The Wire 23 Nov 2016

Understanding online harassment and what to do about it 

by Jahnavi Sen

A new report from the Software Freedom Law Centre highlights the different kinds of online harassment and makes recommendations on how this could be curbed at the user and online intermediary level.

New Delhi: Online harassment on social media platforms is rampant across the world and has been for years. A new report from the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) titled ‘Online Harassment: A Form of Censorship’ analyses the kinds of harassment people in India experience online, the state and non-state mechanisms available to those who face online harassment, the different stakeholders working on the issue and how to limit its occurrences.

The report uses the Black Law Dictionary definition of harassment: “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such person and serves no legitimate purpose” or “words, gestures, and actions which tend to annoy, alarm and abuse another person”.

There are a range of factors that are said to contribute to the extremely high occurrence of online harassment, with each of the 17 people the SFLC interviewed for the report from the government, media and civil society offering slightly different takes. One of the most cited references is psychologist John Suler’s “online disinhibition effect”, which gives a range of reasons for internet interactions where people behave in ways they never would in real life.

All of those interviewed said that different people were harassed online in different ways, making it harder for certain groups, such as women and minorities, to continue to use the space productively when repeatedly faced with abuse.

Both law enforcement agencies and social media platforms were deemed ill-equipped to handle cases of online harassment. Many also did not see the point in reporting a profile, given the ease with which another one can take its place within a matter minutes. And when approaching the police, there was often little understanding on how social media works. Writer and activist based in Kerala Inji Pennu, for instance, said that the police most often tell the complainant to stop using social media. She added that they often do not understand “how online threats can cause serious, even fatal damage, but choose instead to believe that they disappear as soon as the computers are powered down”. The social media platforms all have methods through which harassment can be reported, but there is little to no transparency and accountability from the platforms. A report published on The Ken, for instance, highlights how Facebook failed to respond even when a family was harassed to the point of losing jobs, friends and family. Many interviewed by the SFLC also had similar complaints. Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said reporting mechanisms offer a “completely impersonal experience”. “It’s as though there’s a machine out there, which looks at complaints and makes verdicts on their legitimacy.” There is also a lack of knowledge and awareness of security and privacy settings, said cyber security expert Rakshit Tandon, as well as laws on harassment.

At the event to release the report in New Delhi on Tuesday, several panelists talked about their views on how online harassment can be curbed and what social media platforms, law enforcement agencies and individual users can be doing differently. “This is only the beginning of a long conversation, not a set of answers,” said moderator Mishi Choudhury, the executive director of SFLC. “And its a conversation we all need to have together, involving all the stakeholders.”

Panelists Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project and journalist Saikat Datta also talked about the need for leaders in different field, including politicians, to lead by example by not following abusive profiles, discourage harassment and speak out when they see cases of harassment.

Representatives from social media platforms, Mahima Kaul from Twitter and Chetan Krishnaswamy from Google, said companies are still evolving methods of dealing with online harassment while trying to balance the right to freedom of speech. More conversations of this kind, awareness campaigns on different mechanisms available to users and understanding what users expect from platforms may be a way to move this discussion forward, Kaul said. A report like this, which lists the laws on harassment as well as reporting mechanisms of different platforms, is a step in that direction is publicised further.

According to the SFLC report and several of the panelists, more legal changes is not the way to handle online harassment. The report gives a user guidelines on how to deal with harassment as well as best practices that could help limit online harassment. For users, certain measures could minimise the possibility of becoming targets of online harassment, such as thoroughly screening all personal information shared online, keeping a tab on information other post about you, using strong passwords and changing them periodically, recording communications with perpetrators in subjected to harassment, blocking perpetrators, approaching law enforcement if necessary and seeking help from social media influencers and friends and family.

The report also has suggestions for online intermediaries which allow users to post content with no pre-filteration: have in place rules that prohibit hateful, disparaging and harassing content, generate awareness on prohibited content, enable easy and accurate reporting mechanisms, deploy dedicated teams to review and disable content, liaise with law enforcement and work closely with stakeholder communities. The organisation plans on hosting more multi-stakeholder meetings to come up with further guidelines on how to deal with the issue.

“The internet and social media has created a space where individuals can speak to multitudes and the multitudes can speak back,” Choudhury said. Making that a space where everyone can express themselves freely and with a level of civility may sound like a distant dream, but conversations like this one are important to continue if we’re to get any closer.

Originally published in The Wire.