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The Constraints Governing (My) SocMed Use

#privacy, #identity, #abuse

The question of what one should share online is almost inescapable these days; everyone seems to have an opinion, and with the ostensibly democratic nature of some SocMed platforms, everyone’s opinion is sometimes touted as being equally valid. What there probably exists, however, is not a set of equally valid options relating to one’s SocMed use available to one but, instead, a set of options available to be tailored to one’s own requirements which are often shaped not just by intended use but also, however subtly, by class and gender.

The three platforms I've been using with any degree of frequency worth mentioning are Twitter, Facebook, and, most recently, Instagram. This post isn’t so much a general piece about how SocMed could be used as it is an attempt at trying to explore how my own use of SocMed sites has been shaped in the context of both the law and what are, for me, social considerations. Facebook and Instagram I find myself uncomfortable with: not only do I not see reason to give my entire acquaintance a running commentary of what happens in my life, I also suspect that it would be all too easy to have my posts and updates contribute to turning my life into a work of performance art exhausting for me and exclusionary for some of the people I value. Twitter I’m more comfortable with since the way I use it is information-heavy. That said, I spent a long time not using it at all after I got myself an account: making the shift from having an argument be contained in some 300 odd pages to seeing an argument being made in as little as 140 characters isn’t a change that’s made overnight, and it took me a while to get used to what I initially perceived as being a great deal of noise and nothing but noise.

One of the charges most consistently levelled against tweets, entirely independent of the ideological position underlying them, seems to be that not only are they devoid of nuance but also that, given their brevity, they are incapable of nuance. While it’s certainly true, to an extent, that it isn’t realistic to expect to be able to fit half a dozen lawyer-like caveats into a single tweet, it’s also true that a lack of nuance may be intricately tied one’s (in)ability to craft a meaningful tweet in 140 characters, and to one’s (un)willingness to treat one’s followers as people who can deal in and with nuance.

In the arena of policy, for example, I’ve heard it claimed far too often that nuance isn’t appreciated, and I can’t help but suspect that the lack of appreciation for nuance is often caused by the failure of those who make the claim to express nuance intelligibly. True, all of us jump to conclusions on Twitter, and not all of us engage with those who tweet in good faith: there is no shortage of trolls who will troll one solely for the pleasure that brings them, and, short of muting or blocking them, there is often very little that one can do to keep from having one’s peace of mind impaired and one’s time wasted by them.

Which brings one to the issue of abuse online, an issue which affects users of not just Twitter but of all SocMed sites including Facebook and LinkedIn. None of these sites architect to promote abuse. Unfortunately, their mechanisms to curb abuse can feel extraordinarily inadequate when one is targeted with abuse of whatever nature especially since it can seem almost impossible to keep abusers from creating new accounts once one of their accounts is shut down. I’ve been lucky myself in not having received a great deal of abuse sent my way although I can’t help but notice that the amount of abuse I face tends to vary depending on what my profile biography says: when it includes the word ‘Lawyer’, the quantum of abuse directed at me seems to drop dramatically.

That said, I’ve still had people – both men and women, both from the so-called ‘left’ and ‘right’, and both using ostensibly real names and not – direct abuse at me. Much of the abuse is gendered, and I’ve routinely dealt with explicit pictures being sent to me by men, with men propositioning me, with men who upon being told not to send me pictures of themselves send me pictures of unsolicited flowers instead. Up to a point, it’s been difficult for me not to be amused, but that’s just my own reaction. After that point, for me, there’s been frustration and sometimes fear: the man who stalks one and seems to know far more about one than he should. The man who not only stalks one online, but also stalks those whom one interacts with online solely to confront one with their words.

SocMed contact lists can often easily morph into accessible and stalker-friendly lists of one’s friends and contacts. On some sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, it’s possible to keep the lists private but on a site like Twitter, the list of people one follows is accessible by anyone. Quite apart from enjoying a very particular sort of tweets, for me, the inability to cloak whom I follow on Twitter has led me to follow only strangers or friends with whom I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable were they to be dragged into some strange gratuitous drama with a stalker. It’s meant that many of my acquaintances have been put off by my not following them but the truth is that I’d rather feel safe than be polite in this regard.

