The year is 2010, and you are a pre-pubescent 12-year-old girl joining Facebook – the first social media network relatively unknown in your circle but slowly increasing in popularity. It has been a few years since you found out about it, but its access was restricted to you because it was only for adults. However, after months of begging your parents and telling them how almost all of your grade 5 peers are now on Facebook, and you would look “uncool” if you do not hop on the bandwagon, they painstakingly agree but under a set of conditions. They must know your passwords, you must not add strangers, but the one they stress upon the most: only upload your pictures under very strict privacy settings. My experience was not different either when my parents drilled it into my head that under no circumstances can I maintain a “public” profile. If I do, someone will either steal my pictures to edit them or make fake profiles of me. As someone taking her first step into the social media cybersphere, this was the first time I heard of issues that were less spoken of before, but most of all these guidelines were not given to my brother who had fairly open access to Facebook and the rest of the internet.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and dating apps like Tinder and Bumble have taken the internet by storm and have become a global mass phenomenon. One of the most significant issues on these sites is the rampant creation of fake profiles, mostly of women. These fake profiles are entirely made on stolen identities of individuals who put their real information on the internet. This is a growing concern among many social media users and companies alike, so much so that according to Facebook, an estimated 5 percent of registered Facebook profiles are fake accounts, which has led to the companies taking action. Facebook announced in 2018 that it does not allow inauthentic activity on its site and blocks “millions of fake accounts every day.”
In a quantitative research study conducted by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in 2016 to measure online gender-based harassment in Pakistan, 23 percent of the respondents who were all women stated that they have had fake profiles made of them. Another 2020 report by DRF states that fake profiles can lead to reputational and psychological harm. While in many instances, reporting a fake profile would solve the issue of non-consensual use of information, however, the repercussions could be very severe in a society like Pakistan that is rooted on patriarchal beliefs and has blamed victims for the violence they experience. Having a fake profile made under one’s name can have such impacts and even worse that have often led to instances like psychological trauma, withdrawing from public platforms, abuse within the house, and in extreme cases, suicide or so-called honour killing which continues to be rampant in the country.
Fake profiles have a direct impact on how women access the internet, mainly social media spaces, and they constantly take measures to attempt to make these spaces safe for themselves and for their information. Making a private account over a public one, one of the primary actions women take, is a deliberate decision a user makes based on what they prefer and what they are comfortable with putting online. Regardless of trying to claim power on their information, women’s private information is still stolen and used to make fake profiles intended to cause harm or just to catfish someone else using someone else’s identity. Catfishing is defined as trying “to trick or attract someone by pretending on social media to be someone different.”
Anonymising identity as a security measure
In 2015, S* as a ninth grader, found her fake profiles emerging on Facebook and Instagram. A minor at the time, S* felt “deeply uncomfortable and confused,” never having experienced something like this before. She was advised to report the accounts and ask her friends to report as well which led to the profiles eventually taken down. However, each time an account would be taken down, a new one would pop up in its place. It was clear that it was a malicious attempt at harassing her and deliberately distressing her. On top of the emotional and psychological distress S* had to undergo, she said she felt ostracised at school. “Everywhere I went, people would stare and sneer at me. I started questioning why it is happening to me?” The victim-blaming that ensues as a result cannot be discounted as she started asking herself why she was the one being targeted, or whether she did something wrong. She says this is a toxic cycle in our society, and “in the end the victim is always blamed.”
Having fake accounts constantly made of her for a year, S* first decided to remove all her pictures, especially her public profile picture on Facebook. Eventually, as new fake profiles kept popping up despite her constant efforts to take them down, she decided to quit social media altogether in 2015. She deleted her Facebook and Instagram accounts and had no presence on the internet for years. This experience permanently affected her access to cyberspaces.
S* says that her social media usage pattern has changed dramatically since the incident in 2015, and she does not see herself returning to the same carefree attitude on the internet any time soon.
Fake profiles have led to serious consequences for many individuals, men and women alike, in Pakistan, that have resulted in life-threatening incidents. Profiles made through stolen identities could be used to post sensitive and incriminating content that is also strongly rejected by families and the society. One of the instances that depict the repercussions of fake profiles is that of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan Mardan University, in 2017 who was brutally lynched within the university based on what was posted on his fake profile and was deemed blasphemous by his murderers.
More often than not, the consequences of fake profiles could lead to such instances where family’s or society’s sentiments are hurt. And in a country where honour killing is rampant, profiles with stolen identities of women could be life-threatening.
Hence, just like every other aspect of their lives, when fake profiles are made of women in Pakistan, there always comes the anxiety-inducing question of how will my family react? Not only does this emotionally and psychologically impact the victim, but it also dramatically impacts their access to social media spaces. When S*’s family found out that she has been subjected to identity theft on the internet, they started victim blaming her, questioning why it is only happening to her, and that she should not have posted her pictures online. All of this further added to her stress and was one reason she deleted all her accounts and did not use social media spaces for years.
