A random cricket fan went from anonymous to anything but overnight, thanks to zealous people on the Internet who thought that brief footage of her cheering her favourite team on was an invitation to stalk, name and even impersonate her.
I’m willing to buy that the first few who posted wondering who she was were idly curious. We sometimes use social media fairly unthinkingly, sharing what we’re watching, eating or doing. But the aggressive wave that followed was not curiosity. They – first people, then press – ran image searches, stalked her social media, revealed her name and profession and reposted her photos. They felt entitled to know all about her, and then to use her likeness and identity to their own ends. They believed the world shared this right, thereby making their own breach of her privacy acceptable. Objectification is inherently dehumanising; but this went further, conferring celebrity status and professing adoration as veneers for crude behaviour. At its worst, it reinforces the belief that a woman cannot have fun for her own sake; it must be repossessed for male pleasure.
I had a hunch that she would have been forced to lock her Instagram account because of this scrutiny. What I found was worse. There were multiple profiles in her name (which I won’t mention). I clicked on a couple. Each had tens of thousands of followers. Her photos had been stolen and reproduced, and accounts impersonating her had mushroomed. Sickened, I didn’t keep looking for her real profile.
There’s a chance that the woman at the centre of this is enjoying the attention, and may be using it productively. More power to her, if so. One good way to subvert attention, desired or otherwise, is to leverage it. But the moment she begins to, she’ll find herself trolled, and be accused of opportunism. This salivating horde will never allow her to have a personality; she can only be an object of fantasy.
In the best case scenario, she will be thick-skinned, boost her career, raise awareness for whales and abandoned children, and live happily ever after. But this is not just about her. We aren’t only just beginning to work out the ethics of such privacy violations, because we’ve seen them before. A teenage actor winking, a tea seller with eyes the colour of colonial aspiration, a student standing in the background of a Shah Rukh Khan selfie (have you forgotten most of them? Good.). And the most sobering cautionary tale of all: last year’s so-called #PlaneBae.
During #PlaneBae, someone overheard a man and a woman getting to know each other on a flight, live-tweeted their interaction, and got thousands excited about what seemed to be a developing romance. The man was happy to make TV appearances afterward. But the woman had to issue a public statement pleading to be left alone. She had been doxxed and stalked both online and offline. She had neither asked for nor benefited from the situation, and it had come with consequences.
One stalker could be called a creep. But what do you call a crowd of them? And what about when global Internet culture itself cheers along?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 9th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.