Social Media Ethics, Safety and Privacy issues – Guftagu at Azad Foundation

By Sanjukta Basu

I recently delivered a series of 2-3 hours talks, something we call a Guftagu (chit chat) with groups of young women from marginalized background as part of capacity building initiatives by Azad Foundation.

Guftagu with Azad Foundation

Founded in 2008, Azad Foundation is an Indian NGO empowering marginalized girls by providing them formal training in commercial driving and also providing them jobs via their sister entity Sakha Consulting, a social enterprise.  Over a period of 5-6 months, these girls are trained not only on various aspects of being a commercial driver but also other life skills they might need in order to be fully independent, self-confident and realize their full potential as strong empowered individuals.

Alices in Social Media wonder land

The Azad Foundation girls mostly come from very patriarchal regressive background with very little experience of even stepping out of their home or talking to male strangers without supervision let alone take up jobs and lead an independent life. More often than not they are coming out of violent and abuse marriages and trying to make a new start. Understandably driving lessons alone would not empower them in the true sense and thus they are given orientations on various other aspects of personality development including sexuality and gender workshops, communications, grooming and so on.

As these girls and women brave their social circumstances and step out of the four walls to start independent lives, a smart phone with Facebook and WhatsApp become one of their most favourite companion. Young, brave and raring to go, these girls find the world of social media a most fascinating place where they find something new every day, it’s a world without limits of any kind, a place where they can meet new people, make friends, relationships, explore their desires, sexuality, self-love, access to information, activism, fashion, entertainment and whatever have you. In a nutshell, these girls are Alices in Social Media wonder land.

Needless to say, unexpected troubles lurk around the corner for them. They often complaint about day to day troubles arising out of their social media use – some guy sent a dirty photo, some guy started stalking, another tried to blackmail, another started a fight over photo updates and so on.

It is at this juncture that my colleague Gunjan Sharma, Consultant for Azad Foundation, realized that these girls need to understand social media properly before they jump the bandwagon. Accordingly we designed these brief talks on the ethics, safety and privacy issues on Social Media so that they are able to use social media in a safe, efficient and responsible manner. In each session I helped them explore questions like, What kind of content should we share on social media? What is a private network or ‘friend list’? How can we manage who gets to see or access our content? What happens when we delete content? What are the social media ethics that should be kept in mind before sharing any content and making it viral? How to handle cyber relationships, cyber intimacy, breakups? What is right to privacy? Why it matters? What about the snooping incident, why is it a concern that the state might be snooping into our lives? What becomes of the intimate photos videos we share online after we have deleted our account or removed people from our FB page? What if the ex-boyfriend still has some intimate photos from the past and threatens to make them public?

Here are some of the topics we discussed and my suggestions:

What is social media

Majority of the girls I met were using WhatsApp and only few of them were on Facebook. Besides these two they have not heard of any other social media tools.

I-love-my-privacy-300x300Right to privacy a human right

One of the main purposes of these talks with the Azad Foundation girls was to give them an understanding of right to privacy as one of our human rights and why everybody should take it seriously. My colleague told me that, incidents of these girls giving away their email / Facebook / Phone passwords to their boyfriend as a proof of their love is extremely common.  This is absolutely unacceptable. Right to privacy is a serious right and just like we don’t give away our other human rights we should not give away the right to privacy. Love cannot be proved by sharing passwords. It only leads to vulnerability. As they shared, post break up revenge by embittered boyfriends by hacking into the girl’s social media profile is not unheard of.

Create a trusted network

Coming from a background where merely talking a boy in the neighbourhood would set off alarm bells in their families these girls have very little options of dating someone they like or even meeting a new person. Naturally a flattering message on WhatsApp from someone unknown intrigues them and the thought of a potential cyber stalker doesn’t readily cross their minds. While there’s no harm in using social media to explore dating and relationships, thereby subverting a social structure which wants to control women’s personal life, one should however understand the importance of a trusted friend network.

