Are you being bullied online?
Why understanding and containing abuse on social media has become the need of the hour
"You should change your name from Niggi to Piggy." Ordinarily, comments like these wouldn't irk plus-size blogger Nikita 'Niggi' Phulwani. However, there is a thin line between trolling and abuse, and Nikita has been finding herself at the receiving end of the latter of late. "The harshest form of abuse I've had to face is related to my body. I actually know people who create fake accounts just because they do not have the guts to comment from their real accounts."
The online world, with its promise of visibility and accessibility, also comes with a baggage, with cyberbullying continuing to prove to be a virtual problem with serious ramifications even in the non-virtual world. Just last year, the UAE offered a glimpse into its zero-tolerance stance on cyberbullying when an Alpha Paint employee not only lost his job but had his visa revoked after he sent explicit messages to Indian journalist Rana Ayyub via Facebook. It's not just adults on the receiving end either. A recent survey conducted by Kaspersky Lab concluded that nearly 57 per cent of children in the UAE have faced at least one online threat in the past year. Due to the nature of the medium, understanding and containing the problem of cyber abuse has become important now more than ever.
The many faces of cyberbullying
Any platform that requires you to put a part of yourself, or your ideas, on a public platform, makes you susceptible to critique. But when does critique turn into trolling? And when does trolling become cyberbullying? The devil is in the details. The journal Psychology Today neatly differentiates trolling from cyberbullying, labelling the latter an umbrella term that comprises all forms of online harassment. According to Psychology Today, trolling is an activity where a person "intentionally starts arguments or upsets others by posting inflammatory remarks", while cyberbullying is defined as a "deliberate and repeated harm inflicted through using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones".
But what enables someone to post a nasty comment online? According to clinical psychologist Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, it is the cloak of invisibility. "Many who post such things would not do so if they saw in real time what the victim experiences due to those posts." However, she adds that its consequences in real life could be more damaging than we imagine. "When an individual experiences a negative situation, they can feel many emotions in the moment, ranging from shame and vulnerability to anger and frustration. When these situations are amplified online, that individual relives the experience over and over again, making it difficult for them to overcome the experience. Cyber-bullying has also been shown to lead to long-term effects of fear, self-loathing, helplessness, depressive symptoms, lowered self-esteem, feeling out of control, as well as self-harm and possible suicide."
To create awareness, several local initiatives are taking the fight against cyberbullying to a new frontier. Barry Lee Cummings, chief awareness officer at Beat The Cyberbully, notes that the primary problem they see is that of sharing inappropriate content. There's also CyberSWIFTT, an anti-cyberbullying project set up this year by three university graduates - Aalia Mehreen Ahmed, Momina Afzal and Reem Ibrahim, that encourages youngsters to examine if their own online behaviour is potentially dangerous through a 'Score Yourself' quiz. Momina puts it succinctly when she says, "As we see it, if you're not nice on the Internet, you are not nice at all."
The girls warn that while some acts of cyberbullying may seem harmless ("the occasional random message, that one screenshot that was sent to the group chat"), they aren't so in the long run. "During our research, we found out that teens in the UAE often tend to suffer from low self-esteem and find it difficult to admit to being a victim - all while feeling the need to keep up with the ways of the Internet. As our dependency on social media increases, cyberbullying will continue to manifest itself in various ways," says Aalia. Reem, on the other hand, maintains no social media provides a refuge from cyberbullying, but also point out that apps like Sarahaha, where you can post messages anonymously, are most conducive to abuse.
When in the public eye...
A radio presenter with City 1016, Malavika Varadan commands a popularity of her own, owing to her work and profile as a TedX speaker and fitness influencer. That managing a social media account can become a discipline in itself when you're a public figure becomes evident as Malavika tells us how she conducts herself online. "I think of it as a billboard right in the middle of Trade Centre. If I wouldn't put it up there, then it probably won't make it to my social media feeds."
When in public spaces, Malavika often finds herself inundated with requests for selfies. Is similar monitoring possible in such circumstances as well? "If someone is taking a selfie with you, and you think that picture could be unflattering, you should not be afraid to check or request for it to be deleted. Any content that has you in it is, technically, your property."
At the other end of every social media page you follow is someone sieving the unsavoury comments from the genuine ones. Few things are redeeming about a job where you're directly exposed to the unprovoked ire of a consumer and retaining an odd comment could prove detrimental to the brand. As a social media manager, Natasha Jain has managed several accounts ranging from F&B brands to radio. While she admits that social media presence is a sureshot way of assessing if a brand is being received well, she says it's a job that needs to be done most judiciously. "If I am a new consumer of a product or service, one bad comment can hamper my judgment. So, if I am reading 10 good reviews and two really nasty ones, I will have questions about the brand because I may be concerned about having a bad experience. It's psychological."
Natasha adds that Facebook has also given a set of guidelines to monitor the comments. "Once, while I was on leave, someone left abusive comments on the social media page of a brand I was working with. But others reported it and Facebook officials intervened to delete those messages."
The way forward
While only an individual can determine the extent of the problem, there is also legal recourse to be sought should the matter get out of hand. According to Mohammad Amin Hasbini, senior security researcher with Kaspersky Lab Middle East, Turkey and Africa, "Individuals subject to online abuse in the UAE can file a complaint with the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA), speak with their local Police departments or visit www.ecrime.ae. We also urge individuals, especially children, to speak to parents or people close to them to ensure the situation does not escalate further." A dialogue on the subject is no longer an option, but the need of the hour.