On May 10, curfew was imposed in Assam’s Hailakandi district after clashes broke out between two communities. The violence was allegedly triggered by a Facebook post that was, in fact, preceded by rumours spread through WhatsApp. The local administration was forced call in the Army and take off Internet across Barak Valley for three days.
Similarly, Sri Lanka had to ban social media a few weeks ago following riots between the Christians and Muslims in the country’s western coastal town of Chilaw and other areas. This followed an intimidating Facebook post by a Muslim shop owner, resulting in retaliation by members of Christian community. The island nation had earlier banned social media in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Easter Sunday bombings that claimed around 260 lives.
The prime accused in the Christchurch mosque massacre went live on social media as he went about shooting innocent worshipers, before the company owning the social media platform took down the video.
The above facts highlight how a medium originally conceptualised to help connect people is now being grossly misused by miscreants, including terrorists, for the purposes of spreading hatred among communities, causing social unrest, propagating extremist ideas, etc, besides committing crimes of serious nature. In fact, proliferation of social media has added a new dimension to cyber crime. While the high-profile cases manage to grab headlines, there are also those that don’t but are equally serious in nature. Sources said cyber crime has spiked following proliferation of social media.
As per the 2016 report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 957 cases were registered across the country under the Information and Technology (IT) Act, 2000 for transmission of obscene and sexually explicit content through social media and internet. While UP (with 284 cases) topped the list of states in the country that reported such crimes, Assam shockingly was placed second, having registered 114 cases. Further, according to government sources, Assam ranks fifth overall in cyber crime and 19th by population. Sources added that the number of cyber crime cases registered under the IT Act in the State skyrocketed to 868 in June 2018 from 379 in 2014.
There are shocking tales of how criminals stalk and pick their unsuspecting targets in Assam through social media. For instance, a woman in Guwahati, who works in a Central government organisation, was duped of almost Rs 90 lakh by an imposter who posed as a businessman from abroad. After befriending her on Facebook through a fake account, the imposter built a relationship with her over a period of time and then duped her with the money. Similarly, a retired Armed forces official’s daughter was duped of several lakhs of rupees by another imposter through Facebook after having developed a relationship with her and promising to marry her.
Many would perhaps recall how a young girl was allegedly gangraped a couple of years ago in north Guwahati by a youth and his friends, after the victim had befriended the accused on Facebook. The incident took place after the girl had reportedly gone to meet the accused. And not just such heinous crimes, even incidents of criminal intimidation, online defamation, circulation of porn content, committing of fraud, spreading fake messages, etc, have registered a quantum jump. For instance, it was reported recently that an Instagram account was sending messages to some young women in Guwahati, asking them to indulge in sexually explicit acts in lieu of money.
On the other hand, as fraudsters have taken to Facebook and Instagram in a big way, there are reports of cheating in the name of online sales during festive seasons like Durga Puja, Diwali, etc. It is reported that cheats dupe gullible individuals by first enticing them with impressive array of products, and then deliver them inferior items.
Actually, IT has made the world virtually flat, especially after emergence of social media. And as many remain hooked on to social media through their smart phones, tablets and computers for hours on end, criminals are finding it easy to select their potential victims.
However, as a top cop revealed, it’s very difficult to nab such criminals as they remain largely anonymous and mutate to hoodwink law-enforcers, while some are based abroad. They take advantage of the cumbersome techno-legal processes that law-enforcers often have to meander through while dealing with transnational cyber crime. Incidents of social media giants selling personal data of users have also made the job of miscreants easy.
No wonder, to curb misuse, Facebook shut down 700 fake accounts during the recently-concluded Lok Sabha polls. Further, to clamp down on fake accounts and fake news, Facebook and Twitter have come up with their own set of rules to validate individual accounts and posts, like placing some symbols alongside certain posts, implying these are genuine. Facebook is also spending $7.5 million to partner with three universities to develop tools preventing modified versions of terrorist videos from being re-posted.
Further, in order to tackle the monster of cyber crime, including those committed through social media, the Centre has come up with Indian Cybercrime Coordination Centre Scheme or I4C Scheme. Launched in February this year by the Union ministry of home affairs, the scheme aims to create public awareness about cyber crime, development of awareness materials, flagging of “unlawful/inappropriate” content pertaining to child pornography and rape, development of portal for cyber coordination and inclusion of a chapter on cyber crime in school curriculum. As part of the initiative, a Twitter handle @CyberDost has already been launched to help victims of cyber crime.
Other countries have also taken the initiative to crack down on errant social media users and force social media companies to comply with regulations. For instance, Australia passed a historic legislation recently to punish social media companies for violent posts, while New Zealand is taking a hardline approach to make social media companies responsible for hosting any violent content. In India, WhatsApp has already put a cap on the number of persons an individual can forward messages to at one go to prevent rumours from going viral following New Delhi’s insistence. Germany has made it mandatory for social media companies to remove “illegal” content within 24 hours of posting.
While the initiatives of the governments and social media companies are laudable, these may not be enough. The onus of securing oneself in social media from miscreants ultimately lies on the individual user. And the best way to ensure personal security is to maintain basic hygiene like not befriending strangers, never sharing phone numbers and other personal details, having strong passwords, securing smart phones/tablets/computers with automatic key locks, updating apps, installing anti-virus systems, etc. Parents and guardians should particularly dissuade their adolescent children from befriending strangers on social media to avoid falling prey to criminals. As they say, better be safe than sorry.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati)