#metoo

Men Accused During India's #MeToo Are Now Turning Social Media Against the Survivors

The very purpose and power of social media—anonymity—is under threat, and it remains to be seen how it will damage the global movement.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, India
October 24, 2019, 11:01am
After Being Accused During #MeToo in India, Some Men are Arm-Twisting Social Media to Silence Their Survivors
Illustration: Prianka Jain

If there’s anything we have observed about #MeToo, it’s the pattern with which men accused of sexual misconduct and harassment have responded to the allegations. It’s ranged from lawsuits to defamation cases, as we reported earlier this month, and as senior advocate Rebecca John told VICE, this intense backlash has done nothing but “create a chilling effect” to intimidate the survivors.

However, the last month has seen an escalation of this backlash, and it’s been nothing short of unsettling.

Let’s start with the most recent news. On October 12, an anonymous actor accused film director Luv Ranjan of sexually harassing her back in 2010. The woman, who was auditioning for a role in the Bollywood film Pyaar Ka Punchnama, was 24 when she was told to turn up in “a short skirt and a tight top” for a “look test”. When she did, Ranjan allegedly asked her to strip “to see if she had a suitable bikini body”, following it up with asking her if she uses condoms and masturbates. The woman immediately recused herself and walked out after being finalised (though she chose to drop out later), but managed to speak about her trauma only nine years later.

The norm in India when it comes to #MeToo has mostly been victim-blaming and shaming. And so it happened with this anonymous actor too, who was discredited by many of her peers in the film industry—incidentally, also the one that kicked off the #MeToo wave in India. However, this time, the backlash from the accused came stronger. Ranjan approached the Delhi High Court and requested for an ex-parte relief to, among other things, hold the right to be forgotten and the right to be left alone, which are inherent aspects of the fundamental right to privacy in India.

Consequently, on October 23, the Delhi High Court restrained Twitter and various media houses from publishing articles and comments about the allegations of sexual harassment against Ranjan. The #MeToo campaign, stated Justice Prateek Jalan at the Delhi HC, cannot become a “sullying #Utoo”.

“Given the potential damage to the plaintiff’s reputation from the aforesaid publication/re-publication in the circumstances… the balance of convenience is also in favour of an injunction being granted to this extent,” said Justice Jalan. “I am satisfied that the plaintiff would suffer irreparable loss and injury, if further publications of this nature are not injuncted.”

This order comes very close on the heels of another one involving artist Subodh Gupta, who was accused of sexual misconduct by several anonymous survivors who voiced their experiences on the anonymous Instagram account Scene and Herd (@Herdsceneand), which has outed several men in the art world of India. In the weeks to come, Gupta went on to sue Scene and Herd for civil defamation and demand Rs 5 crore (approx $700,000) in damages. But the single-most concern that arose out of the case was when Delhi HC ordered Facebook to unmask the anonymous people behind the Instagram page. The order was given to the social media giant to provide “the particulars of the person behind the Instagram account” by November 18 this year.

The bench had also ordered Google to take down the anonymous posts about Gupta, but last week, Google told the Delhi HC that doing so would “have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression and be against public interest”. The resistance also came in the light of the fact that as a search engine, Google can merely index information, and doesn’t own the content that is on independent third-party websites.

However, while Instagram still shows the Scene and Herd page at the moment and hasn’t made any official statement about the case, sources have told Huffington Post India that they will be complying with the court orders. “The company doesn’t have a choice in the matter, it has to follow legal orders. This isn’t something where we’re choosing a side in the matter, this is a legal issue and we can’t just ignore it,” said the source.

Similar cases have come up in other parts of the world. In the US, a group of anonymous activists aimed at taking down advertising world’s sexual harassers, called Diet Madison Avenue, came under the limelight after Ralph Watson, a chief creative officer of an ad agency, was fired after being outed by the group for sexual harassment. In August last year, he won the right to subpoena Facebook, Instagram and Google to reveal the identity behind Diet Madison Avenue, and seek $20 million-plus in damages. The case is still ongoing.

In China, a former intern with state-owned news channel, China Central Television, accused high-profile TV presenter Zhu Jun of molesting her in a makeup room in 2014. In August, Jun not only filed a lawsuit against the intern but also her friends who posted the story on Chinese social media app Weibo, and Weibo itself for “reputation dispute”. He wants public apologies, for the posts to be deleted as well as $95,000 in compensation. While hers is one of the first to kick off #MeToo in China, it was also heavily censored and repeatedly deleted on Weibo by Weibo itself (even though traces of it can still be found).

Needless to say that these news updates have come at a very crucial time when this movement is thriving on the power of anonymity that social media provides. The fact that the movement was built upon a viral hashtag that breaks a chronic silence that persists in stories of harassment or assault, means that it needs that platform to survive. It also needs to be understood that the movement came along because, historically, the existing legal machinery in the country have failed the women and their believability when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, especially when a powerful man is involved.

“I’m conscious of the many, many problems with the [existing] sexual harassment act [The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013] and one of them is the power hierarchy. The law has worked well in some situations but in many others, it has failed to provide any redressal,” John had told VICE when #MeToo broke in India last year.

At the same time, the accused who are slapping the survivors with defamation cases claiming loss of work or reputation are seemingly back in the mainstream. Gupta, for instance, claimed in his lawsuit that “all art galleries that once covered and sold” his work have now “actively distanced themselves” from him, and that it’s affecting the sale of his work and livelihood. However, reports show that the artist continues to enjoy patronage from international galleries, galas, fundraisers and auctions.

Right now, social media is on very thin ice when it comes to privacy and content. On October 3, the European Court of Justice stated that different countries can order Facebook to take down content from its platform. The concern, then, by Facebook was that it raises “critical questions around freedom of expression”. That concern has now become a real danger, especially for the highly contested #MeToo.

The attack on anonymity is definitely something to watch out for in the weeks, even months, to come. “Anonymity on the internet is a contested issue because people on the other side say it is detached from responsibility,” Apar Gupta, director of the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), told Buzzfeed News in the light of Gupta’s case. “But in a society which is deeply unequal and has diverse groups that lack social power, the internet offers a chance for them to make statements, revelations, and act as whistleblowers. All this is undermined the moment someone’s real identity is revealed.”

However, there is still some hope. Take, for instance, this group of artists, scholars and art professionals signing a petition against Gupta, so that, should Facebook comply with the court’s ruling and the identity of Scene and Herd is revealed, there is still support for the survivors. They see men like Gupta using “strategic intimidation” to "make an example of those who had the courage to speak out so that no one builds up that courage again." And, perhaps, there lies the real power of the movement: For more allies to join in the chorus and lift the burden from the anonymous survivors.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.