Social experiments, their ethics and effects on women

The recent case of model and actress, Alizey Shah’s private photos being leaked is not the first incident of privacy invasion of modern day Pakistani celebrities. In 2019, Rabi Pirzada and Samara Chaudhary were the victims of privacy violations on the internet when their private private photos and videos were leaked online. The resulting reaction to Rabi Pirzada’s videos were so strong that it led her to quit her career in show business. Earlier in February 2020, Tik Tok star Maryam Faisal’s video was circulating on the internet which led her to deactivate her TikTok account. To investigate how and why these videos become so viral so fast, one social media blogger took it upon himself to investigate the matter.

The experiment

The blogger, W, called his investigation “a social experiment in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”, and posted a video on his Facebook page that gained a fair amount of traction. He starts off the video by talking about the increasing number of cases of sexual violence cases against women and dives right into the heart of a community that actively takes part in making such content viral.

On his mobile phone, the viewers are shown a Facebook group W has joined. The name of the group and is visible on camera, and in case anyone had missed it, W makes sure he reads it out loud. He then goes on to explain the activities in the group which mostly consist of men and women sharing links containing private photos or videos of unknown women with captions enticing members to watch and share the content. The viewers even get a glimpse of one such post containing photos of an unknown woman whose face is visible and no effort was made to hide it.

In the next demonstration, W posts a picture of Alizey Shah in the group along with a WhatsApp invite link claiming that he has access to her leaked photos and will be sharing it in the said WhatsApp group. He then shows the viewers this group which, within a few minutes, is joined by over 150 people. These members can be seen sharing private pictures and videos of unknown women without anyone asking for them.

The ethics

At the end of the video, W claims that the purpose of his social experiment was to spread awareness. On the surface, it seems that he did have the best of intentions. But in conducting social experiments like these, one must exercise a significant amount of caution, keeping in mind that their advantages must outweigh the harm they may cause.

In this scenario, there are no doubts that the video educates many on how data like this goes viral. It also reveals the magnitude of demand for these pictures/ videos which could possibly explain why incidents of such data leaks have increased over the years. However, while awareness on all this is much needed, it also results in secret groups such as this getting more attention from internet users who are on the lookout for communities where they can share and gain access to women’s private pictures and videos.

Since the blogger was unable to hide the name of the group, it stands to reason that many would have requested to join, some merely out of curiosity. Moreover, no measures have been taken to hide the faces of the women whose pictures are being circulated in the Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

This brings us back to the original question; did the said blogger’s social experiment cause more harm than good? Yes. The experiment does not provide a solution or advice on how to stay safe online, and it does not spread awareness on how to proceed once your private data is violated.

He ends the video with the message that we must “fix” ourselves as a nation before criticising the state.

The effect

The cost of the popularity of these groups is, eventually, the women who have been violated and continue to be violated each time their data is accessed and shared. Even with laws like the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, also known as the cybercrime law, in place, it does little to help victims of data leaks.

Women who have their private data misused are almost always blamed and shamed for taking such pictures and videos in the first place. Since the blame often comes from the family, it becomes harder to approach the law enforcement authorities. 

In cases where women have managed to reach the relevant authorities, there has not been much success. The victims of cybercrime have previously reported inadequate behaviour and victim blaming from the cybercrime division of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), the authority responsible to deal with complaints under PECA. For example, when Rabi Pirzada approached the FIA to have her leaked videos taken down, her request was turned away due to the lack of coordination between the FIA and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), which has the powers to to take down online content.

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Salwa Rana is a lawyer who specialises in digital human rights policymaking.

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