By Fathima Riznaz Hafi
The Voice for Voiceless Foundation has stepped up to fight increasingly prevalent trends in the country: Cybermobbing and social media exploitation.
In an interview with Weekend FT the foundation revealed perturbing facts about activities that are taking place in Sri Lanka, where pictures of children have been stolen from their parents’ social media posts and shared on certain pages inciting indecent and highly-disturbing comments suggesting sexual intent and revealing perverse fantasies. Most parents and children are unaware that their pictures are being used while others are harassed and blackmailed using the pictures.
Voice for Voiceless Foundation Director Moses Akash spoke of stories he has come across and steps they plan to take in attempts to put an end to this.
“Cybermobbing is a new thing and many people haven’t heard of it. People are being harassed, blackmailed and abused through social media or cyber-related devices. Recently we did a small research on Facebook and as of now we gathered 43 pages which contain pictures of underage children – as young as four years. Without their parents’ consent or knowledge the pictures were stolen from different accounts and uploaded onto these kinds of pages. This is happening big time in Sri Lanka. You can just Google ‘Sri Lanka school girls’ and you get so many pages. Some of these pages lead up to 6,000 likes – which means 6,000 people are following these pages! Parents are not aware of this,” he said.
“These are open pages that we found – 43 open pages which anyone can access; but there are over 100 closed groups which you are not accepted to at once because they will first find out who you are and why you are accessing them. These pages are run by certain groups who are well-known to each other. If you are not known to send such videos or pictures they will not accept you.”
He showed us some comments and all I could say was ‘disgusting!’ to which he replied, “This is just one page – and these comments are just for one post! This is an iceberg and we are only seeing the tip!”
“With WhatsApp and Instagram, sending pictures has become very easy especially for school children. All you need is a smartphone with camera and internet connection – that’s all!”
Going through some pages with us he explained that these were just ordinary pictures but the ‘comments’ are very vulgar, suggesting sexual acts they wish to perform with the children.
“This can lead to child abuse because they come to a certain level when they feel that commenting is not enough as their pleasures are not being met and that’s when they start finding out other avenues to satisfy their feelings – they start thinking of what they can do if they find the child.”
“For abuse to take place, three things need to be there – it’s like a triangle – you need the child, the perpetrator and the opportunity. What we are trying to do through Voice is to erase the opportunity through awareness. Parents openly share pictures of their children and many put them as their profile picture. Posting pictures of their school and activities are particularly dangerous because that is how they can be found.
“For example, they post a picture of their child’s first day of school (dressed in uniform) and even say where the child schools, and after school there’s another picture. So the perpetrator starts finding out details – where, what time the child goes and comes back – the parents are openly giving opportunities. This can result in a kidnap. Stop posting pictures of your kids – the world is not interested in what is happening in your homes.”
Buses are also opportunities for pictures and videos. People hide cameras and secretly take pictures or videos of schoolgirls from certain angles so as to get a view up their skirts while they are travelling in buses. They then upload those pictures onto websites. “If you Google ‘up skirts of school girls in Sri Lanka’ you can see so many videos,” he said.
Besides cybermobbing, other forms of harassment are also taking place through social media; either by paedophiles or more alarmingly by youth whereby male students demand indecent videos or pictures from their ex-girlfriends or other females, threatening to post suggestive pictures of them if they don’t. They harass them to the point that some end up committing suicide.
“Children also get harassed and blackmailed and are told to send obscene video clips saying that otherwise their pictures will be posted on a website. This can completely destroy a child’s life and lead to suicide,” he added.
“Voice had reported a page last year to Facebook but got the reply that this is not against community standards because they are not nude pictures – they are just ordinary girls. Once you put a nude picture on Facebook you get blocked immediately but what’s happening here is – the comments – they don’t do it – so our problem is with the comments but most of these comments are in Sinhala which makes their job even harder – they need to Google translate, etc. and it takes time,” he said.
“We need strong laws but then again laws alone cannot help – we need awareness as well. So we are addressing the matter in different ways; while pushing the Government and authorities to implement laws, we are also trying to educate the parents.
