By Isurinie Mallawaarachchi
Source: Ceylon Today
It was a few years ago, when a friend called me to ask not to accept a Facebook friend request from a certain person whom she revealed as her former lover. “I am compelled to deactivate all my social media accounts, because this person keeps sending messages to my friends, making false allegations”, she explained, adding that she is being forced to keep quiet because of her family’s view that taking any action against it would ‘add fuel to fire. ‘Leaving it to you to elicit the gender-related implications of this conversation, we look at what persons of authority and daily users of social media have to say about the harassment of women and girls that take place particularly on social media.
While millions of people are able to share their thoughts on a certain topic at the same time, emerging from various parts of the world, social media was also hailed during the recent history for being a virtual platform on which election campaigns were held.
Amidst the positive impact social media makes to uphold people’s freedom of expression and voice their opinions about issues that matter to them, comes its misuse, cyberbullying and harassment.
According to Community Standards of Facebook, purposefully targeting private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them is considered harassment. Shameful Facebook pages, altered images, photos and videos of physical bullying posted with the intention of shaming the victim, sharing personal information to harass or blackmail people and repeated and unwanted friend requests and messages are thus categorized under the category of harassment.
The Executive Director of Women and Media Collective (WMC) Dr. Sepali Kottegoda stated that women are a major target of social media harassment and this is often related to their sexuality. Their photos are used without consent and extremely derogatory texts, photos and cartoons are circulated to shame them, she added. Dr. Kottegoda also remarked that these acts are done by misogynists who oppose women’s independent ability to express themselves.
Violence that takes place ‘offline,’ while not directly connected to an online platform could also lead to cyber violence, Sanchia Brown from WMC told Ceylon Today. Bullying, violation of privacy, stalking and ‘doxxing’ – publishing private information about a particular individual or an organization without their consent, have been identified as common methods of harassment that occur on social media. Brown believed that there is definitely a rise in the number of women who are being harassed over social media platforms. She further added that deciphering exact figures with regard to the cyber harassment against women in Sri Lanka has become challenging as there can be incidents that are not reported and also unable to locate due to the nature of the platform that they take place. In this context, the WMC empower female activists through capacity building, by educating them on digital security, Brown said.
The Principal Information Technology Engineer of Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) of Sri Lanka, Roshan Chandraguptha stated that 60 per cent of the complaints that are made to the CERT are from females while 40 per cent are from males. He also shed light to the view that there can be incidents that are not reported. The users of social media ought to be cautious and ethical in their interactions on social networks, Chandraguptha remarked. In an instance of cyber violence, the CERT provides with the technical assistance and takes measures to remove the offensive post from the relevant cyber platform, he added.
We reached out to daily Facebook users requesting to voice their opinion on harassment of women and girls on social media. Many of them believed that women are among vulnerable targets of cyberbullying and that more responsible and observant use of social media could support minimizing this situation.
Madhavi Perera (25), who is pursuing a law degree recalled a personal experience with regard to harassment that takes place on social media: “I have personally experienced harassment on social media when I made a complaint on the Facebook page of a leading clothing store.While the authorities from the said clothing store apologized, and ensured that my complaint was addressed, various persons shamed me for making a public complaint saying that I am seeking attention by trying to shame that clothing store,” she said.
In her view, the major reason women are being harassed is because Sri Lanka is a conservative country and many Sri Lankans are still living with prejudiced view points. Also, Sri Lanka is quite bound by the traditional mindset of the majority, so they still see from a conservative perspective, she commented. Madhavi also said that the education system of the country does not encourage Sri Lankans to ‘think out of the box.’ “There is clearly an absence of acceptance. People want to be keyboard heroes, they simply take the side of the popular belief rather than trying to figure out what has actually happened” she opined.
Taking a rather contradicting stance, Thilina L. Dissanayaka (27) who is a university academic, expressed that harassment of women in particular is an issue created by the perception of women that they ought to be treated differently than that of men.
“There is no way that social networks could harass women, we can only claim that there is a possibility that women can get harassed by them. A woman who is under the impression that she should be treated differently, might think that she gets harassed”, he commented.
Thilina elaborated on his claim by bringing in an example of a female worker at a construction site. “I once asked a female employee at a construction site about her opinions on the view that the women who are employed at the construction sector are prone to gender based violence. Her response was that there are no threats as such; she said that these issues are problems that are ‘created’ by women.” Viewing the harassment against women as a non-existent problem, he concluded that women should think more independently, and their perception should be devoid of the influence of men.
A human rights and HIV activist, Roshan De Silva (46) commented on the harassment of women that come from men in particular. In his view, men are intimidated by women. “Have a look of the derogatory language used against women in Facebook pages like ‘dangarella’; do you think that these men would talk to women as such if they meet them in real life?” Roshan asked. He stated that the anonymity that is provided with the virtual nature of social media has fortified the irresponsible behaviour of the perpetrators of cyber violence. He was under the impression that the extent of harassment against women is comparatively higher in the cyber space.
Adding to what Roshan opined, Crisenta Dunuwila (33), a housewife, said that social media has become “an ugly mess” because of certain people with “non-refined, poor mentalities.” “We always hear about incidents where young women are being harassed due to bad, shortsighted decisions that they take. An example would be the incident where someone committed suicide after an exchange of nude photos. Knowing that these actions could lead to such negative consequences, why do we keep doing it continuously? As women, we have to be more observant” she commented.
Shashikala Assella, 35, who is a university academic, discussed multiple ways through which women are harassed on an online platform. She said that women are being targeted on social media, especially if they have attractive profile pictures or rather open profiles, by sexual predators and others. “Mostly, they are approached with the intention of either going out, which is also questionable, and then if refused they generally get abused on social media, on public forums, for their bodies and dress codes” she remarked.
Shashikala also pointed out to the perception of some who think that “it is their right to send friend request to any girl/woman they like”, arguing that, that itself shows lack of respect, and they think that women should accept their requests/ follow them just because they have shown interest in them. She also singled out instances when people whom one may have known before, but have no intention of keeping in touch with, send requests repeatedly and feel insulted if one ignores them, because they think it is their right to be connected. She concluded that women too need to be more aware of all the sexual predators waiting to victimize them on social media, being strong to delete people/ remove offensive comments and generally keeping themselves safe as much as they can.
In 2012, the whole world’s attention was directed towards cyberbullying when a teenager named Amanda Todd committed suicide after a series of incidents that involved cyberbullying and harassment. From time to time, various female targets surface on Sri Lankan Facebook sphere being shamed for their sexuality. For now, being cautious in our use of social media seems to be the most effective means through which we could counteract cyberbullying; eradication of misogyny and irresponsible online behaviour are also factors that require to be taken into account.