Everyday sexism

TVF case: What are the legal implications of using social media to allege sexual harassment?

More and more women are using social media platforms to speak out against sexual abuse. What are the pros and cons of this strategy?

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.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.