As #MeToo shook India this month with women taking to social media to share harrowing stories of sexual harassment, assault and even rape, they drew wide support, but also criticism and even abuse. The criticism was particularly directed at women who made allegations anonymously or facilitated others to do so. But several women who shared anonymous accounts on Twitter said it wasn’t a free for all. They verified, as far as was possible, the accusations before putting them out.

Mahima Kukreja, a comic artist and writer who kickstarted the outing of alleged harassers on October 4 by confronting comedian Utsav Chakraborty on Twitter for soliciting sexually explicit pictures from minors and sending lewd messages to other women, said it was after much thought that she decided to post anonymous accounts.

“These men were selling feminism and earning millions but failing in feminist action in real life,” Kukreja, 28, said. “There was a lot of resentment, anger and hurt, and all this culminated in encouraging more women to speak up.”

Realising that social media was the only way for many survivors to speak out, even anonymously, she opened her Twitter direct messaging to allow them to contact her. Most of the messages she received were from women she knew or from people with “high credibility”. “There was nothing for them to gain by telling the truth, only harm,” Kukreja said. “They were all very specific with details and I was simply a messenger for them. There was no personal vendetta.”

A journalist said after she publicly shared her story of sexual harassment on Twitter, she received encouraging messages from her friends. She then decided to help others speak out. “It is important to expose these men,” said the journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I really wanted to help these women. It felt like my responsibility.”

She devised a procedure to verify the allegations, the journalist said. “Once I get a direct message from a survivor, I ask them for more accounts from other women,” she explained. She also asked for any witnesses or evidence of conversations with the alleged perpetrator. “I can sense the irregularities,” she said. “I prefer if they choose not to be anonymous. But if they do, I tell them that they should be prepared to face any legal action or investigation. It’s important to think hard about such things and not act on impulse.”

More importantly, she said, she asked the survivors what they wanted from coming forward. “Some want closure, some an apology while others want an investigation,” she added.

After tweeting a few anonymous accounts of sexual harassment and abuse, the journalist said she was contacted by the alleged perpetrators, threatening her or pleading to delete the tweets. “If he messages me, then I tell him to clarify on the thread of tweets that’s in the public domain, it is very simple,” she said.

Kukreja left her direct messaging open for 10 days and received hundreds of stories. She was also contacted by survivors on Facebook and Instagram. “The kind of messages I received show how insidious and deeply complex this is,” she said.

While some women were trolled online, others faced a more extreme situation. A Twitter user actively involved in compiling those tweets with stories of sexual harassment and assault had their account “shadow banned” on October 7. A shadow ban is when a user’s account has been fully or partially blocked for various reasons, in such a way that makes it harder for others to see their tweets. Their account was subsequently “doxxed”, and their personal websites hacked and defaced. Doxxing happens when an account is hacked and private information is leaked online with malicious intent.

‘At a heavy cost’

For those who shared their and other women’s experiences on social media, it came with a heavy personal cost. Many have been abused, “trolled for their appearances” and sought to be discredited. “People are so aggressive online,” said Pia Hazarika, an illustrator who is part of a group of six women helping the survivors get legal aid and counselling. “This is because they are seeing men they like being taken down. A lot of women now face trolling on their accounts.”

Kukreja said “this has come at a great personal cost”. “I have no mental bandwidth to deal with trolls,” she added. “This is the most debilitating time of my life.” What keeps her going are “supportive messages”.

Swetha Shankar of the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, an organisation that supports survivors of domestic abuse, noted that women who choose to share their stories of harassment or abuse often “face repercussions”, which can trigger mental health problems and panic attacks. “This is an incredibly stressful time for such women,” she said.

The journalist who spoke anonymously said her “sleep has been irregular” and she often gets nightmares. “I get dreams of men strangling me. I have made a conscious decision to not talk about these things with family and friends because it is all I can think about,” she added.

Kukreja said she has just been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. “I can feel my health getting worse and anxiety and panic attacks are constant,” she added.

She had to close her Twitter direct messaging after 10 days “to recover” . “It has been very overwhelming and triggering to relive the trauma through other stories and so I decided to temporarily step back,” she explained.

Shankar said most women shared their stories knowing they would not be believed and trolling only added to their trauma. “There is mass gaslighting happening,” she said. Gaslighting is emotional manipulation that makes the victim question their own memory and judgement.

“The challenge of having this movement online is that it is open to public questioning and everyone’s judgement,” Shankar pointed out. “Survivors also have to deal with their identities being revealed. There have to be other support systems outside the online realm for them.”

This is where Hazarika’s group may help. The group, formed on October 7, is putting together a list of lawyers and counsellors who are willing to help the survivors. “A lot of lawyers were coming forward to help but their voices were not being amplified,” said Hazarika, explaining the need for compiling the list, which contains 80 names of lawyers currently. “They are willing to legally assist the person without charge. We are checking the credentials of lawyers and experience handling such cases before adding them to the list.”