It takes a meme with an image and a piece of text, typically humorous, a very short time to go viral on social media, often with slight variations, as it is a source of fun for many.
But the person who is the butt of jokes; whose image has been used in it may feel disrespected or unsafe and face harassment in real life.
This is exactly what happened to Rabita Rahman, a lecturer at the Institute of Modern Languages of Jagannath University in Dhaka, stealing the peace of her mind.
A user created a meme with her photo and shared it on a Facebook group without her knowledge.
When she noticed it and complained to the group’s administrators, they refused to remove it without the creator’s consent.
Rabita had to turn to police to end the harassment. The Police Cyber Support for Women centre helped her.
Not everyone is lucky enough, like Rabita. Also, not all women want to seek help from the police.
At least 64 percent of the women in Bangladesh face harassment, assault, or even violence while using the internet, an ActionAid survey says.
Among them, 11.8 percent are victims with personal photos posted without permission. Unfortunately, 85 percent of the women go silent without taking any action against the offenders.
Bhaskar Saha, an additional superintendent of police, said contacting the police is crucial along with awareness about the offences because police can act only when they are informed about such crimes.
WHAT HAPPENED TO RABITA
In January 2022, a friend of Rabita told her that her photo was being used in a meme that went viral on social media after it was posted in a Facebook group called ‘Ghor Sajanor darun idea’ for people sharing ideas to decorate their homes.
The meme drew thousands of reactions and hundreds of comments. It was shared more than 200 times. It contained texts about the relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law.
Apparently, the text on her image was not that maligning, but Rabita objected as it was used without her permission. It could have been worse, she said.
To address the wrong done to her, Rabita contacted the Facebook group’s admin. “I requested the moderators and admin panel many times to remove my photo that was misused.”
“But they came up with a strange reason. The admins and moderators said they couldn’t do anything without talking to the person who posted it. They didn’t know why my photo was used, so there was nothing they could do,” Rabita said.
Instead, the admin panel questioned her, which was equivalent to “victim blaming” her. That was why Rabita decided to take legal action. Her family supported her decision.
The Police Cyber Support for Women suggested that Rabita initially file a general diary. At that time, she was abroad on study leave. Her sister and brother-in-law filed a general diary on her behalf with Kafrul Police Station on Jan 5, 2022, complaining of activities that “hampered privacy”.
They mentioned the Facebook group and its admin panel’s reluctance to remove the post in the GD.
“...We hope that Bangladesh Police will take a strong stance to prevent the culture of unwanted, harassing, and demeaning activities against women to ensure their safety and stability in life, which will enable anyone to be aware not to use the photo of a woman without her permission,” Rabita said in her GD.
She did not get the updates for a long time after filing the GD. Later she returned home in July of that year and contacted the police.
“When I called, they told me the GD I filed was already settled. Shariatpur Police Station sent such a note, they said. This is because someone in Shariatpur posted the meme,” she said.
But Rabita was not satisfied with the “settlement” without her knowledge.
As Rabita objected to the conclusion, an additional superintendent of police started handling the issue.
Police brought the person who posted the meme to the police station.
“I had the chance to start a court case. It could lead to the imprisonment of the offender. But in Bangladesh, people need to gain the knowledge to use the internet. So I asked the offender for a legal apology instead of other punishments.”
Rabita received the bond of apology on Aug 18, 2022, and pardoned the offender. She kept a soft copy of the bond.
Although she braved the complications and managed the crisis, Rabita felt that if a victim did not want to file a complaint or failed to do so, her photo or meme would continue to spread.
Development worker Kizzy Tahnin keeps her Facebook profile open to the public for professional work and her literary activities.
She fell victim to the meme trouble quite a few times, she told bdnews24.com.
“I had a photograph clicked by a professional photographer abroad. During the pandemic, some people told me that photo was used on several Facebook pages, including some literary groups that publish poems and micro-stories.”
“I contacted the pages who used my photo. Their point was they collected it from other sources. But most of them apologised and removed the photos. They, too, can’t monitor everything. I didn’t get the cooperation in one or two cases,” she said.
Both men and women post such memes, and both become victims as well, Tahnin said.
The harassment was “beyond tolerance”, but she did not take legal steps as she was too busy.
Nazmunnahar Shishir, a Global Network of Women Peacebuilders researcher, did not seek legal help after facing issues similar to Tahnin’s in 2014-2015, just after completing her BA honours.
“My photos were used on some meme pages and videos, especially cheap ones, to push up the page view. Also, many people used my image to open fake Facebook profiles,” Shishir said.
She tried to contact the group or page admins, but her photos were not removed.
Women become the “easy targets” in such cases of identity theft, Shishir said.
NO LEGAL STEP?
“We know these are crimes but do not consider their impact on society. In fact, I myself wasn’t interested in going to the police station over the issue. Sometimes we avoid seeking legal help, fearing complications,” Shishir said.
She now feels it was a mistake not to seek legal help then.
“It’s a tough time for those who feel embarrassed by the social impacts of such incidents. If we had taken legal steps then, it could have paved the way for others to take action now.”
Police take it “more seriously” when women complain at the cyber unit, said Additional SP Bhaskar.
The unit Rabita contacted for help was opened on Nov 16, 2020, Bhaskar said. Senior police officers regularly monitor the complaints filed with the unit, he said.
“Digital issues have spread quite fast in the country. It sometimes happens that the officers at the police stations cannot address the issues adequately, so we can’t have an expected outcome.
“Also, we don’t have any office for social media sites in Bangladesh. We need a lot of information about an ID or page from the tech companies, which they don’t provide in many cases,” said the additional SP.
“We can’t offer fast service to the victim if we don’t get the information right in time. Also, some offenders are quite skilled at hiding information. In those cases, people think the police didn’t take any action even after they filed a complaint.”
Bhaskar praised Rabita for seeking legal help. The person who posted the meme with Rabita’s photo was a woman, too, he said.
“Initially, she denied any wrongdoing. Later we found she needed to learn about cyber space. She didn’t even realise she committed an offence.”
The punishment depends on the type of cybercrime, said Bhaskar. Victims can file cases under the Digital Security Act, Pornography Act or Information Technology Act.
“If they fail to file a case with a police station, the victims can go to court seeking justice. But it’s better to file a GD in the beginning. Then they can file a complaint with the cyber unit. Now we have a cyber team in each district. The victim can contact those as well.”
For filing complaints over cyber harassment, people can send messages to the Facebook page ‘Police Cyber Support for Women- PCSW’ or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They can also call the 999 national helpline and the Police Headquarters at 01320000888.
Both men and women should be cautious before sharing information on social media, Bhaskar said.
“Some parents post photos of the result sheets of their children, which contain information like names, parents’ names, date of birth, school name, and others. Some even share their address and passport number.
“A cybercriminal may use that information. They can even open a fake Facebook ID using the information.”
[Writing in English by Sabrina Karim Murshed; editing by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]