Pollachi sexual assault case shows how social media makes survivors vulnerable, can be misused by predators

Gita Aravamudan
The circulation of the videos made by those accused in the Pollachi sexual assault case have made both the perpetrators and survivors identifiable.

Technology is a powerful tool, it can protect lives and destroy them too. It all depends on who is using it. The internet is one of the best and most troubling examples of this. By itself, the internet is efficient, powerful and yet neutral. People from anywhere in the world can access it and use it €" or misuse it for years on end, before they are discovered. Most importantly, data that is uploaded onto the internet can potentially stay there for eternity, which means it can be mined and used for good purposes or evil ones, at any point in time.

The internet gave rise to social media, a very effective form of communication which is an alarming amalgam of things that are beneficial and malicious. Within a very short span of time, social media has grown to mammoth proportions and cast its spell across the globe. Unfortunately, it has no effective gatekeepers. Whenever there is a disaster, it becomes apparent that in spite of all the posturing by executives of social media platforms, they have no control over what is uploaded or posted, or what the outcome may be.

The Pollachi sexual assault and blackmail case in Tamil Nadu has brought all these issues to the forefront over the last couple of weeks. It was through Facebook that the perpetrators identified and groomed their victims. The survivors, who are educated, young women, were befriended by strangers who presented false pictures of themselves. After the survivors were sufficiently groomed, the trysts were fixed on WhatsApp. The perpetrators communicated with each other and also with the survivors on social media. They filmed their assaults with their cell phones and then terrorised and blackmailed their victims.

After one survivor lodged an FIR against the blackmailers, her brother was assaulted by four friends of the perpetrators. And then the police jumped into action. The perpetrators were easily identified, again, thanks to their images on social media. They were caught and confessions were extracted from them. These images of the alleged perpetrators with bruises all over their bodies, "confessing" went viral. Four assault videos were found on the phones. The rest had apparently been erased.

Videos which were purported to be the ones of the actual assaults began circulating. They were sent to legacy media houses, as well as to new media. Some of them which showed girls being stripped and beaten and crying out for help also had visuals of the men who had been arrested. Many media houses did not use these videos, but some did; these images, too, went viral.

Technology was now called in for help. The phones were sent for forensic examination. In the old days, physical evidence could be destroyed, but today, evidence is practically indestructible and continues floating around, available for cybercrime experts to capture and analyse it. Analysing cybercrime data also requires expertise, which is why the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has more technical expertise at its command.

By now, the complainant survivor's identity had been widely circulated. First the Coimbatore SP mentioned her name and personal details €" twice €" in press conferences. Secondly, the government order (GO) transferring the case to the CBI, which is a public document, also contained her name and other details. Besides, the videos from the phones had found their way into the public domain, endangering the lives of other survivors.

Enter the judiciary: The way in which the Madras High Court handled the issue of protecting the identity of the survivors can in future perhaps be used as a template while issuing judgments on similar crimes.

The question that arose was whether it was mandatory to protect the identity of the complainant, as she was neither a minor nor a rape survivor.

She is 19-years-old. She had been beaten, stripped and video-graphed by the blackmailers. But she said she had escaped being raped.

During the hearing of the case, it was pointed out that though the FIR had been booked under Section 354 (assault or criminal force to a woman to outrage her modesty), Section 376 (rape) could be included at any stage of the investigation or even when the charge sheet was being filed. Therefore, the Supreme Court directions would apply here. The complainant's identity should not have been disclosed, as this would actually amount to contempt of court.

The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, which heard the case, ordered the Tamil Nadu government to pay Rs 25 lakh to the survivor. The Bench also ordered disciplinary action against Coimbatore SP Pandiaraj, who had revealed the name twice, and Tamil Nadu Home Secretary Niranjan Mardi, who had revealed it in the GO transferring the case to the CBI. "There should be soul searching by everybody concerned here," the bench comprising N Kirubakaran and SS Sundar said, and expressed surprise that an IPS Officer and an IAS officer had violated the law and gone against the Supreme Court's order. They ruled that the old GO should be withdrawn and a new one issued without identifying the survivor.

The court accused the police of releasing the videos to the public and ruled that sharing them would be seen as an offence. "We want an artificial intelligence-based system that automatically rejects videos of heinous crimes, including sexual abuse, to be put in place on social media," the bench said, while giving the Centre and the Internet Service Providers Association of India three weeks' time to withdraw the "scandalous" videos from circulation. The court also directed the Centre and the State to submit a status report on its 2012 order, which mandated the setting up of a 'one stop centre' for dealing with rape cases and the counselling of survivors.

The Pollachi case makes evident the role social media plays in making victims of sexual violence vulnerable, and the lapses that can take place in the authorities' handling of the situation.

Also See: Pollachi sexual assault case: Four held under Goondas Act for cheating several women online by filming, blackmailing them

Pollachi sexual assault case: NCW asks Tamil Nadu DGP to take appropriate action against accused

Pollachi sexual assault case: Questions about police's conduct at press conference, nature of investigation loom large

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