India reported using WhatsApp to communicate with customers and vendors.[27] Other than WhatsApp, women entrepreneurs in India also use platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to expand networks and make new connections: 98 percent use Facebook for their business, 94 percent use WhatsApp, and 7 percent use Instagram.[28] The study also found that 71 percent of the women who are more likely to use social media for their business and business-related communication, were the sole decision-makers for their businesses.[29]

Political participation

In many parts of the world, social media platforms have helped the discourse around the toxic implications of sexualised power gain momentum in the recent years. In India, in the aftermath of the death of a 23-year-old rape victim in Delhi, widespread protests broke out under the ‘Nirbhaya movement’ in 2012. Hashtags like #Delhibraveheart on Twitter were used by millions in support of seeking justice for the victim. The online rage, along with the massive street protests, garnered global attention and compelled the Indian government to take action. Subsequently, India’s rape laws were amended to expand the definition of rape, the punishment for rape convicts was revised to a prolonged life term and even the death penalty, and stringent punishments were determined for offences like acid attacks, stalking and voyeurism.[30]

The ‘Me Too’ movement against sexual harassment, which started in the United States (US), also gained worldwide popularity through Twitter beginning in 2017.[31] The movement has been buoyed by survivors posting their experiences on social media. It was also in 2017 when women in India started using the platforms to disseminate photographs and stories of how they were reclaiming public spaces.[e],[32] In the same year, women launched a campaign on Twitter, with the help of the hashtag “LahuKaLagaan”, against the 12 percent tax on sanitary napkins; the so-called “period tax” was scrapped the following year.[33]

Social media platforms also provide a forum for many women to seek redressal for online harassment and domestic abuse. Access to the internet can help the victim find the right information regarding the legal system, financial support, and places of refuge. It also allows them to reintegrate into society, and raise awareness about domestic violence. Through these platforms, women traverse public and private boundaries that are mostly local and community-based but also, increasingly, transnational.[34] To be sure, however, the discourse around sexual harassment and online activism largely remain limited to the urban areas, and among women who have meaningful access to social media. Women from the rural regions and the informal sector—which employs 95 percent of all women in India—are still largely unable to reap the benefits of social media in terms of facilitating political participation.[35]

Figure 2. Benefits of social media use for women

Inequities in Women’s Access to Social Media

The disparity in internet access within geographical locations and socio-economic class is a barrier in making the internet, and social media in particular, inclusive. Social media platforms can be exclusionist because dominant cultures and languages have a significant role in selecting those who can be heard and seen online.

According to Facebook Audience Insights (as of 6 March 2021), 71 percent of the platform’s female Facebook users are in the age group of 18 to 34 years (See Figure 2).[36] The highest number of female Facebook users are from top metro cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, and Hyderabad (See Figure 3).[37] The use of social media remains largely urban-centric, after all, more than 43,000 villages in India still do not have access to mobile phone services.[38] Limited ownership of mobile devices and lack of access to the internet hinder women from engaging social media. Data shows that 96 percent of female users in India access Facebook through only their mobile phones, 3 percent use their desktop and mobile phones, and 0.4 percent, only their desktop.[39] Of the 59 percent of women in India who are mobile-phone owners, only 16 percent are mobile internet users.[40]

Further, language barriers not only make grassroots-level social media penetration difficult, but they also hamper the assimilation of marginalised voices. As most mainstream online communication is Anglicised, the lack of content in local languages limits women’s participation at the grassroots. According to Facebook Audience Insights, English (US and UK) make 91 percent of the total languages used by female users in India; followed by Hindi at 6 percent and Bengali at 1 percent (See Figure 4).[41] Lack of literacy and skills also acts as a hindrance for women’s access to mobile internet use. About 36 percent of women blamed low literacy and skills as the single most important barrier to using mobile internet.[42]

Figure 3. Age-wise female Facebook users in India (%)

Source: Data from Facebook Audience Insights (as of 6 March 2021)

Figure 4. City-wise female Facebook users in India of the total female Facebook users in India (%)

Source: Data from Facebook Audience Insights (as of 6 March 2021)

Figure 5. Top languages used by female Facebook users in India (%)

Source: Data from Facebook Audience Insights (as of 6 March 2021)

Like other spheres of media, social media is not exempt from caste discrimination. According to a study by Lokniti-CSDS, social media is largely dominated by upper castes in urban areas.[43] The study indicates that upper-caste individuals are twice as likely to have high or moderate exposure to social media as compared to Dalits and tribals. About 75 percent of tribals and 71 percent of Dalits have no social media exposure, as compared to a much lower 54 percent of those belonging to upper castes.[44] Dalit women are subjected to ‘double marginality’, making them the most disadvantaged group in terms of access to social media. While there has been a gradual rise in the use of social media by Dalits, tribals and OBCs (See figures 6, 7 and 8), the process of democratisation has been slow.