  • Do not add anybody to your network without first checking out the profile. If you see flowers and bees as profile pic, get suspicious. Get suspicious if you see evidently fake photos like that of Hrithik Roshan.
  • If you get unknown messages on WhatsApp, call back to find out the person’s identity, ask who he/she is and how they found your number. Do not message back and forth because that way a certain level of intimacy gets built even while trying to say ‘no’.
  • A person with dubious intentions would usually be taken aback by a call, because when you are calling the power is in your hand. Most often, it is easy for stalkers to type charming messages on WhatsApp but they are not so confident on call.
  • You can also ascertain a person’s personality from the voice. If the person is not someone you want to be friends with tell them a NO firmly. Tell them if they don’t stop persisting you would take the matter to Police’s cyber cell.
    When you feel that someone is really bothering you in-spite of your firm disinterest report the matter to somebody – parents, police, organization etc.
Privacy Control

The girls wanted to know if there is a way to stop getting messages from unknown numbers on WhatsApp. Sadly, the level of privacy control on WhatsApp is very little compared to Facebook. You cannot stop getting messages from unknown numbers. However you can control who can see your profile photo and status.

Whatever platform you join, always remember to check out the Privacy Settings and set privacy according to your preference. Try not to reveal personal information to the public.

A lot of the girls said that many times strangers have downloaded their profile pics from Facebook and used them on their page or shared it with random people. This is a real big concern with Facebook. Anybody can view the latest profile pic, it cannot be hidden and anybody can download it. There are both pros and cons of having your real face on profile pic but what you should remember at the end of the day is that an act of misusing your photo, or bullying or intimidating you with it is a crime. There is no need to be scared or embarrassed if someone does that, just be brave and report the matter to police.

password is key do not sharePasswords – always use one, never share

Always use a password for your smart phone / social media profiles if using them from desktop and never share your password with anybody, be it parents, friends, or boyfriend. When a phone get stolen the SIM can be immediately blocked but if it not secured with a password a plethora of sensitive information may go into wrong hands.

Snooping, can fathers do it?

As a subtopic of right to privacy one should be aware of the uncommon but highly probable possibility of snooping activities on our private lives by various establishments to further unknown objectives. In my discussion I shared the case of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s alleged involvement in a snooping case in Gujarat and what kind of yet to be answered questions it has raised. Most important question which actually came from one of the participants, can our parents or guardians allow snooping? The answer is a big NO. Nobody is allowed to infringe the right to privacy of an adult person. Unfortunately women in our society are made to believe they are never independent adults. They must always remain under the control of a male – father, brother, husband, son. The world of social media liberates women from this control to a great extent and that’s exactly they should hold the right to privacy close to their heart and never give away.

internet-loveCyber relationships and intimacy

Cyber love have been around from the time of Yahoo Chat Rooms but for these girls at Azad Foundation this is something very new, and perhaps one of the most important aspects of their social media usage. It is easy for them to fall in love online because they come from a culture of extreme gender segregation of spaces. But heart breaks are also common in the cyber world because with one click of a button the other person can completely disappear. Sometimes they spend months in a cyber-affair without meeting the person only to find out some uncomfortable truth later. Often girls reach a level of commitment that it becomes hard to get over with. “So is it absolutely bad idea then?” I asked them. “Yes mam it is totally bad. Nobody should do it.” One of them answered.

Well, truth is, it is inevitable and there is no shame in it. But one must be cautious and ready for unexpected unpleasant outcomes. Never over commit to a cyber-relationship. For example try not to share sensitive information, intimate photos, videos, email / phone passwords, banking details. Do not give any money to your cyber boyfriend unless you are fully aware of who he is, where he lives, what he does etc. Bottom line is ‘be curious, but be safe’.

No shame in cyber intimacy

This is something I always tell all the young girls I meet. You should not feel shame or guilt in following your heart on the path of love and sex. Cyber intimacy, exploration of sexuality is natural and in the process you may share intimate chats, photos, videos with a person in a relationship of trust. What you gave someone out of trust  must not be used to blackmail or threaten you. Such acts are completely illegal. If that happens don’t shy away from reporting the matter to the right people, starting with your parents, friends, organization’s leader and if need be to the police.  Don’t be scared, embarrassed or apologetic because you have done nothing wrong.

Viral content, your responsibility

Almost everybody in the group knew what is a viral on social media, but they didn’t know the role they play in making certain content viral and how viral may be misused. They all have received gory, obscene videos or images with some social message or call from time to time. While some of them deleted such content, some forwarded them because they thought it was for a good cause.

