Featured image courtesy Global Rights for Women

It started with a few comments on Facebook. A 26 –year-old woman shared her opinion on a Facebook status. The discussion was about religion. Someone disagreed with her. The status transformed into a bitter ‘comment war.’ Nothing particularly unusual so far. It was what happened afterwards that was disturbing.

“Following the comments, I had several hateful messages sent to me via Facebook,” she shared.

It didn’t stop there. The angry commenter had purchased a website domain with the 26 – year -old’s full name. The underlying threat – he was prepared to use it to post whatever he pleased, impersonating her. The domain remained unused, but the girl concerned was not appeased.

“I decided to take the case up with the Police, who then directed me to the CID. After going to the CID in the hope of a quick response, I was told to approach the Police again.”

A repetitive process began, of taking printouts from one police desk to another. “I eventually stopped pursuing the case, as there was no progress beyond the repeated submission of forms at different offices.”

This story is not an isolated case. Sri Lanka regularly grapples with the issue of cyber-bullying and, by extension, cyber-violence. Manifestations range from the creation of abusive memes, to hateful anonymous spam messages, and the sharing of personal information on social media.

A more public example was the recently held Lanka Comic Con. Lanka Comic Con grew from a Facebook group “The Geek Club of Sri Lanka”, which was a space for fans of movies, comics and gaming to interact. What began online soon led to informal meetings offline. Lanka Comic Con itself is inspired by similar global conventions.

A key draw at Comic Con was the cosplay competition. After the event, however, several Facebook pages created memes that body-shamed and taunted some of the young women who had participated. The commentary was revealing – much of the taunts focused on how the women (each of whom had put in several hours of work on their costumes) were ‘supposed’ to look. The use of memes, often shared on the Geek Club as a way of bonding over TV shows and series, was subverted to mock and humiliate.

“I think this phenomenon started with people using technology to entertain themselves everyday – memes, funny posts, gifs, anything. Initially it was possible that this was done without the intention to harass another but as a way of entertainment, which later evolved to harassment because people failed to realize where to ‘draw the line,” a 33-year-old victim of cyber-violence said.

Defining Cyber-Bullying

Definitions of cyber-bullying and what it constitutes, vary. The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) contend that cyber-bullying is actually a component of violence against women – one that is aggravated by the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). The echoes of this can be felt offline as well. Commentary online can escalate to exploitation and even violence, as a result of blackmail, threats, coercion or discrimination. The European Institute of Gender Equality notes the forms that cyber violence against women and girls, as they define it, can take, but steers clear of hard definitions.

In Sri Lanka, a common form of cyber-violence is the  non-consensual distribution or publication of intimate photos or videos online [which has come to be known as revenge porn] as well as any other material via memes, and edited images. However, there are other manifestations. Women who are outspoken tend to be targeted, both online and off, as some know all too well.

“I am a pretty strong opinionated woman and I tend to accumulate much resentment for being so, as most strong women do. Society expect a woman’s mannerisms of speaking and tone of voice to be softer and alluring. If it was to sound direct and commanding they consider it to be needed to be stomped on,” a woman who has been on the receiving end of vicious personal attacks as a result of her commentary on social media, said.

In some instances, harassers will resort to using derogatory terms for female reproductive organs and even use Photoshop to create compromising faked photos, she shared. Denigration usually follows, with the sharing of rumours on gossip networks to damage their reputation. On Facebook, this has manifested through groups specifically made to mock, insult and use abusive language about a particular person. Within such groups, the person’s private information or images often get shared akin to doxxing.

These are just some examples of cyber-violence – the European Institute for Gender Equality lists them to involve “cyber stalking, non-consensual pornography (or ‘revenge porn’), gender-based slurs and harassment, ‘slut-shaming’, unsolicited pornography, ‘sextortion’, rape and death threats, ‘doxing’, and electronically enabled trafficking.”

Few people know where to go to find some form of redress. Sri Lanka’s legislation doesn’t list cyber-bullying and harassment as a separate offence, but there are legal provisions which have been cited by lawyers and activists to charge perpetrators.

Legal Redress

Sections of the Penal Code can be used to address some forms of cyber violence. For instance, Section 345 deals with sexual harassment (defining it as the use of words or actions to cause annoyance or harassment to a person) Section 372 deals with extortion (defining it as the intentional act of putting another person in fear of injury, inducing a person to deliver property or valuable security) and Section 483, with criminal intimidation, or threatening a person to act or omit an action in order to avoid some sort of punishment. The latter two Sections can be used to tackle incidents of blackmail over the sharing of personal photos or videos.

In addition, even the act of sharing personal, intimate images without consent, or even sharing images which have been explicitly altered using editing software, can be challenged under the Obscene Publications Act. According to Section 2 of this Act, the distribution or public exhibition of “obscene” photographs, and indeed, the very possession of such photographs, is considered an offence. Section 3 (r) of The Payment Devices Frauds Act, also makes the obtaining of money or goods through a payment device with intent to defraud, an offence.  This too can be used to address cases of blackmail. Then there’s the Computer Crimes Act, Section 7 of which makes it an offense for people to obtain information from a computer or a storage medium of a computer without permission. It also criminalises downloading, uploading, or making copies of such illegally acquired content.

With this legislation in place, it should theoretically be easy for victims to access justice for crimes committed against them online. However, the reason most victims do not pursue these solutions is due to flaws that exist in the system of reporting online violence to authorities.

The (Lack of) Facebook’s Support

Individuals who have been victims of harassment often share that Facebook has not been helpful or supportive in blocking abusive content directed at them. Memes created and the subsequent comments that follow are usually in Sinhala and Tamil, and despite the content being flagged via Facebook’s reporting mechanism, Facebook responds that it ‘does not violate their Community Standards’.