Figure 6. Daily and Weekly Facebook users by caste-community, 2014-2019 (%)

Source: Social Media and Political Behaviour, Lokniti-CSDS Report

Figure 7. Daily and Weekly Twitter users by caste-community, 2014-2019 (%)

Source: Social Media and Political Behaviour, Lokniti-CSDS Report

Figure 8. Daily and Weekly Instagram users by caste-community, 2018-2019 (%)

Source: Social Media and Political Behaviour, Lokniti-CSDS Report

The gender divide on the use of social media also differs for advanced and emerging economies – according to Pew Research, men make up most of the social media users in emerging countries, while women in advanced economies outnumber men on these platforms.[45] Only 22 percent of the total Facebook users in India are women—a pattern that is similar to that of overall internet use in the country.[46] Cultural mores play an important role in this, especially in rural India. In 2017, for example, a village council in Uttar Pradesh’s Madora village banned women from using mobile phones. It was also found that most women were being denied smartphones, not due to their cost, but because their male family members thought it was “indecent” for women to use them.[47]

Toxic Twitter: Threats and Redressal Mechanisms

Global evidence suggests that the threats women face in the physical world are finding their reflection in the online space.  A 2019 study in the United States found that cities with a higher incidence of discriminatory and xenophobic tweets reported more physical hate crimes related to race and ethnicity.[48] Around two-thirds of women who have experienced abuse or harassment online in the UK (67 percent), New Zealand (64 percent) and Italy (68 percent) reported feeling a sense of apprehension just thinking of using the internet or social media.[49]

Another study in the US showed that women who experience online abuse often adapt their online behaviour, self-censor the content they post, and limit interactions on the platform out of fear of violence and abuse.[50] By silencing or pushing women out of online spaces, online violence can affect the economic outcomes of those who depend on these platforms for their livelihoods. It can also lead to loss of employment and societal status, in cases where online violence impacts their reputation, for instance in cases involving revenge porn or non-consensual pornography.[51]

Online harassment affects women’s freedom of expression and often ensures that they will by default feel anxious while using social media.      What must be considered amidst the Covid-19 pandemic is whether social media data can now point to deeper insights on issues related to gender, including gender-based violence. Has online misogynistic content also increased owing to increased levels of stress and anxiety? Has it in turn led to a vicious cycle of increased violence and abuse against women in the physical domain? 

SHEROES, a women-focused digital platform, observed the online usage data over the years 2018 and 2019 of more than 400,000 women who are active on its platform. They analysed patterns in the posting of content, responses to content, and profile information of women from all age groups above 15 years.[f] More than nine in every 10 (92 percent) of the women uploaded profile pictures on women-only platforms—likely showing their sense of safety in these platforms; in contrast, only 32 percent of women on the most popular social media platforms show their face on their profile photos.[52]       Some 43 percent of the posts had the words ‘me’, ‘myself’, and ‘I’—indicating how users are driving the conversations. A huge 77 percent of the posts on women-only platforms received acknowledgement and appreciation from other women; one of every three women not just responded to the content but actively created their own content. This indicates that when women deem that the platform is a safe space, they would want to contribute to these online communities, and share their stories and opinions.

There is also a growing trend of women dropping out of social media platforms altogether due to abuse and harassment.  But harassment runs across all social mediums, and starts young. A study by Amnesty International India found that through the 2019 elections, 95 female politicians received nearly 1 million hateful mentions on Twitter between March and May, one in five of which was sexist or misogynistic.      Indian women politicians also experienced substantially higher abuse than their UK and US counterparts. According to Shazia Ilmi, member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, “Twitter is my workplace – but if my workplace is a battlefield, all the time, would I be able to contribute, to the cause that I represent, easily and with fairness, if I am being constantly attacked for being a woman.”[53] Additionally, women politicians belonging to marginalised castes received 59 percent more caste-based abuse compared to women from other castes.[54]

If Twitter is the space accused of toxic trolling, Facebook has emerged as a hunting ground for fake profiles and sexually morphed images. It is fairly easy to make these profiles and through the years, there have been several cases where vulgar or obscene photos of a victim have been linked to fake Facebook profiles, ostensibly to cause the victim extreme mental anguish (see Annexe).

