“We want the government to take charge and enable security [on social media platforms]. … I understand the need for privacy, but we do need security also.”

Janani Krishnamurthy filed the second PIL (writ petition no. 20214/2018) that sough a writ mandamus (special order by court) to link Aadhaar with social media accounts. Since filing, her PIL has been linked with Antony Clement Rubin’s (w.p. no. 20774/2018), the division bench has expanded the scope of the PILs to include issues including curbing cybercrime and intermediary liability within the ambit of the legal proceedings, and social media giants have been impleaded within the proceedings.

Like Rubin, Krishnamurthy is also an animal activist. They have been friends for a long time. She works at the Kodaikanal Society for the Protection and Care for Animals, and is a freelance landscape architect. She was on the State Board for Wildlife, and is on the Captive Elephant Welfare Committee. And just like Rubin, she was also targeted by a troll on Facebook. “I did file a PIL along with Antony Rubin; he has also filed it. And, what decided like enough is enough, someone has to take a stand [against trolling] and we did.”

Krishnamurthy has not attended any court hearing thus far because she has been busy with the anti-rabies drive and animal birth control in Kodaikanal, and in the district (Dindigul), and commuting to Chennai from Kodaikanal hasn’t always been feasible.

Why she filed the PIL seeking to link Aadhaar with social media accounts: “[T]here has been a lot of name-trashing, and trolling, and all [of] that has been happening on social media and when something like that happens, it’s just that one person has different IDs. And then they say we haven’t done this and anything like that, and then a person owns a page and they can easily say that they don’t own that page. They can do a lot of trolling and things like that. Even on WhatsApp, the same thing happens. So at that point, I was like okay, let me do a defamation case. That was the first thing that came in my head. But then I realised, whom am I going to do the defamation case on because the same person has got different IDs. Or it could be an imposter, or they could say that ‘it was never me’, or it could be something like same ID or what not. We don’t know what is going on. So I was like how about linking Aadhaar with all these social media things, why [should] not everything be secured. There’s nothing wrong with that, I mean, in that way we get to know who is doing what and tomorrow, even if, let it be trolling or anything like that, even if there’s an abuse case, we can easily track and trace that particular person. We know who the exact culprit is. … Like in Facebook, when a person has been following or saying something to a person that you don’t know, that guy is like ‘it was never me’. Actually, you can easily find out that it is that particular person w ho is using that ID. I have more of a security thing.”

Why she didn’t go to the police, and instead approached the court: I did not go to the police because, again, there are different IDs. Who are they [these people]? And how is the cybercrime [police] going to track this person? You never know where this guy is writing from, or who is writing for him. We don’t know that. So the only way was to legalise this whole thing by linking it [to Aadhaar]. It is [on] a safety and protection basis. Otherwise, had the entire thing not going to happen on media. Like how it is banned in certain places. It could be, but it can not happen in India because most of the thing is digital India right now. … It is like everything is digital right now. Like right from paying to every single thing. For [instance], while paying, you are linking your Aadhaar card. While getting a car, or getting a SIM card, you are linking to your Aadhaar card. Why can’t you link your Aadhaar card to social media accounts? What is wrong with it? Nothing wrong with it?”

How trolling has affected her: “[T]here has been a lot that has been happening, and personally speaking, I have been affected a lot for the past 3 years just by trolling, by these pages, and other things. … Somehow this guy got the [my] name and started writing about that and thought that I would calm down after that and not go under the radar and not do anything about it. See I [was] in the state board for wildlife and I am also on the Captive Elephant Welfare Committee. Work is my duty. It is my duty to go and check on elephants. When there is something wrong with an elephant, I have every authority to say [that]. If the report is correct, it’s correct. I am not going to write wrong. He started, so he thought that would write something personally about me and shut me down so that I would not do anything further.” People who know her only through work or social media, have this trolling, targeting her and her organisations, “at the back of their heads”.

On how long she has been targeted by the troll: “From 2017, 2016-2017, he has been trolling. And even before that, but that is when I have been noticing. So, when I had, initially I had a lot of screenshots saved, thinking that I would do a defamation case, but then, I thought why not take it in a different angle first, and then if you are doing a defamation case on someone, you have more strong hold for that. That’s what happened.”

