After Insta influencer stalks girl, campaign launched for cyber safety in Kerala

The #wearedone campaign is a direct result of vocal feminists and progressive Instagrammers calling out toxic influencers and their fans.
After Insta influencer stalks girl, campaign launched for cyber safety in Kerala
After Insta influencer stalks girl, campaign launched for cyber safety in Kerala
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Post the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the time we spend online has increased exponentially, and so has the bulk of content available on various digital platforms. It has also led to a significant increase in the instances of cyber abuse against individuals, especially women and other vulnerable groups.

The Malayalam Instagram community has been caught in a storm in the past few weeks after a male influencer with huge following used his online clout to allegedly stalk, intimidate and physically breach the privacy of a girl by turning up at her house after she criticised a post of his, on Instagram. The incident polarised Instagram into two opposing factions – supporters of the influencer, and survivors of online abuse along with their allies.

This in itself is upsetting because ideally, there should be no support for cyber harassment, intimidation and bullying. What becomes clear from these occurrences is the continued victimisation of women and other vulnerable groups in the cyber space by toxic influencers and their hyper masculine fan base. 

Toxic fan culture and patriarchy approved moulds of ‘empowerment’

The internet gives people unfettered space to express themselves freely (and anonymously if they so wish) without the fear of immediate consequence. This enables the growth of toxic influencers, predominantly men who put out trolls and content that are casteist, sexist, racist, homophobic and offensive to the identity of women and vulnerable sections of the society.

Women with opinions, especially vocal feminists are “put in their place” by these influencers and fans by trivialising their concerns with whataboutery and calling them “man hating pseudo feminists”. They are also quick to put out content that mansplains feminism and creates a patriarchy approved mould of ‘empowerment’ to which all feminists must adhere in order to earn their support.  Any expression of dissent is met with mass trolling, sexually charged comments and mental harassment by a flock of fans who think it is their right to do so.

This is something that has been normalised for a long time in the cyber space, and when things have come to the point of influencers digging up personal details of women and barging into their homes to chastise them, the integrity of the platform and the safety of women who use them are under serious threat. It is high time we amplify this issue as well as analyse the root of this toxic cyber culture that unleashes violence against individuals for their opinions.

The entitlement that men feel to resort to such activities without fear of consequence is very telling of male privilege and its problematic affirmations in the cyber space. It also points out how women are expected by the society to keep their presence minimal and stop engaging with content like this. The affected women often find themselves isolated in the absence of social, moral and familial support to resist these attacks. In fact, when a woman expresses herself, or engages in a critical debate with a man on social media, she is expected to be trolled and asked to ignore them.  If she chooses to react, she is victim blamed and gaslighted. Responses towards her become personal and border on blatant body shaming, slut shaming and targeted attacks. The same is the case with trans individuals, queer communities and all other socially vulnerable groups.

The question we need to address is why women and other vulnerable groups have to put up with such experiences and how we as a society have fostered a culture of toxicity where a man with a fan base can go to any length to prove a point.

Social media clouts function as virtual quotation gangs wherein fans blindly follow their heroes and are ready to tear down anyone who refuses to pedestalise them. We have seen this in the physical world with respect to superstars and the same is now extended to the cyber space where anyone can earn followers with some effort and misuse such digital capital. The idea that men with a digital clout are infallible and above criticism is something that needs to be nipped in the bud before it fuels cyber crimes of a bigger, more organised nature.

#wearedone – A survivor-led campaign against cyber harassment

 After the recent developments in the Malayalam Instagram community, the pressing need for a well-studied, informed legal framework to address online behaviour has become evident. Even before the pandemic, cyber harassment, especially of women, trans individuals, the queer community and members of other socially vulnerable groups has been rampant.

The Government of Kerala introduced Section 118A to the Kerala Police Act to tackle cyber harassment, but the provision was soon withdrawn in the wake of strong opposition from the civil society, media and other members of the public. The ongoing events on Instagram have alternatively led to something beautiful, constructive and absolutely hopeful – the start of a campaign #weardone which is led by survivors of cyber harassment along with their allies to encourage more survivors to report their abusers and to request the government of Kerala to look into the issue of cyber safety.

The campaign is a direct result of vocal feminists and progressive Instagrammers calling out toxic influencers and their fans. Many of the survivors of cyber abuse went live on Instagram and opened up about their trauma which led to many more joining the campaign.