Over the last decade, much has been debated around making social media platforms safer for women. Several campaigns like the #DigitalHifazat campaign by Japleen Pasricha,[55] ‘share your story with your son’ by Breakthrough,[56] and numerous others[57] have attempted to highlight the seriousness of social media harassment.

However, over the last decade, no standard definition for online gender-based violence on Social media has evolved. While the law on various platforms does cover online harassment, there is yet to be seen an agreement between large global social media platforms on what the exact parameters for harassment are, nor who should be defined as a victim. Greater accountability from the tech industry and greater representation for women in that industry may be a constructive start. Social media harassment often sits at cultural and geographical intersections as well. It is important to gather and share research and understanding across countries and ethnicities.

While the last decade saw populations making tentative steps into the digital world, COVID-19 has hotwired the transition. Digital communities and social platforms within them have the ability to build connections, communication, and agency. There is no denying the tremendous potential here: IAMAI predicts that India will have about 900 million Internet users by 2025. Further, lower-penetrated segments will drive the next wave of Internet adoption—such as schoolgoing children (less than 19 years) and rural Indian women.  To build a safer and more equitable future, it is imperative that we draw on the lessons of the past to address the reasons preventing women from full participation on social media (see Figure 9). 

Figure 9: Reasons preventing women’s full participation in social media

Current Redressal Mechanisms

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a new prism that must be applied in analysing social media and its impact on women. Studies across the world have already identified a sharp increase in rates of domestic violence. These could be outcomes of heightened economic stress within households as well as the uncertainties and pressures that have become part of living in a time of a health crisis.

Data from UN Women shows that in France, reports of domestic violence have increased by 30 percent since the lockdown in March 2020. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines have recorded an increase in calls by 30 percent and 33 percent, respectively. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence cases have increased by 25 percent since the March 2020 lockdown. Increased cases of domestic violence and demand for emergency shelter have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.[58]

As recently as June 2020, the internet blew up with viral TikTok videos glorifying acid attacks and rapes.[59] Due to such incidents of increasing harassment, bullying, and trolling, the positive tenets of social media are curbed – there is less freedom to express, interact, share, and what emerges is a toxic environment full of risk and lacking in safety.

According to data from the National Commission for Women, 54 cyber-crime complaints were received online in April of 2020 in comparison to 37 complaints received online in April 2019.[60] The NCW received 100 cybercrime complaints in June, up from 54.      A global survey by Plan International revealed that 60 percent of girls and women have experienced harassment on social media platforms and one-fifth of them have either quit or reduced their social media use.  Such gender-based cyber violence happens on most social platforms — Facebook (39 percent of girls/women polled were harassed), Instagram (23 percent), WhatsApp (14 percent), Snapchat (10 percent), Twitter (9 percent), and TikTok (6 percent).[61] There is no official, gender-disaggregated data to corroborate these statistics, however, and it is something that governments should push social media companies to provide (with the user’s consent) in order to better understand the landscape. 

Statistics on cyber-crime and harassment and an analysis of gender-based vitriol suggests that online harassment of women is unique, consistent, and exponential. As the pandemic has resulted in companies and institutions formulating a permanent increase in online working models, there needs to be better cyber space management to address women’s safety concerns. Safe use of the virtual space can be directly related to not just inclusion and representation of voices, but workforce participation and availing important services like helplines and legal aid as well.

This section will delve into gender-disaggregated statistics of cyber-crime and harassment in India, cyber cells that have cropped up to deal with the issue, and the evolution of cyber laws to deal with harassment. It will discuss the pandemic-induced spike in such cases, and the government responses to the same, as well as the responsiveness and SOPs of social media organisations in tackling these issues.

Cyber-crime

Cyber-crime in India is defined as “Any unlawful act where computer or communication device or computer network is used to commit or facilitate the commission of crime.”[62] Cyber-crime includes cyber bullying, cyber stalking on any communication device, and includes crime using social media platforms.