“A mother had come to us saying she was being harassed and blackmailed online and we told her to report it to an organisation but they just told her to block the person from her page. We ask the question: What legal procedure do we have related to this? Who do these people turn to? Are there any organisations that can help and how far can the law protect them? According to CERT 2,850 cases of social media related incidences were reported in 2015 and these are only reported cases; so how many children/parents are actually harassed on social media?”
Unfortunately we don’t have many cyber-related laws in Sri Lanka because this is very new here. Strict and specific laws need to be implemented which will instil fear in the wrongdoers. These people are using their real names with contact numbers. There are no laws or imprisonment; if so they will be afraid, he said.
The biggest problem is the lack of knowledge of private users on how to use social media securely, as well as the absence of laws and restrictions against the offenders.
“Social media is not a bad thing. We use social media to raise funds – 80% of our fund-raising has been done through social media which is the good side of it. But parents and children need to have an idea of how to use it safely. We cannot ask children to stop using social media because of the age that we live in. They need to know about safety and privacy settings.”
Parents and children need to know – when someone is being harassed, blackmailed or abused, what sort of legal help do they have, what sort of organisations they know which they can get help from.
NCPA also has a cyber crime website where they help but many people are not aware about it. Also, parents need to be made aware that their children’s photos have been stolen from their Facebook account. If someone’s photo has been stolen, what sort of legal frame do we have in Sri Lanka? These are all questions that the foundation wishes to put forward strongly.
How to tackle the situation
The Voice for Voiceless Foundation is taking three main steps in addressing this issue.
Prior to launching the campaign they need to find out the actual facts related to social media usage. Therefore the first step is an island-wide survey which it has already launched, targeting 100,000 participants from all 25 districts in Sri Lanka. In each district they are targeting 4,000 people, aged 12-55 with questions related to social media.
The objectives of the survey are to find out facts about:
The use of different social media platforms according to each age group
The usage durations on social media
Awareness about what is happening in social media and the knowledge of how to use it wisely and safely
People being bullied or exploited through social media
Knowledge that people have about legal institutions that are there to help in cyber crisis
Information that people have about laws related to cyber safety in Sri Lanka
Petition with 100,000 signatures
After the survey, their second step is to obtain 100,000 signatures on a petition prompting the authorities to implement or amend cyber-related laws in Sri Lanka.
“We don’t have many laws related to cyber crimes – only computer crime. We need lawyers, IT experts, and child, women activists to come together in one forum to discuss how we can create new laws and policies. When it comes to print media there are firm laws but on social media we can tarnish anyone’s reputation because there are no strong laws,” he said.
While the first two phases are taking place the foundation plans to spread awareness on this matter in two ways:
Awareness among schools and youth
We need to raise awareness through schools but it is very difficult to access schools because ‘sex’ is a taboo word in Sri Lanka. We have spoken to a few school principals and they told us not to speak directly and use the word ‘sex’ but come in a different form – though children already know more than what they need to know.
“Then we thought of trying through religious institutions like dhahampasala, church Sunday schools, mosques and temples rather than reaching schools. We have already spoken with a few religious leaders and institutions that are very keen on implementing these kinds of awareness programs along with teaching religion. Bethany Christian Life Centre, AOG: ‘For Runner’ national youth ministry which caters to over 8,000 youth in Sri Lanka, All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, Colombo-North, Youth and Education – Layards Broadway Jumm’ah Masjid and Youth and Education – Grandpass Masjid Federation are a few of many who are willing to support this cause.”
This way the foundation has found an alternative. They are also reaching out through clubs like Rotaract Club, Lions Club and Leo Club and are covering a 100,000-audience through these groups.
For the fifth consecutive year, Voice Walk 2017 will take place on 19 August to raise awareness on social media safety. This time around it will be an island-wide walk, targeting 100 cities, collaborating with last year’s participants, government and non-governmental organisations. “This time we have requested them to organise their own walk in their respective cities. We have a big community that has been participating for the past four years.”
Voice plans to obtain 1,000 signatures for their petition during the walk, from 100 cities; so that’s 100,000 signatures in all.
Voice has set up an address asking people to send them more details of indecent pages, which they are planning to send to CERT and NCPA. Anyone who has details about inappropriate pages on Facebook can email the foundation with the links and details to: [email protected].
-Pix by Shehan Gunasekara