However, after she got into college in 2017, more and more people started asking her why she was not on social media. She says, “People create a weird suspicion around someone who is not on social media, especially in today’s day and age when everyone else is,” so three years after the incident, in 2018, she caved from the peer pressure and made a new private and anonymous Instagram profile. In 2020, her work led her to make a Facebook profile but she continued to be careful about her identity and only used her real name but still no pictures.
S’s story highlights a big failure on part of the redressal mechanisms of social media companies when each time she would report a fake profile, a new one would pop up. This shows that Facebook or Instagram do not preemptively look out for these things but depend entirely upon user reports. Even if someone is constantly creating fake profiles using the same IP address, they can still keep on harassing someone until they are reported again. It’s only recently that Instagram has added a feature to block someone from any accounts they would make in the future, but the same mechanism is required for fake profiles where they could not just be blocked but also immediately taken down on the basis of past complaints.
Reputational Harm and Social Exclusion
Similar feelings came up in conversation with Z*, who is currently a first-year student in college. She recalled fake profiles being made of her as well when she was in school in 2017. She said that it was normalised and a “trend” in her private school at the time, and was not considered a big or worrying thing among her peers. But, she got her friends to report the fake profiles on Facebook and Instagram, and was able to have them suspended. However, she added, “Whoever made the profile had done enough damage to my reputation by writing love letters to multiple boys in my class pretending to be me.” Embarrassed, when her friends told her about this, Z* felt the same kind of social exclusion that S* mentioned. Everywhere she would walk across school, people would stare, and boys would giggle. However, For Z*, the damage was not severe. She said, “This incident was kind of funny and did not bother me as much because I was able to control it easily as all the people who were reached out were in my class and knew who I was. So, it was easier to handle it.”
But what did not bother Z* then, had come back to her years later when earlier in 2021, she found out that someone had made her fake Bumble profile. This profile was used to catfish other people, and it not only made her feel uncomfortable but extremely upset as well. According to her, “Being on a dating platform in Pakistan comes with a set of connotations and it’s also not just for dating. It is widely used for hookups as well. Not that it’s wrong but I would not do that.” Online dating is discouraged in Pakistani society where even the consensual relationships between adults, or the openness for these relationships before and outside of marriage, is a taboo and disapproved by the masses. Many people consider dating in general, and online dating in particular, as a western concept, and link this with cultural beliefs that forbid intimacy between consenting adults. Z* also considered it an attack to her reputation and felt highly uncomfortable and disturbed by the thought that her presence on the platform could be weaponised against her. She says, “I was worried about how my parents would react to a Bumble profile being made of me,” given conservative families’ opinions about dating in general, and dating apps in particular. “I felt grateful when my parents understood my situation and did not blame me for it. They said anyone who knows you will know it’s not you,” Z* added.
She wanted to take the account down, but was confused about how she could report it without being on the app itself. She reached out to Bumble requesting suspension of her fake profile, but the platform wanted the account’s exact location, email address and birthdate in order to take action. But Z* had none of this information and completely relied on the screenshot someone had sent her. The account was never deleted, and continues to be active pretending to be her on the dating app.
Z* is now hesitant to put her face on the internet, and says, “I will be extremely cautious with everything I post. I don’t think I will ever use my face on my profile picture ever again.” Z* has an evident lack of trust on people around her, and while she agrees that the damage could have been worse had she not taken precautions, the incident has changed the way she accesses the internet.
It is crucial to acknowledge the severity of the precautionary measures these women have had to take to ensure security of their information. To a large extent, the onus of protection of their details falls on women entirely as dictated by society instead of accountability of the person who steals their identity in the first place, altering the way the victims of identity theft use online public platforms.
In a country like Pakistan that places the burden of the family’s honour on the women of the household, these instances can have dangerous repercussions for the victims. In extreme cases, such as one reported in 2017, Shagufta Rani was forced out of her house by her husband because a fake Facebook profile was made of her. Rani told the media that her fake profile “not only ruined her married life, but also led to her facing humiliation.” There is a lack of acknowledgment of the fact that the experience of having your identity and pictures stolen is emotionally taxing and mentally jarring.
Negotiation of rights
While S* and Z* managed private profiles leading to identity theft, this begs the question that knowing the internet is and has always been such an inherently unsafe place for women, how do women maintain public profiles despite it? Is there room to reclaim public cyberspaces? In such instances, women are often forced to choose between two rights – right to privacy and right to access.
Bismah, a 24-year-old college graduate and cake artist from Lahore made a public Twitter profile (@/itsokaybis) in 2018 which now has over 15,000 followers. Over the past three years, there have been several fake profiles made using her pictures. She says that she has had to make a trade-off of her privacy to be on the internet and have a public account. In February 2021, when one of her followers informed her that someone made a fake account using her name and pictures on Bumble, Bismah says she felt uncomfortable because she did not want her family to think she was on a dating app, owing to the cultural sensitivities linked to it. This was not an isolated experience as more fake accounts kept popping up using her pictures from her Twitter profile.