The Information Technology Act (IT ACT), 2000 together with Indian Penal Code (IPC) provide provisions to deal with Cyber Crimes:

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has a comprehensive cyber-crime reporting portal[63] that caters to complaints pertaining to cyber-crimes, with a focus on those committed against women and children. The website also provides a national women helpline number and the facility to track the complaints and reports.

The website refers to social media in their FAQs.[64] To the question of whether social media platforms have a feature to report crimes, . The website’s answer is “yes, most of the social media website like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram etc. have the option of reporting or flagging the objectionable contents. The social media platforms may take appropriate action based on the contents reported to them as per their content policy.” Therefore, there is no direct synergy between the social media company and local police with regards to reporting.

According to the NCRB statistics,[65] in metropolitan cities 18,372 cases were registered under cyber-crimes in 2019, an 81.9 percent increase since 2018 (10,098). Cyber-crime rate also increased from 8.9 to 16.1 percent. For states and UTs, 60.4 percent of these crimes were for in the form of fraud, and 5.1 percent of cases were of sexual exploitation (2,266 cases).

The Ministry of Home Affairs has listed details about cyber-crime prevention against women in India on their website:[66] (a)INR 870 million  has been provided to States/UTs for setting up cyber forensic training labs and hiring of  forensic consultants for the operation of such labs in each State/UT; and (b) INR 60 million had been released to States/UTs for training some 40,500 police personnel, prosecutors and judicial officers as of 31 March 2020. However, there has yet to be any tracking and reporting of compliance.

The creation of an “Awareness Creation Unit” is a welcome step. The unit is mandated to deliver cyber-crime do’s and don’ts as a proactive mitigation initiative, and spread awareness about cybercrime and cyber hygiene in schools in the early stages of education as a component of school curriculum, delivered via a web portal and mobile apps. Through this medium, individuals will be informed about the various types of cyber-crimes and information on how to securely use technology.

However, the exact plan and rollout, and uptake by states remains unknown. Data should be generated and disseminated in order to gauge the barriers to awareness generation and receptiveness. Furthermore, these units must immediately initiate awareness drives to impart knowledge on helplines and web portals that can be used to make complaints or report a crime. A huge 63 percent of internet users do not know where to lodge complaints on cyber-crimes.[67] Users must be made aware that cyber bullying and harassment on social media can also be reported as a crime. 

In 2018, the Ministry of Women and Child Development released a statement showcasing the policy initiatives that have been taken to tackle cyber-crimes against women: Cyber Police Stations and Cyber Crime Cells have been set up in each State; Cyber Forensics Training laboratories have been set up in northeastern States and cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata and Bangalore; and matrimonial websites have been ordered to adopt safeguards to ensure that their users are not deceived through fake profiles or incorrect information.

Implementation and follow-through needs to be amped up. Unless women and girls are assured that their complaints will be taken seriously, these steps and funds to tackle crime will only be redundant. Furthermore, police are often more likely to take action on physical threats and traditional criminal laws.[68] The Indian Penal Code, for example, only briefly mentions cyberstalking as ‘monitoring’ through the internet, even though nine out of ten victims of cyber-stalking are women.[69] Thus, there is a need to take a closer look at both the IT Act and the IPC to ensure all forms of harassment are covered by legislation. 

During lockdown 

There was a significant increase in the incidence of cyber-crime reported during the March to August 2020 lockdown. This was a consequence of the world moving online to conduct their routine activities, work, grocery shopping, and social gatherings. An average of 135 such offences were reported every day in May[70] in Delhi, and according to data gathered by the police, the maximum number of cyber-crimes were reported between May and August last year — around 4,000 cases each month.[71] The cyber-crime unit reported that 62 percent of these cases were financial fraud, 24 percent were social media harassment,[g] and the remaining 14 percent were other crimes such as hacking, identity theft, and data theft. Blocking “objectionable content” on social media platforms was a dedicated effort, with police authorities requesting platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube to block as many as 278 accounts in 2020 with the most number of accounts (140) being blocked on Twitter. 

Platforms’ Responses

All social media sites provide their users a mechanism to report harassment and bullying, and other antisocial or potentially violent behaviour, with the option to block at will. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram also have options for users to calibrate their settings if they want only certain people to find, message, or tag them.

Facebook

Facebook’s FAQ section has the following questions and pointers:

Q: “What should I do if I’m being bullied, harassed or attacked by someone on Facebook?”

