Last week, an Indian national working in Dubai lost his job and was deported from the United Arab Emirates after he sent abusive, threatening and sexually explicit messages on Facebook to journalist Rana Ayyub. The online abuse came to light after Ayyub posted the messages on Twitter.

This was not the first time the journalist had been the target of online bullying. In July, after the release of her book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up on the 2002 riots in the state, Ayyub had been at the receiving end of a several hateful messages.

That month, another Indian journalist, Swati Chaturvedi was also allegedly harassed by Bollywood singer Abhijeet online after the two had a spat on Twitter. Other women journalists such as Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghose, among others, have frequently faced vicious abuse online.

While these instances – and other recent cases, such that of an activist who received threats of death, rape and acid attacks online, allegedly by Bajrang Dal workers, for voicing her opinion on the arrest of three people for possessing beef in Assam’s Jorhat district earlier this month and that of a television news anchor who was threatened with rape on Facebook in connection with her views about the Bharatiya Janata Party government and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath – have made news, countless other such incidents go unreported.

Minors targetted

According to senior police officials and cyber crime experts, though the media coverage of such cases has helped draw attention to online bullying, these cases are only the tip of the iceberg. More worryingly, they said, minors, especially girls, are the biggest victims of such harassment.

Cyber crime experts and consultants working with school children and police departments said they deal with anything between 30 to 70 cases of cyber bullying a month, a majority of them pertaining to minors.

“The meaning of cyber bullying is simple – the act of bullying which can happen on a physical space being taken to the cyber space,” said Rakshit Tandon, consultant to the Internet and Mobile Association of India and cyber cells of police departments in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. “The objective is the same - to threaten someone into doing or not doing something, but the motives can differ.”

Tandon regularly visits schools to deliver lectures and hold workshops on healthy surfing habits and social media etiquette. He said he receives at least 30 complaints of cyber bullying in a month, most of them to do with children.

Studies bear out this trend. According to a 2012 survey of children conducted by Microsoft, India ranked third after China and Singapore with regard to cyber bullying. Another survey by Ipsos found that one in three parents said their child had been bullied online. India also fared the worst in a 2015 study by Intel Security’s – Teens, Tweens and Technology Study 2015 – across four countries, with 22% respondents aged between eight and 18 said they had been bullied online. A recent study by Telenor said that schoolchildren in India are most vulnerable to cyber bullying.

Bullying tactics

The anonymity the internet offers and the open access to social media websites, most of which are free and need nothing more than an email address sign up with, lend themselves to an array of bullying techniques. The most common tactic Tandon comes across is a fake profile created in the name of the victim, which can be used to post content that is derogatory, defamatory or private.

Kislay Chaudhary, founder of the Indian Cyber Army – a group of ethical hackers working to strengthen internet security – who also works as a consultant to several police departments across the country, said that starting in 2013-’14 most cyber bullying complaints he and his company received pertained to posts on confessions pages created on Facebook. A couple of years ago, such pages – usually created for an academic institute for students to anonymously post secrets, grouses etc – had become exceedingly popular, with every other school or college coming up with one. Soon, these pages started being used as a platform to target students.

“It was a time when students in many prominent schools across the country had started making confession pages naming the schools,” said Chaudhary, who now receives nearly 70 complaints of cyber bullying in a month on the helpline that the Indian Cyber Army operates where victims of online abuse can complain. In those pages, other students of the school could write any confession anonymously and this had become a major platform for bullying because anyone could write anything about any other person and hardly any content was verified or censored.”

Chaudhary said that a study by the Indian Cyber Army had found that social media users aged 15 to 24 were the most commonly victims of cyber bullying. Moreover, 62% of children in the age group of 11-14 years said they had at least one friend (in the same age bracket) who had faced online abuse. “The report also said that 66% of all women who have faced sexual harassment on social media come under the 15-24 years age bracket,” Chaudhary said.

As social media forums have expanded, so have bullying tactics. For instance, the growing popularity of photo-sharing app Instagram, launched in 2010, has thrown up new challenges.

Tandon said that the shoutout feature on the app – which allows a user to post a screenshot of another user’s post, to give them credit and endorse their work or to expose someone – is being used to bully people.

“Shoutouts can be morphed or done through fake accounts and can cause extreme damage,” Tandon said. “Lately, we have come across a lot of complaints with regard to bullying through shoutouts.”

Mass trolling – when several people latch on to one target and mock or abuse them through a series of posts – is a favourite tactic for Twitter trolls but is also commmon on Facebook, said Chaudhary.

Common motives

Triveni Singh, Additional Superintendent of Police with the Special Task Force of Uttar Pradesh Police, said revenge is the most common motive in cyber bullying cases, typically because of a failed relationship or unrequited attraction, and the victims are most often girls.

Other common motives include differences on political or religious views. For instance, there have been several allegations that the BJP has a network of trolls to criticise Opposition parties and push forth the government agenda.

Singh classified cyber bullying under two heads, based on motive monetary and non-monetary. Monetary bullying, he said, would come under extortion. While non-monetary would include motives like revenge, political or religious affiliations.

However, there is a difference of opinion among experts in including extortion in the ambit of cyber bullying. According to Tandon, while there may be some commonalities in cyber extortion, stalking and bullying, they are essentially different things, Chaudhary believed that cyber extortion is very much a form of bullying.

Chaudhary also stressed on the need for a conversation around cyber bullying. “The subject of cyber bullying has not found adequate space in mainstream media for which people are not sufficiently aware of it and there is a common mentality among masses - everyone thinks it cannot happen to them,” he said.

Emphasising on the importance of awareness, especially among school children, Tandon stressed on the urgent need for schools to include workshops on cyber etiquette and safe internet surfing in their curriculum. “Most school children are on social media and unfortunately they have emerged as the worst victims of cyber bullying. It is high time that schools should take up the subject.”

What’s doubly challenging about the abuse of minors are that few are aware of the legal recourse available to them. Approaching an adult to lodge a complaint on their behalf can be challenging, given the stigma associated with sexual abuse. Going to the police can be traumatic and arduous and cyber crime is an area that the police force is still working out the nuances of. Organisations like the Indian Cyber Army or counselors who hold cyber bullying awareness workshops in schools usually encourage victims to approach them. These organisations and consultants then guide the victim in getting the harassers’ accounts blocked or tracing the accused and for serious offences, approach the police.

In July, Women and Child Development minister Maneka Gandhi started a social campaign with hashtag #IAmTrolledHelp and launch a helpline where people could report cyber abuse and harassment. But the response to the helpline has so far been tepid, with only 57 complaints received till December, according to a report on the Economic Times.