When Anushka, a 19-year-old college student, found “morphed” nude images of herself online, she became suicidal. A former boyfriend pasted her face onto the naked bodies of other women, creating images of what appeared to be Anushka herself. The images, sent to her college WhatsApp group and posted online, were found by her parents the same day. Anushka’s story is just one among the countless instances of technology-facilitated sexual violence (TFSV), a growing problem affecting college students across India.
My research on TFSV revealed that online abuse disproportionately affected young women. I surveyed 400 students from 111 Indian higher education institutions and found that a staggering 60% of women experienced some form of TFSV compared to only 8% of men.
TFSV can take many forms, such as morphed nude images, sexualised blackmailing and bullying, digital flashing, rape threats, and explicit comments and messages. It pervades every social media and messaging platform, but Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp are the ones especially culpable.
Abuse is linked to an individual’s name and online profile, and can remain on the Internet forever. Many survivors experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. There are tangible consequences to online abuse too such as a loss of academic or career prospects, social isolation, and violence and ostracisation by one’s own family. Meanwhile, abusers hide behind anonymity.
Where can the survivors turn for help? India’s IT Act of 2000 criminalises some forms of TFSV, but ambiguities in the law can deter survivors from reporting. Although the law has coaxed some safety improvements, technology giants such as Meta are unmotivated to overhaul their safety features beyond the bare minimum. India has the most Facebook users in the world, yet Meta has not optimised its platforms for an Indian context.
For example, Meta’s safety moderation algorithms are trained mostly in American English, so abusive content in Indian languages is less likely to be detected. With the upcoming Digital India Act, the government has an opportunity to strengthen its regulations for technology platforms and compel social media companies to take accountability.
Crucial intervention point
Institutions of higher education (IHEs) are another crucial intervention point for online harassment of students. The guidelines for prevention and redressal are comprehensive, yet the legally-mandated mechanisms often go unused, if they exist at all. IHEs must have Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) to investigate incidents of sexual harassment, but many institutions struggle to form, train, and manage these committees. Even if an ICC finds a student guilty of sexual harassment, there is no guarantee that higher authorities will hold them accountable.
Unsurprisingly, students reported low awareness and utilisation of ICCs in their academic institutions. Of the students surveyed, 44% were unsure whether they could report online sexual harassment to their college at all. Not a single survivor chose to formally report the incident.
Students were extremely clear about how to address TFSV at their institutions. They proposed that their schools provide anonymous helplines and reporting options, mental health services from trained counsellors, and grassroots solutions like hosting regular workshops, safety training, facilitated discussions, and designating student organisations to lead education and response efforts. Legal regulations already mandate that IHEs conduct gender sensitisation programmes and empower students to engage their community. The missing piece is the implementation of these measures while the allocation of funds and prioritisation of these solutions is also imperative.
TFSV demands our immediate attention as it magnifies existing social inequalities. In my research, I found that only 22% of women surveyed felt safe online compared to 73% of men. Accessing the Internet, which is increasingly becoming a basic human need, is obstructed by TFSV— the replication of a patriarchal system that disempowers women. Widespread violence on the Internet has serious implications for women’s role in society. The ability to safely access the Internet is crucial to women’s agency, mobility, and economic development.
Addressing the problem of TFSV means focusing on the needs of survivors who are the most affected. Survivors said that aside from gender, factors such as caste, religion, sexual orientation, class, and region heightened their vulnerability online. Further research on how TFSV impacts other marginalised identities is crucial to solving the issue.
What can we do to make a difference? In addition to advocating for the proposed solutions, openly discussing TFSV without shaming or blaming survivors is another essential step — part of an ongoing movement to improve India’s levels of sexual violence, from harassment to rape. Survivors overwhelmingly stated that stigmatisation and trivialisation of their experiences were a significant part of the problem. As our world becomes increasingly digital, the issue of TFSV grows more urgent by the day. Raising widespread awareness of TFSV and implementing solutions is vital while the problem is still within our control.
If you have been affected by TFSV and need help, call the TechSakhi helpline (080 4568 5001), email help@SocialMediaMatters.in, or visit www.bloom.chayn.co
Anjali Rangaswami is a Fulbright scholar and cyber harassment expert