Shibili Suhana (popularly known by her handle Sooperwomeen on Instagram), a survivor of cyber abuse, mentions that the campaign has helped create a safe space for women and other vulnerable groups to heal, find support and push back against harassment. She says such a space was previously not available and most survivors suffered in isolation, feeling powerless against their abusers who have a huge fan base. Consequentially, the influencer who marched into the girl’s home on account of her comment on his post, put up a public apology. “Though this gesture is welcome, we want all the derogatory comments and trolls to be pulled down and we want to make each of these influencers accountable for their behaviour. This campaign is larger than individuals now and we are not going to back down,” Suhana adds.

#wearedone is a proactive, solution-oriented campaign helmed by Citizens’ Collective for a Safe Cyber Space, a group of policy professionals, tech experts and lawyers who have been consistently working towards ensuring cyber safety in the state. The hashtag campaign is backed by a petition that is being widely circulated via intended to pressure political parties and the government to make this an agenda in the wake of the upcoming Assembly elections. The petition highlights the need for a comprehensive look into the cyber space and presses for governmental action to keep online behaviour in check without bordering on censorship. Having already gathered more than 12,000 digital signatures, the petition places before the government and political parties three major requests:

1. Hold a public consultation involving users, policy professionals, legal experts, and all other stakeholders to firstly listen to their experiences of online abuse and then to democratically come up with a comprehensive plan of action to tackle it

2. Include modules on how to be a responsible cyber citizen and use the space constructively in the syllabi of schools and colleges

3. Make cyber safety a key agenda in the election manifestos of competing political fronts so that they can be held accountable by the voters on the same

After the petition was circulated, the LDF and the UDF released their election manifestos. Both have categorically mentioned cyber safety of women and vulnerable groups as a serious point of action. The petition may have no bearing on this since the manifestos may have been drafted well in advance, but the fact that two major political fronts in the state have addressed the issue in itself underlines its relevance and importance.

“The petition was drafted after consultation with eminent lawyers, policy experts and technology specialists, so as to make sure we urge for the right things. Public consultation is something that is essential when it comes to cyber laws as they must be drawn cautiously, keeping intact the sanctity of free speech. We hope to work with the government, irrespective of which one comes into power, to make cyber safety a reality because we are really tired of the mental trauma of intimidation and cornering on social media,” says Athira Sujatha Radhakrishnan, policy professional, influencer and founding member of the Citizens’ Collective for a Safe Cyber Space.

A campaign like this tries to cut through cyber toxicity and safeguard the democratic ideals of equality, coexistence and gender parity. The toxic fan culture and mass appeal thirsty male influencer groups definitely have roots in the physical world – our families, communities and social structures that hand disproportionate power to one gender and create restrictive moulds for the others. The fact that even after instances of such irreversible abuse, these influencers have only grown in followership shows how problematic we are as a society when it comes to treating women and vulnerable sections.

#wearedone is a campaign that is first of its kind because of the fact that it is a survivor-led campaign that brings together women, other survivors of cyber abuse and their allies. When we look at cyber harassment, we must also keep in mind the social context of how women, trans individuals and the queer community are treated otherwise. So much as an indecent comment, or a virtual threat is enough to trigger these vulnerable groups and put them through arresting mental disturbances. They do not get enough support from their families or communities, which makes it harrowing for them to push back or seek help. Normalising such lopsided power structures in the name of social media entertainment or hero worship is detrimental to our safety and democratic integrity.

Therefore, the laws in the physical world should be juxtaposed with due diligence and necessary modifications to the cyber space to ensure that these gendered power structures are broken down and a democratic, safe space is built for everyone.

#wearedone is an important, historic movement which tries to create a lateral, collaborative, empathetic environment in the cyber space. It seeks to understand the survivors and create a space for them to open up, heal and use the cyber space without fear. This sense of empathy must be kept in mind while each one of us uses the internet. No individual must feel entitled to be abusive to another, no matter how influential they are. “We are all here as human beings to walk each other home, let us never forget that when we use social media platforms”, says Athira Sujatha Radhakrishnan while describing the spirit of the campaign. We must recognise and push the politics of inclusivity and empathy as individuals and a society for ensuring  safety and parity in the cyber environment.

Sukanya Shaji is a freelance writer, poet and lawyer based in Kochi. Views expressed are the author's own.

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