A:  Unfriend, block, report actions are listed,

Q: learn more about what you can do if someone is bothering you in messages on Facebook. A: This section describes that if someone sends you a message on Facebook that makes you uncomfortable, you can block messages from them, report a threatening message,[72] delete the conversation or block them. The Facebook account can also be reported if it is suspected as fake or an impersonation.

If the reported      material violates “community standards”, action will be taken (e.g., the account will be suspended). (See Figure 10)

Figure 10:

Source: Authors’ own, using information from Facebook[73]

In countries of the European Union (EU), if a user reports an account, Facebook reviews up to 30 of the most recent messages sent in a conversation involving that account. Facebook also suggests that the person contact local authorities if they are facing an immediate danger. In this context, it is important that there is real-time engagement between local cyber-crime units or law enforcement authorities that deal with such specific crimes, and social media platforms so that antisocial behaviour online can be quickly flagged and escalation is prevented.

In this regard, Facebook claims that it is partnering with domestic violence organisations in order to reduce incidence of harassment in its platform. It has announced that it will be using digital fingerprinting and photo-matching technology to prevent the reposting of any image that has been flagged as showing non-consensual intimacy. Facebook is also attempting to develop a robust hate speech policy that will cover harassment of women across cultures, and is working with women’s rights organisations, safety organisations, and even anthropologists and cognitive linguists.[74]

Twitter

Twitter has a section called, “Staying safe on      Twitter and Sensitive content” . When suspicious content is reported, Twitter asks the user to pick from the problems summarised in Figure 11.

Figure 11

Source: Authors’ own, using Twitter’s interface.

The app’s rules for abuse and harassment state that “you may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behaviour an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.” They “prohibit behaviour that harasses or intimidates, or is otherwise intended to shame or degrade others.”[75]

Twitter has a ‘Hateful conduct’ policy that addresses prejudiced behaviour.[h],[76] For accounts engaging in abusive behaviour on their profile, Twitter asks users to refer to their ’Abusive profile’ policy,[77]  which states that the app will “review and take enforcement action against accounts that target an individual, group of people, or a protected category with any of the following behaviour in their profile information, i.e., usernames, display names, or profile bios.

Figure 12

Source: Authors’ own, using information from Twitter.[78]

An account that violates the ‘Abusive profile’ policy is temporarily suspended on the first instance, and repeated violations will lead to permanent suspension. Someone who thinks their account has been suspended in error can appeal.

The following behaviours are a violation of the hateful conduct policy:

Figure 13

Source: Twitter[79]

‘Unwanted sexual behaviour’ includes, but is not limited to: sending someone unsolicited and/or unwanted adult media, including images, videos, and GIFs; unwanted sexual discussion of someone’s body; solicitation of sexual acts; and any other content that otherwise sexualises an individual without their consent.

To be sure, the point on “using aggressive slurs” is vague, as the same set of guidelines also say “we will not action against every instance where insulting terms are used.” A dossier of types of behaviour that are strictly a violation, without any scope or loopholes to justify this behaviour, is required in order to remove the arbitrary nature of punishment and consequences. As discussed in Section 1 of this paper, there needs to be a strict definition for gendered abuse, violent behaviour, and harassment as well, so that redressal can be made accordingly. In the same manner that section 66A of the IT Act was found to have too broad an ambit and consequently struck down due to “arbitrary, excessive and disproportionate invasion of the right of free speech,”[80] social media guidelines must ensure the right kind of abuse and harassment is targeted, and subjective targeting of individuals does not take place because of lack of clarity in policy.

When considering the penalty for violating the ‘Hateful conduct’ policy, Twitter looks at the severity of the violation and the reported individual’s previous record as a user. The consequences can range from asking the person to remove the violating content and serve a period of time in “read-only mode”, with subsequent violations leading to longer read-only periods that may eventually result in permanent suspension. This shows that Twitter’s policy on abusive behaviour is stricter than that on hateful conduct; as it says, “if an account is engaging primarily in abusive behaviour, [twitter may] permanently suspend the account upon initial review.” Nonetheless, both policies have provisions for addressing behaviour showing ‘violent threat’.

There is evidence that both government authorities and social media platforms have invested in creating policies that attempt to curb harassment online. However, India has a long way to go before it can create a safer environment online for the country’s women. The rising numbers of harassment carried out on social media platforms necessitate certain urgent measures, including strengthening of redressal systems and increasing the public’s awareness of them, and closer coordination between local authorities and platforms.