“Facebook was completely unhelpful in removing these pages and some of the posts. Reporting that it was a personal attack on me wasn’t enough, I had to band together with friends and even strangers who mass-reported the post before there was any action taken, and in some cases there wasn’t,” a 20-year-old who was targeted said.

There is a need for more Sinhala and Tamil language moderators in Facebook’s support network. Victims have shared that Facebook took action faster when the photographer whose images being used to make abusive memes complained on the grounds of copyright infringement than it did when people reported the posts for abusive content.

The Grassrooted Trust works on cases with regard to nude images or videos and consequent forms of sexual exploitation and blackmail online. With the help of lawyers working both for them and Women In Need, they liaise with the CID Cyber Crimes Unit directly to pursue the victim’s case.

As a first step, they recommend saving all evidence. Most Facebook pages are taken down once reported, or removed by administrators themselves. In this instance, it is useful to have screenshots of the material as evidence for possible legal action that will follow.

The Grassrooted Trust’s recommendations over the last few years, including to the Minister of Telecom and Digital Infrastructure and Minister of Law and Order have been cross-cutting over several sectors of education and response. Among these have been a non-judgmental regional response mechanism, as one concern is the access to the CID outside the capital city. They also highlight the importance of prevention programmes in schools, a key lesson for children who are growing up in the digital age.

Apart from this, there is the option of obtaining legal representation to pursue a case, under one of the Acts outlined above. The high costs coupled with case backlog make this an unviable option for many. When combined with the lethargy and in some instances complete unresponsiveness to complaints, as corroborated to Groundviews by several women, it’s no surprise that many, such as the 26- year- old, choose to stop pursuing their cases. Groundviews took the additional step of contacting the NCPA and the Women and Children’s Desk at the police station, to test their response to a report of online harassment. In both cases, the caller was met with utter confusion and redirection from one department to another. It is not hard to imagine what the psychological impact of this confusion would be on someone who had actually experienced cyber-violence.

Impacts and consequences of cyber-violence

 The impacts of cyber-violence go beyond temporary humiliation. Several people who have been targeted spoke to Groundviews about their struggles with anxiety, depression and insecurity, which sometimes predated them being mocked online.

‘I’d been working on my mental health for the last year, and when the memes – actually, even worse than those were the comments left on them – first started coming in, I was taken off guard. My actions, and taking control of my life, was being met with such hate and bitterness, I had to be very mindful to make sure I didn’t let any of those baseless slurs affect me too badly,” a victim said.

This type of online harassment can exacerbate existing markers for various mental illnesses. Studies have also shown that cyberbullying is more strongly related to suicidal ideation when compared with traditional offline bullying.

While in Sri Lanka there have been no reported cases of suicide brought about by cyber-bullying, there have been cases where content an individual posted online was used to harass and humiliate them in their offline circles. A photo of a young girl, where she was seen standing next to a boy, came to the attention of her school principal. The principal’s subsequent admonishing is reported as having driven the young girl to take her own life soon after. Cyber-bullying is also said to have pushed a Sri Lankan teen to suicide in the Netherlands.

“Most bullies do it without realizing just how dire the consequences can be. But perpetrators are aware that they are doing something that is wrong – they want to continue doing it out of malice, without having to face the consequence of being branded a bully.’

If the victims do not receive professional help in the aftermath of incidents like these, and the mechanisms that Sri Lanka has in place prove ineffective and unresponsive, a vicious cycle will be perpetuated. This is worsened by the relative anonymity the Internet offers, which allows the perpetrator to remain unaccountable while the victim of such attacks is held up to the spotlight.

International research has also shown that the increasing prevalence of Internet users positively correlates with general population suicide rates. And yet, nearly 6 million Sri Lankans are using the internet and various social media platforms, with numbers projected to grow in the coming years. Asking people to stay offline is not the answer. But there is a need to examine the consequences of cyber-violence. Agencies handling cyber-violence need to be strengthened and empowered to take concrete action on offenders, given that legislation is in place to tackle many forms of cyber-violence in Sri Lanka.

Editor’s Note: Below is a comprehensive list of reporting agencies, and their usual response mechanisms

Reporting Agencies

 The National Child Protection Authority (Under 18 years)

Previously, the NCPA checked on the nature of the case and then used the existing legal provisions detailed above to proceed and/or bring the perpetrator in and warn/admonish them.

However, the reporting mechanism at the NCPA remains a good idea. When Groundviews attempted to contact the NCPA’s in-house team that deals with cyber-bullying on several occasions, the response was always that they were unavailable. The response to victims hasn’t been better according to activists who work to combat the issue, who report that interactions with the NCPA are largely one way, with no follow-up or assistance on the part of the authority.

The CID Cyber Crimes Division

 Many victims of cyber-violence, such as the 26 – year- old featured in the start of this article, would instinctively call the police. They would then be redirected to the CID. The main officer at the Women and Children’s Unit, for instance, told Groundviews that the CID typically dealt with crimes of this nature.

 While some activists and victims say that the attitude of the CID Cyber Crimes Unit is extremely supportive and sensitive, this experience differs between cases. For those living in rural areas, traveling to the Cyber Crimes Division to report a complaint poses a further obstacle.

 Sri Lanka CERT

 Sri Lanka’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) was set up in collaboration with ICTA as a resource organization to respond to cyber-attacks. However, they do respond to complaints of cyber-violence as well, particularly if the incident took place on Facebook. Their first response is to tell the person involved to report the Facebook page. If the page is not taken down by Facebook and the harassment continues, CERT requests that they write into [email protected], whereupon CERT can contact Facebook on the victim’s behalf to have the content removed.

Also read “On the harassment of the Comic Con Players“.