She says that she has been able to get a few of her stolen pictures taken down because of the public support she has gotten, and added that this support provides her with a layer of security in dealing with these incidents.
However, when a Twitter user used her photo as their display photo, she reported the account to Twitter who told her that she will have to send her government issued photographs for verification of the complaint. Confused by this policy, Bismah says, “It was a mirror selfie so my phone was covering my face in the picture and also the original picture they had stolen was still available on my profile.”
She added, “When I first made a Twitter account in 2018, I was more careful and cautious about my pictures. But after a while I felt like I was censoring myself and I didn’t feel I was using my space freely.” She said that she wasn’t going to let these risks dictate how she uses the internet, and acknowledges that for most people, the biggest concern is their parents’ reactions. “Fortunately my parents aren’t tech savvy and don’t use social media much so there’s a limited chance these things get to them. But when I post something, I do still have to consider if this is something they will object to?”
Bismah’s public profile has helped her get more customers for her baking business that she runs from her home, and believes that having an open profile lets her feel happy when she shares her life with people. She wonders that when men can benefit from their public profile very freely, why must women be worried about the inherent risks before doing the same.
Bismah admits that she has grown numb to her photos being stolen over the years and accepts that it is part and parcel of being a woman on the internet. She adds, “Obviously it’s not a pleasant experience but it’s an inevitable thing that you kind of agree to when you post your pictures online. There’s no way it won’t happen.”
Individuality in reacting to fake profiles
In understanding identity theft, it is seen that a reactionary measure taken by women to reclaim digital spaces is the use of anonymity. However, there remains individuality in the way women react and adapt to the situations they deal with when their identity is stolen and a fake profile is made of them. Where Z* maintains that she will not put her photos online, S* slowly reentered social media through a strictly anonymous persona, and began using her real name with time as she started feeling comfortable being on the internet again. Whereas, Bismah refuses to self-censor and continues to manage a public profile with her name and photos.
Barriers in legal support mechanism
However, it is also imperative to explore why women choose to take individual actions rather than taking legal action when a law does exist in Pakistan that is supposed to protect them in instances like these. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016 criminalises the unauthorised use of identity information under Section 16: Unauthorised use of identity information, and is punishable with “imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to five million rupees, or with both.” However, the implementation of the law on gender based online violence remains weak, and the implementing authorities continue to disregard cases that require urgency and sensitivity in handling, leading to creating a vacuum in seeking legal recourse. This was also expressed by the women interviewed for this article who said that the legal system is complicated and an inaccessible option for them. The lack of priority granted to women’s safety on the internet has led to most women preferring to report the instances to social media companies through their redressal mechanisms. Yet, these mechanisms also fail to provide the security that they promise, especially in the lack of understanding of local context.
Shmyla Khan, Research and Policy Director at Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), has extensive experience dealing with cases regarding online gender based violence. In discussing whether the mechanisms of these social media companies are effective in tackling the problem of fake profiles, she said, “These social media companies move into economies they do not understand and do not even try to familiarise themselves with the country’s specific issues.” She added, “Many of these mechanisms and policies work on the assumption that the person reporting has an account on their forum and all the necessary documentation they require [to verify identity].”
Shmyla says, “Redressal mechanisms for taking down fake profiles are tied to these existing structures of identity verification that in a country like Pakistan come with its own issues.” Some women do not have access to their ID cards, and sometimes they use a different name on social media than the one on their official documents; “this creates procedural issues in reporting fake accounts. The social media companies have not done enough to acquaint users with their policies when they join their platform. Hence, one of the significant issues when it comes to reporting is not knowing what to do,” she says. Each platform having different guidelines further complicates the issue.
The efficiency of the policies of these companies varies to a great extent. Shmyla stated that since Facebook invests more resources into content moderation, their policy is comparatively better albeit far from perfect. “When women come to DRF having exhausted all possible avenues, [we] help by pushing complaints through [our] escalation channels, where [we] have the luxury of providing more context. However, despite this, during the time it takes from reporting these accounts and them being taken down, significant reputational damage has already occurred.”
These instances are not unique in nature, and neither are they new, but in fact are very common and perhaps a reality of most women braving up to occupy public spaces, online and offline. These experiences radically affect the way women access the internet, and despite constant calls to provide legal support, women continue to be unsafe online. But where there is an evident lack of action from law enforcement authorities, social media companies turn the blind eye towards countless reports and requests for support under the policies that lack understanding of cultural nuances. All of this leaves us wondering whether women will ever be able to use the internet without continuously being at risk, and will women ever be able to fully reclaim cyberspaces without these anxieties. These are questions that remain unanswered.
*Names have been changed reflecting the consent of the parties.