Conclusion 

Social media has made it easier for women to participate in public discussions and policy implementation with increased access to government accountability, services, and information. These platforms play an important role in democratising access to media – it provides marginalised and vulnerable women some means to participate in the public discourse. It allows women an opportunity to construct self-identities and seek psycho-social support on issues that may otherwise be considered taboo in the mainstream public domain. Social media also enables women’s mobilisation to transcend nations, states and economic classes. The hashtag movements play a crucial role for women to share and discuss their political opinions, views and experiences.

To be sure, however, there remains a glaring gap between those with and without access to digital tools, including social media. The gendered lack of meaningful access, language barriers, and safety concerns lead to a significant proportion of society being deprived of the perceived benefits of social media.

It is therefore important that social media platforms in India represent the voices of marginalised women in a fair manner. To improve women’s representation on social media, it is crucial to create a safe and trustworthy virtual environment that ensures privacy and freedom from online abuse. Governments, corporations, and other public institutions must step up and assist in building the legislative and social structures required to recognise and deal with misogyny online. There is a need to build strong redressal mechanisms with female-friendly cyberlaws against online harassment. Gender-disaggregated data and opinion polls indicating the extent of meaningful access to social media and freedom from online abuse can aid authorities in creating targeted digital policies.

To chart a way forward in making the social media landscape more inclusive, representative, and safe, social media companies must work with local authorities to assimilate local, cultural and sociological factors – for instance, digital literacy initiatives and social media content can be made available in local languages. Civil society, along with local authorities, can develop programmes that connect women entrepreneurs to mentors. This can improve digital literacy, as well as educate women on new avenues for their businesses and give them opportunities for networking.

In theory, social media platforms are neutral: users generate content and report content as equals. As it is in the physical world, however, some users of digital media are more equal than others. It is time for platforms to promote not just free speech, but equal speech.


Endnotes

[a] ‘Social media’ here is defined as websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.

[b] Some of these hashtags are #WomenInScience, #WomenInTech, #WomenInMarketing, and #GirlGamers.

[c] With hashtags like #Parenting and #WorkFromHome.

[d] Social commerce (or ‘s-commerce) uses social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as a medium to promote and sell products and services.

[e] The women used Twitter to promote the narrative of resisting patriarchy in the physical and virtual spaces, using the hashtag #WhyLoiter.

[f] 40 percent of the women were in the 25-35 years age group.

[g] They included morphing photos of people and sexual harassment.

[h] Behaviour that targets people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.

[1] Digbijay Mishra and Madhav Chanchani, “For the first time, India has more rural net users than urban”, Times of India, May 6, 2020.

[2] “Statistics”, International Telecommunication Union, Accessed February 25, 2021.

[3] “A look back at the 2010s: A decade of voices and choices”, United Nations Population Fund, December 23, 2019.

[4] “A look back at the 2010s: A decade of voices and choices”

[5] “Digital Adaptation and Usage Trends”, ICUBE, 2020.

[6] Nandita Mathur, “India now has over 500 million active internet users: IAMAI”, Livemint, May 5, 2020.

[7] “Daily social media usage worldwide 2012-2020”, Statista 2021.

[8]“Digital and Social Media Landscape in India”

[9] Maeve Duggan, “It’s a women’s (social media) world”, Pew Research Centre, September 12, 2013.

[10] “It’s a women’s (social media) world”

[11] “Gendered Media: the influence of media on views of gender”

[12] Azmina Dhrodia, “Unsoscial Media: The real toll of online abuse against women” Amnesty Global Insights, November 20, 2017.

[13] Julia T. Wood, “Gendered Media: the influence of media on views of gender”, New York University, 2013.

[14] Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, “Cyber violence and hate speech online against women”, European Parliament, September 2018.

