Dr. Anitha Chinnaswamy, CBiS Associate Researcher, Centre for Business in Society
Social media sites have fundamentally changed the way people interact with one another. Whether we embrace or reject the notion, social networking has entwined deeply in our lives, yet who is to blame. Each of us have a conscious or unconscious desire to please and be pleased and social networking has fostered a platform to feed that desire, allowing us to share exciting news about our entire lives through status updates, pictures and videos.
But what happens when this social media becomes a “threat”?
This is what happens to millions of women, from all over the world who have unwittingly become victims to cyber blackmail, extortion and threats.
It often happens when one has innocently shared intimate images with men they trusted immensely. These private images may either be mildly flirtatious or sexually explicit but when they are threatened to be publicly exposed (especially among friends, family, colleagues, nearest and dearest!), the consequences are damaging!
In addition to images shared willingly, there is also a rise of sexual violence being recorded on the widely available smart phones. The perpetrators then harass their victims with these images threatening them for financial gain, to destroy reputation or in some cases simply because they can!
Sexual violence and harassment are widely recognised as a globally significant problem, with young women aged 16-24 years widely recognised as being at the greatest risk of experiencing sexual assault. A BBC investigation recently investigated thousands of young women in conservative societies across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia being victims of these technology based sexual harms. Although these forms of harassment can be damaging for any woman, these countries have a strong imbedded culture of honour and shame and hence these crimes can have significant consequences. In addition to health and mental effects, in some extreme cases, these threats can lead to self-harm and even result in death.
There is limited research investigating these crimes, on one hand most of these cases go unreported due to fear of retribution. Besides, most research in this arena are predominantly focused on other dimensions of online crime. Hence, this unfolding phenomenon is troubling, not only due to the nature and reach of these harms, but also due to the lack of awareness, lack of knowledge of the crimes and subsequently the lack of legal redress available to victims.
So, the questions arise:
How as a society do we prevent these crimes, how do we protect the victims and how do we penalise the perpetrators…?
We need to focus future research that identifies the extent and nature of a range of online sexual crime. Data on the prevalence and impact of victimisation/perpetration are crucial and will inform both policies and practice. This will also aid in future research.
Social media sites should be a safe and equal space for all. This begins with the social media sites themselves being responsible, adhering to policies that are both stringent and intolerant to all forms of online violence. There should be a legal obligation for the Government to introduce policies that are integrated into their crime prevention strategy and availability of support services for those affected.
Social media is not and should not become the cause of social harm – strategies must be developed to mitigate and prevent this!