Protecting one’s privacy online is never easy. There is, of course, the obvious and easy-to-follow option of limiting or not posting information oneself although that doesn’t address the issue of curtailing information posted about oneself by others. It doesn’t necessarily occur to people whom one interacts with not to post one’s pictures or information about one online without taking one’s permission. For someone like me, who lives in what’s far from the safest city around, having information posted, say, in an identifiable location which is specified as being near my home is potentially problematic: I simply do not want my home address, or even my neighbourhood, to be public information. It would make me feel unsafe. Which is one of the ways class comes in: I can't afford what I would perceive to be adequate real life protection from people who could be malevolent and who've come across me online. And, so, I'd simply prefer not to aid public access to myself even if that means not talking about a meal with friends online or about attending an event. If at all I do talk about myself what I do online, the content I share is almost always time-shifted at the very least to protect my privacy.

That said, not all steps to protect oneself online are obvious or immediately occur to one. For example, SocMed aside for a moment, while uploading one’s picture online it could be well worth not naming the file using one’s own name. That way, should the file, name and all, be picked up either by a bot or a human being and placed on another site which happens to be full of content of a nature one would prefer not to be associated with, one’s name would at least be far less likely to pop up during a routine online search for it in conjunction with the latter site.

Coming back to SocMed though, one of the problems with it, in general, is that although there is no dearth of laws which govern it, and although the entities which run SocMed themselves have mechanisms to address abuse, a user’s obtaining relief either through the law or within the framework of SocMed reportage systems is not guaranteed. And the costs for someone who is the target of abuse can be extremely high both with reference to their social, and possibly professional, standing and with reference to their own peace of mind. One of the proposed solutions has been to verify SocMed accounts (and users) so that one can choose to interact only with those who have verified accounts.

The form SocMed verification would have to take for such a proposal to be viable and fair is, however, unclear. There is absolutely no doubt that real-name policies can be unfair and privilege those already empowered. Apart from anecdata which suggests that such policies are susceptible to simply failing to recognise non-mainstream names, they also pose risks to all those (ranging from whistle-blowers to those who are being subject to abuse) who need or would prefer anonymity for either professional or personal reasons. One possible solution would be to make verification optional not only for people who use their real names on SocMed but also for those who chose not to make their real names publicly visible. The drawback, of course, would be that this could place users in a position where they would have to rely on SocMed companies to protect their identities, and, in a country like India which lacks a comprehensive and cohesive privacy law, an attempt to hold companies to any commitment they might make to users in this regard may have to rely primarily on contract law, likely inadequate in the circumstances, for its enforcement.

The issue of control over what one says on SocMed manifests in other ways too. One’s Twitter timeline, if it is public and associated with one’s name, has recently begun to make an appearance when one’s name is searched for on Google. While tweets are public in such cases, they are not necessarily the first thing one wants to have a person seeking information about one to see. Apart from this, journalists routinely pick up tweets and insert them into their stories or turn one’s tweets into a story without necessarily seeking permission from one. Twitter’s terms of service and the possibility that the unauthorised reproduction and republication of tweets could amount to copyright infringement aside, there are in addition to possible legal issues also concerns about the ethics of essentially removing the control of a user’s words from their own hands, and making available those words to an audience likely far wider than the individual user acting alone would have had access to. Although determinations of what is acceptable may differ based on the nature of the content and whether or not the SocMed user is a public figure, these are issues which have so far not been considered in much depth. While it is clear that a minister making a statement about his portfolio, say, on Twitter should have no claim to any sort of privacy regarding that statement, it is far less clear that the same standard should be applicable to a person who is not a public figure but who makes a publicly-accessible statement about a non-public or personal issue.

As a rule of thumb, it may be prudent to not say anything on SocMed which one would hesitate to have thrown back at one possibly out of context years later, or which one would not want to have be widely publicised. That rule, however, does not change the fact that at some point in the foreseeable future, we will have to grapple with the issues which our use of SocMed have given rise to, not least in relation to the law, in a far less superficial manner than that in which we have dealt with them thus far.

(The description of the functioning of the SocMed platforms mentioned in the piece is based on my experience and is only to the best of my knowledge. It may not be entirely accurate.)

(This post is by Nandita Saikia and was first published at IN Content Law.)