[15] “Digital Adaptation and Usage Trends”

[16] “Digital and Social Media Landscape in India,” SANNAM, 2020,  https://sannams4.com/digital-and-social-media-landscape-in-india/)

[17] “SHEROES #WomensInternet Series: who are we when men are not looking”, IAMAI, May 2019

[18] Communication with officials from IAMA and Google, February 2021

[19] ‘United Nations Development Programme, Social media for youth and civic engagement, National Youth Report, 2019

[20]From Beauty To Books And Social Change, What Indian Women Talk About Most On Twitter“, India Today, March 5 2021,

https://www.indiatoday.in/trending-news/story/from-beauty-to-books-and-social-change-what-indian-women-talk-about-most-on-twitter-1776073-2021-03-05

[21]From Beauty To Books And Social Change, What Indian Women Talk About Most On Twitter”

[22]From Beauty To Books And Social Change, What Indian Women Talk About Most On Twitter”

[23] Goldman Sachs, Global Markets Institute, Giving Credit Where It Is Due: How Closing The Credit Gap For Women-Owned Smes Can Drive Global Growth, 2014,

https://www.goldmansachs.com/insights/public-policy/gmi-folder/gmi-report-pdf.

[24] SME Finance Forum, MSME Finance Gap, March 1 2021,

https://www.smefinanceforum.org/data-sites/msme-finance-gap

[25] Deborah L. Wheeler, “Empowerment zones? Women, Internet cafés, and life transformations in Egypt” , Information Technologies & International Development 4, no., 2007: pp-89.

https://itidjournal.org/index.php/itid/article/view/257/0.html

[26] Yashraj Sharma, “Kashmir’s Women Entrepreneurs Watch Helplessly As The Social Media Ban Kills Their Businesses“, The Wire, Janurary 22, 2020,

https://thewire.in/women/kashmir-internet-social-media-ban

[27] Women’s World Banking, Social_Commerce Entrepreneurship and New Opportunities for Women’s Financial Inclusion in India and Indonesia, November 8, 2019,

https://www.womensworldbanking.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2019_Social_Commerce_Report.pdf

[28]Social_Commerce Entrepreneurship and New Opportunities for Women’s Financial Inclusion in India and Indonesia”

[29]Social_Commerce Entrepreneurship and New Opportunities for Women’s Financial Inclusion in India and Indonesia”

[30] Shruti Jain, “The Rising Fourth Wave: Feminist Activism on Digital Platforms in India”, Observer Research Foundation, 2020,

The Rising Fourth Wave: Feminist Activism on Digital Platforms in India

[31] Andrea Giribet, “Tarana Burke: The Woman Behind Me Too“, Amnesty International, August 21, 2018.

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/education/2018/08/tarana-burke-me-too/

[32] “The Rising Fourth Wave: Feminist Activism on Digital Platforms in India”

[33]Big And Bold Move: India Lifts Tax Over Sanitary Napkins”, Shethepeople TV, July 21, 2018,

Big and Bold Move: India lifts tax over sanitary napkins

[34] The Rising Fourth Wave: Feminist Activism on Digital Platforms in India”

[35]No #Metoo For Women Like Us”, Human Rights Watch, October 14, 2020,

https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/14/no-metoo-women-us/poor-enforcement-indias-sexual-harassment-law

[36]Audience Insights: Interactive Facebook Insights Tool”, Facebook For Business, March 6 2021

https://www.facebook.com/business/insights/tools/audience-insights

[37]Audience Insights: Interactive Facebook Insights Tool

[38]Over 43,000 Villages In India Without Mobile Services: Telecom Minister”, The Economic Times, August 1 2018,

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/telecom/telecom-news/over-43000-villages-in-india-without-mobile-services-telecom-minister/articleshow/65230856.cms?from=mdr

[39]Audience Insights: Interactive Facebook Insights Tool”.

[40] GSMA, The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019, February 2019,

https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/GSMA-The-Mobile-Gender-Gap-Report-2019.pdf

[41]Audience Insights: Interactive Facebook Insights Tool

[42]The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2019

[43] Lokniti-CSDS, Social Media and Political Behaviour 2019, 2019,

https://www.csds.in/uploads/custom_files/Report-SMPB.pdf

[44] “Social Media and Political Behaviour 2019”

[45]Social Media Use Continues To Rise In Developing Countries“, Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, June 19, 2018,

3. Social network adoption varies widely by country

[46] “Social media for youth and civic engagement, National Youth Report”

[47]  Eric Bellman, and Aditi Malhotra, “Why The Vast Majority Of Women In India Will Never Own A Smartphone“, Wall Street Journal, 2016,

https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-the-vast-majority-of-women-in-india-will-never-own-a-smartphone-1476351001

