Social media experts on Sunday said there is no alternative to awareness when it comes to safety in social media.

They also lamented that harassment and abuse of women increased manifold with the advent of social media, and while all sorts of measures were being taken to tackle the problem, awareness was the key.

The experts made these statements at a roundtable on ‘Women’s security in social media: Reality and the way ahead,’ organised jointly by daily Prothom Alo and Take Back the Tech at the Prothom Alo office in Karwan Bazar.

Introducing the topic of women’s security in the context of social media, Munir Hasan, general secretary of Bangladesh Math Olympiad Committee, pointed out that fewer girls were interested to get involved in ICT activities including programming.

He said that the main reason was a sense of insecurity and lack of support in various ICT related forums.

Munir Hasan said, "When I inquired why they were so hesitant in this line of activity, they explained that if they raised a problem in any Facebook forum or ICT related social media group, no one bothered to discuss it."

Instead, the girls would be flooded with FB friend requests, totally unrelated to the professional forum, he added.

“Harassment was there in the past too, but now social media has added a new dimension to the problem,” said BM Mainul Hossain, assistant professor, Institute of Information Technology, Dhaka University.

He said that it was more of a social problem than a social media problem and the victims needed to be strong in tackling this.

The victims cracked under pressure and went as far as to commit suicide, Mainul said adding it was very challenging for the victims to be strong, but with support from family and peers, they could stand strong and give priority to their lives.

Unfortunately, Mainul said this support was not always there.

A victim present at the roundtable, preferring to remain anonymous, related her harrowing experience of being harassed through social media and how she stood up against the stalker.

The victim said her parents had discouraged her to take action and the authorities at the district level were not cooperative.

She said she finally managed to fight back and overcome her problem.

The victim suggested that other victims should not give up despite all odds.

The extent of harassment has expanded hugely, observed Lutfor Rahman, CEO of Contessa Solutions, and it is must easier for the criminal now.

"Internet gives us many positive opportunities, but is also a window of opportunity for those with ill intent," he said.

Lutfor said it is now imperative to focus on how to resolve this problem and ensure safety on social media.

“Awareness is the key,” said Lutfor Rahman, “And the aggressors must be made aware that they can be caught. They may delete their posts from the social media, but it is never really deleted. Their messages can always be recovered. They must be made to understand that no matter how much they may deny their crime, the police, the ICT ministry and other experts can always recover their messages. This will make the criminal hesitant to venture on such cyber-crime.”

Lafifa Jamal, professor of robotics and mechatronics at Dhaka University, said that the problem was in mindset. Girls from childhood were taught to be tolerant, to hide incidents of harassment. Also, boys were never taught to be sensitive and never told to avoid putting anyone in such awkward positions. “There is need for prevention, protection and awareness,” she said.

“Social media etiquette is also vital,” Lafifa Jamal added, saying that there must be moderation in the use of social media. Over-sharing pictures and information on the net must be avoided.

She observed private space was important and one needed to be cautious about sharing very personal matters including passwords and other private matters.

Sayed Nasirullah, senior assistant commissioner, Cyber Security and Crime Division, Dhaka Metropolitan Police, said that the number of harassment incidents had increased. The criminals move very swiftly in cyber space and social media crimes have taken on alarming proportions.

“Social media addiction must be avoided. Also, we must be careful in uploading pictures. We must be selective in our social media interactions,” he cautioned. “We have over 200 legal cases related to such crimes and over 3,000 GDs (general diaries)."

He related a case study of how carelessness can lead to danger.

Nasirullah said a young woman had left her mobile phone at a relative’s house by mistake. The relative, instead of going all the way to her house to return it, sent it back to her by courier service. However, the courier messenger had opened her mobile, copied some intimate pictures of her and her husband, and then began blackmailing them. “We investigated the case, traced the criminal and arrested him. He had been blackmailing them for Tk 50,000. One just has to be very careful of such devices,” said assistant commissioner Sayed Nasirullah.

Abul Hossain, project director, Multisectoral Programme on Violence Against Women, said, "There was no control on social media and, given our socioeconomic condition, we were not prepared to deal with this very complicated technology."

He highlighted the emergency numbers which victims could dial for emergency help - 999, 333 and 109. These lines were open 24 hours.

Highlighting the need for media support, he said, “We must thank Prothom Alo for highlighting these emergency numbers every day in the newspaper, raising public awareness in this regard. We receive around 7,000 calls a day and there is coordination among 999, 333 and 109. You can use any of these numbers and they will transfer the call to each other as required.”

Take Back the Tech coordinator, Mahbuba Sultana, said there was no alternative to awareness. While the younger generation was more aware of the problems, guardians also needed to be made aware. Criminals needed to be made aware that their digital footprint could never be deleted.

“The media, the law enforcement, organisations like ours, everyone must unite to fight this problem and to create awareness,” she stressed.

Moderator of the roundtable, Prothom Alo special affairs coordinator Firoz Chowdhury, said in conclusion that coordination and collaboration among all concerned quarters was essential to address the problem of women’s security in social media.