In Focus 1st August, 2016

Being Online.

The internet has permeated our lives, so much that it is hard to imagine a life without it. For a lot of us, being online is a state of being now and the internet is a space we inhabit and experience very closely.

A lot of us are first generation internet users. Let us imagine a scenario to arrive at what we are trying to talk about. Imagine you move to new city. Everything is the same. The way the lives of people function, the issues, the challenges, everything is the same. There is an infrastructure in place too, to a certain extent, to help you navigate your life in the new city. But you are clueless about them. There is a lack of context for you to tackle these challenges that you are facing on an everyday basis. You are not equipped to understand these issues and so you are just treading across the space, with no reference points to guide you. While the experience of navigating the new city on your own terms in exhilarating, the excitement is hampered by the new set of challenges you are posed with.

In this story, replace the new city with the online space. The online space has come to replicate all our social lives. Harassment, both sexual and non-sexual too find it’s place in the online space. Infact, while the challenge of sexual harassment has replicated itself in the online space, it also acquired a peculiar nature in the online space. It is because of this lack of context about how to tackle the issue of online safety, we realise, that it is all the more important to have more and more conversations about online harassment and safety.

Like any physical public space, the internet is also predominantly male. According to the IAMAI & IMRB, Internet in India, 2015 report, as against 71 per cent males, just about 29 per cent of the internet users were females. The online space is a gendered space just like any other space. The male dominance often reflects itself through a masculine culture or just in general through the dominant conversations that shape up in the online sphere. When women claim the online space, there is a backlash and it very often takes the form of sexual harassment. For that matter any person belonging to any marginalised group is often a subject of harassment online.

Further, there have been studies which show how children are very vulnerable to harassment – sexual and non-sexual online. In the 2015 Teens, Tweens and Technology Survey commissioned by Intel Securities in India, 43 per cent of children active on social media claimed that they have witnessed cruel behaviour on social networks.

Cyberbullying, online sexual abuse, blackmail are the few forms that harassment takes in the online space. Very often, it is the offline harassment that transcends into the online space. Cyber stalking is one of the most evident examples of this. Messages in the ‘others’ section in our inbox which are abusive, repetitive friend request from profiles with random names and profile pictures, the ‘pokes’, non-consensual tags and picture downloads, being subject to internet trolls are all things which constitute our everyday existence in the online space. Especially so, if you belong to one of the marginalised, vulnerable groups in the society.

Anonymity is something that the online space offers us. There is no denying that it is enabling in certain situations, such as when people can share certain sensitive experiences because of the assurance that their identity will remain anonymous. However, anonymity also somewhere facilitates offensive and criminal acts and is a key challenge to online safety.

Having said all this, the agenda is not to paint a picture of the online space which gives you sleepless nights. The online space is a very exciting space to inhabit and we have no intention of letting go of yet another realm just to be ‘safe’. We are saying no to a protectionist approach and saying a yes to reclaiming the online space as a safe space for all. We are saying yes to fighting back. The recent Eklavya Choudhari case, a student from Jadavpur University who was exposed via Facebook for sexually harassing women online and otherwise is an example!

There are a lot of instances of how people are leaving online spaces because of the harassment meted out to them. While it’s disheartening and frustrating, these instances of using the social media and other such online tools to fight back fill us with joy and hope! There are a lot of spaces which are trying to make the online space an inclusive, safe space. These are the spaces we want to talk about and these are the struggles we are choosing to fight for. Join us in our campaign as we discuss online safety this week. #StandWithMe. Be my safe space.


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