[48] Kunal Relia, Zhengyi Li, Stephanie H. Cook, Rumi Chunara, Race, Ethnicity and National Origin-based Discrimination in Social Media and Hate Crimes Across 100 U.S. Cities, Cornell University, January 31, 2019

https://arxiv.org/abs/1902.00119

[49] “Unsocial Media: The real toll of online abuse against women”

[50] Toxic Twitter: The silencing effect”, Amnesty International, Accessed February 25, 2021 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-5/#topanchor)

[51] “Toxic Twitter: The silencing effect”

[52] “Toward Gender Equity Online: Research with the Next Billion Users,” Google, April 2019, https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/toward_gender_equity_online.pdf)

[53] ibid

[54] “Troll Patrol India Findings 2020,” Amnesty International, 2020,  https://decoders.blob.core.windows.net/troll-patrol-india-findings/Amnesty_International_India_Troll_Patrol_India_Findings_2020.pdf)

[55]“Haris Zargar”, “Online Campaign takes on sexul harassment in India, Livement, February 9, 2018, https://www.livemint.com/Politics/L3okAh2OoXgHlYttSw8ftJ/Online-campaign-takes-on-sexual-harassment-in-India.html)

[56] Himanshi Dhawan, “Social media campaign to create awareness on sexual harassment,” Times of India, December 14, 2015, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/social-media-campaign-to-create-awareness-on-sexual-harassment/articleshow/50165706.cms

[57] “8 anti sexual harassment campaigns that will make you introspect”, Social Samosa, March 17, 2017,

8 anti sexual harassment campaigns that will make you introspect

[58] “COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls”, United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, 2020, https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls)

[59] “Safe social media platforms for women,” The New Indian Express, June 11, 2020

[60] “‘Significant’ increase in cybercrime against women during lockdown: Experts”, Hindustan Times, May 3, 2020

[61] Melissa Davey, “Online violence against women ‘flourishing’, and most common on Facebook, survey finds”, The Guardian, October 4, 2020

[62] ibid

[63] Ministry of Home Affairs, “National Cyber Crime reporting portal,” Accessed March 12, 2021

[64] National Cyber Crime reporting portal, “FAQ,” 1

Ministry of Home Affairs, “National Cyber Crime reporting portal,”

[65] Bharti Jain, “NCRB Crime Data 2019: Cases registered up 1.6%; crimes against women rise 7.3%; cyber crimes jump 63.5%,” Times of India, September 30, 2020,
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/78394087.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

[66]Ministry of Home Affairs, “DETAILS ABOUT CCPWC (CYBERCRIME PREVENTION AGAINST WOMEN AND CHILDREN) SCHEME,”  Accessed March 1, 2021 https://www.mha.gov.in/division_of_mha/cyber-and-information-security-cis-division/Details-about-CCPWC-CybercrimePrevention-against-Women-and-Children-Scheme

[67] “Cyber crimes against women on the rise,” The Hindu, August 20, 2020

[68] Prasanto K Roy, “Why online harassment goes unpunished in India” BBC News, July 17, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-33532706

[69] ibid

[70] Shiv Sunny, “Cyber crime cases went up during lockdown, shows Delhi police data”, Hindustan Times, December 25, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/cyber-crime-cases-went-up-during-lockdown-shows-delhi-police-data/story-syScqUXmhZFBS13Bks51TJ.html

[71] “Cyber crime rose during lockdown,” The Indian Express, February 20, 2021 https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/cyber-crime-rose-during-lockdown-7196262/

[72] “How do I give feedback on or report a conversation in Messenger?”, Facebook, Accessed March 12, 2021

https://www.facebook.com/help/messenger-app/833709093422928?helpref=faq_content

[73] “Community Standards,” Facebook, Accessed March 12, 2021

[74]Corinne Reichert, “Facebook emphasizes women’s safety on social media’ CNET, October 29, 2019 https://www.cnet.com/news/facebook-emphasizes-womens-safety-on-social-media/

[75]“Rules for abuse and harassment”, Twitter, Accessed March 12, 2021

[76] “Hateful conduct policy”,

[77] “Abusive Profile information”, Twitter, Accessed March 12, 2021, https://help.twitter.com/rules-and-policies/abusive-profile

[78] “Abusive Profile information”,

[79] “Hateful conduct policy”,

[80] Anubhav Pandey, “Laws Punishing Cyber Stalking and Online Harassment”, iPleaders, July 13, 2018



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