Alka Dixit’s (name changed) first encounter with cyber-bullying happened in the October of 2007, when news publication Mumbai Mirror published a story about a case of sexual harassment Alka had filed against a senior colleague in KPMG. The story disclosed Alka’s identity, with her full name and photograph, exposing her to the wrath of public opinion. The online version of the article was followed by a stream of comments that attempted to shame and disgrace her.
Alka was already fighting a difficult battle before this incident. The accused was an influential man, who had KPMG’s full weight thrown behind him. With the publishing of the article, she had to also deal with public humiliation, loss of reputation and invasion of privacy now. “The time when I had a successful career, a cushy office cabin that overlooked the Arabian sea became a distant memory. I was being drowned by allegations of invoking 498a to extract money from my husband, being a prostitute, a dance bar girl and an escort. It affected me so deeply that, I’d google my name everyday to see what people were saying. The top result would surprise you. It was -Alka Dixit is a prostitute,” recalls Alka. With a marred reputation, prospects for the future looked bleak.
Alka’s family was also adversely impacted too by this. Being a single mother with a 12 year old son, she recalls just how badly her son was affected due to the public shaming.“His peers would question him about what was being written and it led him to withdraw from social life. He barely talked to anyone and lost interest in school activities,” she told YKA, recalling that period from her life.
Alka knew she had to do something against cyber bullying and she started by writing a couple of letters to Jigna Vora, the journalist who wrote the article, highlighting the damage the comments had caused and requesting the newspaper to delete them. But, nothing changed.
Despite having a comment moderation policy, the newspaper allowed the abusive comments to stay. “The humiliation hit harder when I noticed that many comments were by people who claimed to be ex-colleagues and people from my neighbourhood. But on confronting them, I found they were actually being impersonated,” says Alka. One of them even issued a notice to Mumbai Mirror.
Mumbai Mirror did delete the article, five years later, by which time the damage had already been done and the hate targeting Alka had already spread to other platforms. There was a time when things got so bad that a reputation management system was suggested to her. “It promised to push back search results connected to my name to latter pages on Google, but the guarantee would last only 6 months. After this, there was a chance the results would bounce back to the top. Even for this, I’d have to pay a handsome sum.” So, the bullying continued and she remained helpless.
In 2014, Alka began receiving unsolicited marriage proposals through a fake Shaadi.com profile created in her name. In 2015, someone had impersonated her on Facebook, using her gmail ID. She reported the issue multiple times on Facebook and even approached the police. Finally, one small-town shopkeeper in Rajasthan was arrested for the crime, who, in Alka’s opinion, is a possible scapegoat. As recently as December 2017, her email ID was used again to create another fake Facebook account. To her, these aren’t just “random acts of bullying” but attempts to distract her from the sexual harassment case she is still fighting.
Having reported every single instance of cyber abuse she faced, Alka’s case is also a good example just how inefficient our system is when it comes to helping those facing cyber abuse.“My multiple visits usually bear no fruit because of the police’s lackadaisical approach. Many times I have taken up an investigation myself and I’ve found gaping holes in the police’s investigation.”
With the advent of social media, the weapons in the hands of her bullies have become more powerful. While she continues to fight back, she wonders if the current state of affairs bode well for a generation that depends heavily on social media for its news, entertainment and day-to-day interaction. During a TEDtalk, Monica Lewinsky said, “Everyday online, people, especially young people, who aren’t mentally equipped to handle this, are so abused and humiliated that they can’t imagine living to the next day, and some tragically don’t. There’s nothing virtual about that.”
In India, these dangers are only too real, and the truth is, we are ill-equipped to combat it. “While several laws, such as the Right to Privacy and the IT Act, are in place, they are handicapped by poor implementation,” observes Alka. A case in point is Maharashtra, where, between 2012 and 2017, as many as 10,000 cybercrime cases were reported, but only 184 trials were completed and a measly 34 convictions that actually happened.
In Alka’s decade long fight, she has seen technology grow and evolve, and with it various forms of bullying. The internet is only going to continue penetrating deeper into our lives, but we need to catch up and build necessary ways to protect ourselves. While the technological aspects of combating bullying are important and needed, we need what Monica Lewinsky calls a “cultural revolution” to change mindsets. We need to transform the culture of humiliation to that of compassion and empathy. The road before is long and rife with obstacles, but it is one worth treading.
Featured image for representational purposes only.