Do not forward any content unless you are at least moderately sure about the truth of the content. Take the example of a woman who allegedly spread false story about a man on the bike abusing her. A simple photo which does not speak of any fact, with a moving story attached to it is enough to move people and share it. Nobody cares to find out the truth but this is highly irresponsible.

Of course one can never be 100% sure of the truth of anything on media but we should at least use common sense and think twice before sharing. Another example is the case of a political leader uploading fake video with provocative comments which became one of the triggers for Muzaffarnagar riots.

Amherst_Legal_Handbook_for_Photographers_image01Photographs, tagging and permission

Most common story shared by the girls was that of unknown people sharing dirty picture on their wall which made them extremely embarrassed in front of friends and family. I asked them but how do your friends see those? The answer obviously is tagging. Photo tagging is most fun but also most evil activity on Facebook. Always, remember to go to your privacy settings and control who can tag you in any photo, and who can see the photos where you are tagged.

The other trouble is that when they get into a new relationship and add new boyfriend to their friend list, they don’t realize that the new person would be able to see all previous posts, photos. Remember, merely removing a person from your contact list doesn’t mean all her/his content is also removed. You need to individually delete past content, un-tag yourself from them etc.

Social media is so photo heavy, everybody is taking photo every where and putting them online. One should remember that it is our right to say no to somebody taking our photo and sharing it on social media. There is some ambiguity in case of street photography but if you are attending an event or meeting someone for work you may say no to you being photographed. These days several organizations have initiated the policy of getting their participants to sign a ‘no objection to photography’ consent form before the start of their events. One may say no on this form.

GPS Tagging of social media content via smart phonesgps tacking icon2

While this topic was not felt to be very important by the girls, I thought being professional Drivers who would be traveling across the city through the day, they should be aware of the function of GPS on their smart phones, how their social media content are all being geo tagged and their location can be tracked from their messages. It is important to know that our location information may be used by the establishments in various ways, and with a large amount of data about our lifestyle and location may enable someone to create a fiction about us based upon facts. For example from my phone it can be identified that I reached Azad Foundation office at 2 pm for a workshop. But if I leave my phone in the office and sneak out for a while, and in between something happened in which I am being implicated, a lot of fiction can be created to put me in trouble.

Relevance of social media profiles in job recruitment

These days most recruiters run a social media search of the candidates before hiring them. Potential employer might judge you based upon the content you share, your profile picture, status updates. So use your profile strategically. Build a presentable professional profile mentioning your education, work experience. Although I earlier said keep your content inaccessible to non-friend, but you can make an exception here. You could selectively make a few information / status / photos related to your professional experience publicly available so as to leave a good impression on the potential employer.

Commercial aspects of social media

How does FB/Twitter make money using our content was discussed to enable participants understand how the content we share are used to sell us various products and services and who is benefiting from them. How the various Apps used by us on our smart phones trace massive amount of information about our lifestyle and how they are used by both profit making and non-profit activities.

How social media is used for social causes

It was nice to see that some of the girls were already aware of the Delhi Police’s WhatsApp number and how they can use their photo video features to collect evidence and report matters to police. One of them had even reported a neighbourhood quarrel to Delhi Police and had received response. I advised them to be careful about using real names, faces, gory provocative images,  while reporting matters even if it’s for a good cause.

Gender + Law + social media

This topic was not discussed in much detail. I only briefly informed them that activities like cyber stalking, sexual harassment, bullying, obscenity, blackmailing, email/password hacking are all defined as crime by the law, and they should be reported to the police if the situation seem to be out of hand. And while reporting these matters one should always be absolutely transparent with the police.


About Sanjukta Basu

TED Fellow Sanjukta Basu is a Feminist Writer, Photographer, Political Analyst and Gender Trainer. Her columns appear on Daily O, Huffington Post India, Firstpost among others. Also a public speaker she has spoken at TEDx conferences, universities, colleges, and NGOs.


  1. Reblogged this on This Is My Truth and commented:

    First published on my social media start up Samyukta Media. Experience from series of talks to marginalized women at Azad Foundation.

  2. Pingback: Privacy or safety? – Only Sara

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