Cyber abuse is not free speech and virtual reality is not reality

Cyber abuse is not free speech and virtual reality is not reality

Submitted by alvin on Wed, 2016-07-13 11:58 The tragic suicide of a girl in Salem - who could not tolerate the threats to her dignity on Facebook and decided to end her life - is an indication that the Internet coupled with the omnipresent mobile phone has thrown a serious challenge to the society. The challenge is to find the means to prevent the adverse impact of virtual life on the real life of impressionable minds.This is not the first time that a young person’s life has been snuffed out because of what happened on Facebook or Twitter, nor will it be the last time. A couple of years back, an IIM Bengaluru student ended her life because one of her boyfriends decided to ‘un-friend’ her on Facebook indicating that even well-informed and tech-savvy persons, who are successful in other aspects of their life, can also be victims to this tendency of “Over reaction to Virtual Reality”, which we shall call the “VROR syndrome”.This menace needs the attention of the society in general and psychologists in particular.In the Salem suicide case, the suicide note indicated that the girl decided to end her life for multiple reasons which we need to analyse.The principle reason was that a morphed picture showing her dressed in scantily clad clothes was posted by a boy on Facebook. The boy threatened to post more such pictures. She felt humiliated by the publication of the pictures. The boy was arrested two days after the suicide and was charged with "abetment to suicide". There were also two other contributory reasons which sociologists should not ignore.First, a complaint made to the police remained unattended for more than 15 days. The police did not act until the second threat of further pictures being posted came to the girl prompting her to take the next step.The other little obscure but equally important factor was mentioned in the suicide note of the girl. She stated that she did not receive whole-hearted support from her own parents in the matter, who might have distrusted her statement that the photos were fake. The fact that the perpetrator sent a direct WhatsApp message to her parents and threatened to do the same again would have made them mount abuse on their daughter without understanding her own stress.If we need to prevent recurrence of such events in the future, we need to address all these three causes. While the law will take its course over punishing the boy for multiple offences, society needs to take its own steps so that such incidents do not recur.In this direction, there needs to be action on the following three fronts. 1. Fighting the VROR syndromeFirstly, we need to ensure that social media users do not over react to events on cyber space to the extent of considering suicide as a means to escape the adverse turns in their cyber life.Psychologists and sociologists should recognise this VROR syndrome as a psychological disorder induced by an addiction to cyber living and believing that “virtual reality” is "reality itself". They need develop appropriate measures to mitigate the risks associated with VROR syndrome in their interaction with vulnerable sections of the society.VROR syndrome should be recognised as a field of study by the community and measures to counter its adverse impact on society should be identified.A wide awareness of the adverse effect of VROR syndrome should be created through programmes to be conducted in schools and colleges for which the principals of educational institutions should take necessary action. Such programmes should encourage victims to fight cases of harassment or trolling rather than succumbing to pressures. 2. Informing the uninformedAdditionally, there is also a need to simultaneously address the older generation in the society who create pressure on the victims of social media abuse because of their own ignorance. The parents of the Salem girl who committed suicide perhaps were not aware of what is "morphing" and how frequently it is used by deranged criminals to harass girls either for "stalking", or "striking vengeance for rejection" or "blackmailing". If they had the awareness of such happenings, they would have sympathised with their daughter as a "victim" and come to her support.Social media awareness programmes should therefore be directed towards those who are today non-users of social media. This social media awareness programme for non-social media users is therefore also an important strategy in prevention of incidents of VROR. 3. Strengthening the lawOur discussion will be incomplete if we do not point out that there was a "Section 66A" in Information Technology Act 2000/8 which addressed the issue of harassment through messages in mobile or the Internet and acted as a deterrent to the offences of abuse and harassment through messages.Unfortunately, Supreme Court scrapped it in March 2015 under the false pretext of "Upholding the Right to Freedom of speech" and a wrong message was sent to all abusers that "abusing a person on Facebook or Twitter is free speech guaranteed by our Constitution and protected by courts".This has created confusion among the police on addressing Internet-related harassment complaints and a fear that they would be criticised by the courts and the media if they invoke harsh measures. This could well be a contributory reason why the police failed to act in the first 15 days though they were able to crack the case as soon as the seriousness of the complaint was realised after the suicide.It is now time to correct the perception that "cyber abuse is free speech"  which can be done only by re-instating Section 66A of Information Technology Act 2000/8 by the Supreme Court taking up a suo motu review of the Shreya Singhal judgement and reversing the decision.Author:Na.Vijayashankar, popularly known as Naavi, is an expert and a pioneer in the field of cyber laws in India. He authored the first book and e-book on cyber laws in India, including a book in Kannada.