Opening your Instagram DMs (direct messages) every morning might not consist of an unsolicited ‘dick pic’, but that is the case for many.
Even more unnerving is the unabashed and irreverent behaviour of a certain group who hide behind anonymous social media handles with no display pictures.
One Instagram Live Chat session between two friends—a common go-to stress alleviator in COVID times—ended with an incident of sexual assault earlier this month.
Durga Gawde, a sculptor, educator, activist and India’s first performing drag king—who goes by the pronouns they/them—joined activist, photographer and entrepreneur Roshini Kumar (she/her)’s Live Chat on Instagram on May 8. The two have known each other since they were teenagers. As the two influencers engaged in banter regarding the lockdown, their bright hair colour and relief work for COVID-19, one ‘Fazilka13’ kept commenting on the chat, saying, “Show boops”.
“I hadn’t spoken to Roshini in months, so I sent her a request on her Live,” says the 28-year-old, adding, “Fifteen minutes into the Live, this guy says ‘Boops dikhao’. He didn’t even know how to spell ‘boobs [breasts]’. So we started making fun of him. But he continued this till almost 40 minutes into the video chat.”
The two friends, who tried to make light of the situation, finally asked Fazilka13 to ‘show his face’ and ‘not post comments from behind a screen’. The man, who kept posting lewd comments on the video chat, then left and joined a few minutes later with a request to join the call. After Roshini accepted his request, the two expected more abuse hurled at them. What they saw was his ceiling and minutes later, he was standing over an Indian toilet—his camera focused away from his face and on the ground—masturbating on the Live chat.
“After that, we started making fun of his dick. We don’t body shame people, and in retrospect, we shouldn’t have, but at that point, we knew this would hurt his ego and make him leave, just as he was trying to make us feel insecure by masturbating,” says Durga.
When the two friends threatened to report him, Fazilka13 left the chat.
Roshini adds, “He then comes back and says — ‘Sorry ma’am. That was my friend’. The Live was watched by over 100 people. It has triggered and angered many people as this is something very common on Instagram where women and queer people are put through sexual and verbal abuse daily.”
No safe space for women, LGBTQ+
Durga started to experiment with gender identity through drag and performance art. Their drag ego is known as ‘Shakti’. “I don’t feel safe anywhere, not even in my body. It’s not about being LGBTQ. The fact is I have had so many of these experiences in my life,” Durga says, adding they often get abuses like chakka, randi hurled at them on social media. “People in India are not used to seeing trans people with breasts and a womb. They are more used to seeing trans people who are assigned male at birth.”
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Recalling their first-ever encounter of online bullying, Durga speaks about how they came out as a trans, non-binary, gender-fluid person.
“As a 24-year-old coming out as a gender-fluid person, I made a video with a digital media platform about ‘10 questions you wanted to ask a gender-fluid person’ in 2017. I was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, and the makeup on half of my face was feminine and half masculine. In a couple of days, the video, a first-of-its-kind in India, amassed over 700,000 views. That is when I realised the scale of online harassment,” says Durga. “I got almost 100-200 death, rape and gang rape threats every day after that video.”
This affected their mental health, and they took three months to leave their apartment. “I remember thinking, someone is going to get me/kill me. I suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] which were triggered by these comments. I didn’t realise that a lot of these people commenting were teenagers on the internet,” they say.
Mumbai-based Roshini, too, admits that these incidents add to her anxiety and pressure levels. She says, “I think there’s a sense of hate that exists [online] now.” She adds, “I’m more cautious and startled by cis-gender men now.”
Durga says, “The reason why Roshini and I are having these dialogues right now is that we are tired of dealing with these incidents constantly. Imagine if there were a couple of 16-year-olds having a Live Chat, and some person flashes them. This is a criminal act.”
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A flawed system
The video had amassed over 1.55 lakh views on Roshini’s profile but has since been deleted, as has Fazilka13’s profile.
Roshini had also posted a shorter clip, a reel, of the sexual assault. While certain followers put the onus back on the influencers, blaming them for inviting the person on their Live, others vociferously dissed the patriarchy.
“Whether they choose to see it or not, this person has ended up violating so many people because of his act. And we just want to show people how brazen this behaviour is,” says Durga, adding, “We realised that we need a movement on the scale of the #MeToo movement where the predators realised that there are repercussions to actions.”
However, Instagram also pulled down the reel from Durga and Roshini’s profiles and flagged them with a warning on Roshini’s profile, threatening to shut down her account. “We use Instagram for our work. This isn’t a joke for us. A large part of our livelihood depends on Instagram,” says Durga. Roshini says, “I’m currently raising funds for the Umeed project to help get them 500 bipap ventilators for Delhi. I’m trying to raise nine on my own since it’s quite expensive.”
The Better India reached out to Instagram for a comment and a Facebook Spokesperson says, “While we do understand the videos in discussion were posted to raise awareness as counter speech, we cannot allow such content to be shared on the platform because of the exposed genitalia. We are in touch with both people and have assured them that their accounts will not be penalised. We’ll work with appropriate agencies to support the investigation, if there are valid legal requests.”
They add, “We understand that Instagram can be a powerful tool for our community to speak out against abuse and we will continue to allow discourse around the condemnation of violence against women and children.”
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Durga points out that after the video, more incidents of flashing, untoward intimate pictures and sexual harassment have been plaguing them as well as 13 and 14-year-olds on the app.
“Should they just become numb to being flashed online? Facebook, Orkut’s guidelines required you to be over 18 to join the platform 10 years ago. But on Instagram, you only need to be 13. I don’t think 13-year-olds should be on Instagram,” they say. “Teenagers are either exposed to or are mimicking this behaviour that they think is ‘macho’.”
The Facebook Community Standards Enforcement Report for the first quarter of 2021 says there were 1.3 billion fake accounts on the platform. The prevalence of “adult nudity on both Facebook and Instagram was 0.03-0.04%”, and action was taken on 8.8 million pieces of bullying and harassment content.
Facebook Spokesperson says the platform is working on protecting teens (under 18) from unwanted messages. “In addition to preventing conversations between adults and teens who don’t follow one another, we’ll start using prompts i.e. Safety notices in DMs, to notify young people when an adult who has been exhibiting potentially suspicious behavior is interacting with them in DMs.”
Instagram has recently put out a new feature of blocking an individual and all other accounts made by the same person. The platform has also released ‘stricter action for abusive behaviour’. However, Durga says, guidelines and filters need to be in place to protect children from these incidents too.
Durga adds that they were privileged enough to know and reach out to resources like the Ignore No More campaign started by MissMalini to help tackle online bullying. “We are in the process of filing a report against this guy. We have approached an ethical hacker who has helped us figure out this person resides in Bihar. We have also written to the service provider asking for his address,” they say.
Durga adds, “Before we file a complaint, we have to think if this is a child, someone with a mental illness or someone who needs help. Since this has happened to a lot of others I know, most of these cases have teenagers involved. If this is an adult, we are putting this person behind bars.”
Roshini, who has been speaking up about ‘uniting against the patriarchy’ on her account, says, “I want to make people be accountable for their actions. This is more serious than we think, and we must use our voice and resources to keep talking about it.”
While there might be no quick fixes to changing people’s mindsets or policies, there are a few things that we can control.
“Nobody should have to deal with this. Even the predators who are behind this behaviour shouldn’t have to deal with it. The only way forward is to call out this behaviour. We cannot coddle people who have privileges of patriarchy anymore,” Durga signs off.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)