A few days ago, Esther Anil, who essayed the role of Mohanlal’s daughter in popular Malayalam movie Drishyam and its sequel Drishyam 2, was at the receiving end of moral policing online. An Instagram user attempted to taunt the 19-year-old actor for her choice of clothes. "Now you are qualified to act in Hindi cinema. You should also show the skill to act in English films,” the user wrote, commenting on pictures posted by Esther that were taken at a party she attended in Bengaluru. Not to be cowed down, Esther replied to the comment saying “Who are you, sir, to decide my qualifications?” Many users appreciated her reply and supported her.
This is not an isolated instance. At a time when users are becoming increasingly active on social media platforms, there has also been a rise in the online trolling, bullying and abusive comments that they are subjected to. Celebrities and social media influencers seem to face the heat, more often than others. Alarmingly, this includes teen celebrities. They are not only subjected to hate speech, abusive comments and sexual objectification but are also forced to endure sexism, conservatism, juvenile ageism and slut shaming disguised as advice.
Anikha Surendran, better known as Baby Anikha, rose to fame with her roles in Tamil films Yennai Arindhaal and Viswasam. The 16-year-old actor has a massive following of over 1.3 million users on Instagram. From donning vibrant bridal lehengas to wearing elegant gowns, Anikha is popular for her stunning photoshoots. Although she is showered with love and appreciation from fans, it is hard to look past the abusive comments that range from moral policing to sexual objectification of the teen actor.
Comments like “You are not having homework in school” or “Makeup potu yemathadhinga original ah post pannunga” (Do not deceive everyone by wearing makeup, post original photos) appear frequently on her posts. Some of the statements posted by users insinuate that her clothing is not age-appropriate, and ‘advise’ her to wear traditional clothes.
Some of the negative and profane comments directly contradict Instagram’s community guidelines. Users, some of whom have mentioned their age as above 30 in their bios and ones who have uploaded photos of their own kids on their public profiles, have sexually objectified her by posting remarks where they express their desire to sexually engage with the 16-year-old actor.
Although Anikha has not responded to the derogatory comments, Bigg Boss Tamil fame, actor Abhirami Venkatachalam, took to Instagram in August 2020 to put up a story with a screenshot of an obscene comment posted by a user under Anikha’s photo. Abhirami called them ‘cyber bullies’ and said, “Shame on such people they don’t even leave kids… and they talk about us wow”.
Earlier in January, Anikha’s face was morphed into a dance video and widely circulated on social media. Condemning the action, the 16-year-old actor posted a video clarifying it is not her and requested her followers to report the video instead of sharing it.
anikha surendran about leaked video... its not her... she request all help delete from online... support @anikhaoffl_ #anikhasurendran #anikha #anika #anikasurendran #babyanikha #AjithKumar #valimai #viswasam #nayanthara #vijay #MasterFilm pic.twitter.com/fdj9iAzbCb— NatiPrapancham (@NatiPrapancham) January 10, 2021
Another teen actor, Anaswara Rajan, who is well- known among the Malayali audiences for her performance in Thaneer Mathan Dinangal and Udaharanam Sujatha among other Mollywood films, was forced to deal with disrespectful comments after posting a photo on Instagram last September, where she is seen wearing shorts. The nature of trolling was very similar to the instances cited above since Anaswara too was slut- shamed and bullied for her clothing. “Stop with this. If you post such pictures without wearing clothes, we will not give likes,” one of the comments posted by an Instagram user read. A few users went a step ahead and questioned whether she wants to ‘take her clothes off by the age of 18’.
The 18-year-old actor chose to strike back by posting two more photos in the same attire and wrote “Don't worry about what I'm doing. Worry about why you're worried about what I'm doing…” Fortunately, several actors from the Malayalam film industry extended their support to Anaswara by posting similar photos of theirs with the hashtag #Womenhave legs.
In Bollywood, Dangal star Zaira Wasim faced vitriolic abuse in several instances – ranging from meeting then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti to cutting her hair for a role and even reporting sexual harassment on a flight.
Here are some of the reactions:
Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana has been trolled on social media on more than one occasion too. In an Instagram post, Suhana mentioned she has been called “ugly” due to the colour of her skin since she was 12 years old. The now 20-year-old film student penned a lengthy note to address the problem of Indians’ obsession towards attaining a fair skin.
She also posted screenshots of remarks passed by users over the years, along with the translation. “Aaeee kaali Chudail” (black witch), “kallo ne surgery krwa li phir bi male lag ri hai” (she underwent surgery to make her skin look lighter and she still looks like a man) and “kali bili” (black cat) are some of the comments made by users.
According to a global survey conducted by UK- based humanitarian organisation Plan International, 58% of the respondents expressed that they have faced online harassment and abuse while using different social media platforms. The study, which was held across 22 countries, highlighted that young women and girls are the most targeted group for online violence and abuse.
A research by Ofcom states that almost 53-55% of adults and users between the ages of 12-15 were concerned about children’s exposure to bullying, abusive behaviour or threats online.
Resources available to tackle trolling and online shaming
Social media abuse can have a significant impact on users at the receiving end. This includes disrupted sleep, lowered self-esteem, suicidal ideation and depression among others. It’s necessary for young people to know what resources exist to counter social media abuse.
Instagram as well as other social networking platforms permit users to report, block and restrict comments/ accounts posting abusive messages. Teen celebrities including Anaswara and Suhana have opted to limit the comments or disable comments under their posts.
As per Instagram’s community guidelines, the social networking site also auto-hides comments that are offensive and the ones that contradict the guidelines established for users. Recently in February, Facebook too introduced new tools to combat child abuse and trolling. While the feature is a step in the right direction, it also comes with its own limitations. The tool is often ineffective in filtering comments made in non-English languages, leaving users with the only option of reporting the comment or profile of the sender.
If one chooses to take the legal route, laws such as Section 507 of the Indian Penal Code or IPC (deals with criminal intimidation by anonymous communication), Section 66E of the Information Technology Act or IT Act (concerns punishment for violation of privacy), Section 499 of IPC (prohibits words, signs, visible representations made against a person with the intent to cause harm or defame an individual), Section 509 of IPC (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of women), Sections 354 A and 354 D could be used depending upon the case in hand.
One could also turn to volunteer groups that are working in tandem with government agencies and law enforcement to tackle abusive comments, online shaming, trolling and cyberbullying.