Over the past few days, a series of sexual harassment allegations against Arunabh Kumar, the founder of the online entertainment site The Viral Fever, has raised a number of questions. Is sexism rife in the new, seemingly-progressive web entertainment companies? Are media start-ups complying with laws on sexual harassment at the workplace? How should companies ideally respond to a woman’s allegations of sexism or molestation?

In the midst of these debates playing out in the media and on social media, another question is just as relevant: what are the legal implications of an allegation of sexual abuse made on social media, and what are the responsibilities of the media while reporting on such unofficial complaints?

The TVF controversy began on social media and has, so far, not moved beyond it. On March 12, an anonymous blog post by a woman claiming to be a former TVF employee alleged that Arunabh Kumar had molested her on several occasions from 2014 to 2016. TVF responded the next day with a post of its own, completely denying all the accusations. By then, however, a slew of other women chimed in on Facebook, with their own posts about alleged sexual harassment they had experienced from Kumar.

So far, none of these women have chosen to file official complaints with the police or the company. But their social media posts have triggered impassioned debates between those who believe the allegations or want a fair investigation, and those who have denounced the accusations as lies or defamation.

To complicate matters, an anonymous Reddit post surfaced on March 14 accusing Rohan Joshi, a comedian from rival web content company All India Bakchod, of sexual harassment. A few hours later, the same person replaced the Reddit post with an apology, stating that the fake accusation had been made only to point out how the anonymous social media allegation against Kumar could not be believed.

Such convenient use – or misuse – of social media raises inevitable questions about the seriouness with which online allegations of sexual harassment should be treated.

‘I wanted to tell my truth’

In the past few years, more and more women have been using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to share their experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace and to call out the perpetrators in public. Part of the reason, predictably, is that women often face hostility and victim-blaming while trying to file police complaints. In the case of harassment at the workplace, taking on a person in a position of power can have real consequences on a woman’s career.

But for many women who speak up online, social media platforms offer catharsis and a sense of sisterhood that help them feel more empowered.

“When I shared my story, I did not expect the kind of positive support I got online,” said Aditi Singh (name changed), one of the many women who used social media to speak out against alleged sexual harassment by photo editor Manik Katyal in November 2015. Even though she received a considerable amount of trolling, Singh believes the sheer number of women who spoke up along with her helped to empower them all. “Sharing the traumatic story with others who had gone through the same gave us some sort of strength that was unprecedented.”

Even though accusations against known personalities like Arunabh Kumar are bound to be reported in the news, the women who make the allegations on social media do not necessarily intend to attract media attention. “All I wanted to do was tell my truth and help other girls be able to tell their truth as well,” said one of the women who put up a Facebook post on March 13 about being sexually harassed by Kumar. “It was really very difficult and scary to speak up, but you have to put your fears aside and create an important precedent.”

Social media posts as complaints

Women also don’t necessarily expect their social media posts about sexual harassment to be taken up as official complaints. “I have tweeted about harassment, at work and even aboard a train, but not because I want to file a complaint,” said Sandhya Ramesh, a science writer who finds social media an open platform that provides comfort and reassurance to women who may find it difficult to speak out alone.

But whether women expect it, can social media accusations be considered actual complaints? The law – the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 – makes no mention of social media in this regard. There have, however, been some precedents.

In 2013, for instance, a law intern’s blog post about being sexually harassed by former Supreme Court judge AK Ganguly was taken up, with her consent, as an official complaint. A three-judge panel was set up to probe her allegations, and after a chain of events, Ganguly was eventually asked to resign from his post as the head of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission.

More recently, Twitter user Naomi Barton had a positive experience with her company when she tweeted about being verbally harassed by a colleague. Her company not only took cognisance of the tweet as a complaint, but also ensured her that it was their responsibility to provide their employees with a safe environment.

Legal guidelines for social media?

These instances of companies taking suo moto cognizance of a social media allegation, however, do not necessarily make social media less problematic.

“The advantage of using social media to make a sexual harassment accusation is that the damage [to the alleged perpetrator] will be immediate,” said Flavia Agnes, a feminist lawyer from Mumbai. “But if you start a process on social media and then don’t follow up the complaints through proper channels, it can be seen as amounting to defamation.”

In 2014, close on the heels of the Justice Ganguly controversy, another law intern filed a complaint of sexual harassment against another Supreme Court judge, Swatanter Kumar. Following the news reports on his case, Justice Kumar sought, and obtained, an order from the Delhi High Court restraining the media from writing about the case. “The law is not clear on whether the same can be applied to social media,” said Agnes.

Without an official complaint to help aid a proper investigation, online allegations can always be dismissed as suspect. “But social media has now become such a large part of our lives, that it is perhaps time for the law to include clear guidelines on how much weightage should or should not be given to online allegations,” said Ashwini Syed, a manager at Safe City, an organisation that conducts workshops on sexual harassment at the workplace for companies.

Irresponsible media

Closely linked to social media, however, is the mainstream media itself. Many women who have spoken about sexual harassment on social media believe that the media is not always sensitive or responsible while reporting these cases.

One of the women who posted Facebook allegations against the TVF founder claims that some news websites did not take her consent before using her photos and name in their reports. “It was really weird to stumble upon articles with my photo everywhere,” said the woman, requesting anonymity.

In cases of social media accusations of sexual harassment, journalist Kalpana Sharma believes the media needs to follow the same rules as with other cases of sexual assault.

“Women may have taken to social media in a fit of passion, or to get their stories off their chest, or they may not be aware of the complications involved,” said Sharma. “But just as with other sexual abuse crimes, here too the media should not go to press with the names of the women.”