On how the troll targeted numerous people: “[T]his guy has [targeted] all these people [and has] been trolling at such level that, … writing about me, and writing about, senior people. It’s not only about me, it’s about other senior people. I am talking about, a political person who has been going there, or a social worker who has been going there, a lady who is about 75 years old, writing about literal crap about her.”


Read why Antony Clement Rubin petitioned the Madras High Court to link Aadhaar and social media accounts


On how social media is a big network of “Chinese whispers”, and amplifies “wrong things”: “When a wrong thing is written, people love the gossip, people love only reading that. Slowly, like Chinese whispers, they [the lies] become true [as they are believed to be true]. You get what I am saying? So whatever right they have done, whatever good they have done, it has always been covered behind these big, fat lies.”

On how she uses social media despite trolls: “I am on Instagram, I am on Twitter, yes. Twitter, yes, I am most targeted. I usually just block, or I just don’t respond to those tweets and I just leave it. But they don’t have enough to write on Twitter. So you know you just block, or delete, or leave it, but what happens, the other thing is that even if you block and delete, these guys are still writing more and more about you. Maybe they are writing on Twitter, but I don’t check that much. I am like, okay. Even, for example, Facebook, I don’t check much. … See, we work in the field, [thus] we don’t have time for social media. But even if we have time, we write about the work we have done and what has happened, and any environment [al issue] that needs to be brought up, we only write about that. So, if people [send me] screenshots of things [saying] that today they have written this about you, and they have written this thread, and I read that and I will be like, ‘Oh! What to do’. Initially it was not bothering me, but now slowly I feel it is bothering every single person who is actually doing genuine work. It’s bothering them. It is like what I told you — these Chinese whispers, all the things are just put behind [hidden], and only the bad ones are out there in the open. The whole fact that, the negativity has been weighed so much.”

If there was a sexist bent to the trolling she was subjected to: “As a woman, as a man, I don’t view it that way. I think it’s bad for everyone. … there’s no particular gender. … They’ll trash anyone.”

On the modus operandi of organised trolls:

  1. Create numerous different IDs to stay anonymous: “There are people who have different IDs now. It doesn’t make sense at all. You don’t know what they are … you don’t know what they are asking, … you never know.”
  2. Target people for political beliefs using trends: “They will target anybody who is politically incorrect at that particular point of time which often feels incorrect. … For example, if a current topic is like #antinational or #whataboutthestate, that person who has used that particular thing, has put hashtag of my name or tagged me or done something like that and starts name tracking me with both hashtags, which is a trending hashtag at that particular point of time. This is how it has been happening right now on social media.”
  3. Target families, places of work, etc.: “I, [he figured out] my family’s name. … I have been married for 12 years and I have been into welfare for … 20 years. I have been doing this for quite some time. And there was a troll a few months back where I was trashed as someone who is anti-Hindu and anti-national, which I am definitely not, and there were more things like, you know, how my family […], and my company name was put out in that. It was hashtag other things which got me into a lot of trouble. The moment a person gets [targeted by trolls], obviously the company is at stake, the moment a person is reading through some hashtags and they are like, ‘Oh my god! someone has written about this like this’, it does not come out in the right way.
  4. Mobilise other people to troll targets: “Yeah.”

Why Aadhaar is still the way forward, despite Madras HC’s view that ‘Aadhaar is a government accord used only for social welfare schemes. You cannot have the government linking it with social media.’ “It will go further because if you are saying it is for social welfare, it’s called social media for a certain reason. Even the government is doing promotion and other things through social media, [it’s] not like it’s not. And if someone is going to be bad-mouthing and shaming and trolling, or something like that, you can easily catch them. And what if it is for social welfare, and someone is abusing that particular social welfare itself? How are you going to catch these people? How are you going to put an end to this?”


Read more about this hearing: Madras HC: Internet Freedom Foundation to act as an intervener in WhatsApp traceability case


On how the debate has shifted to traceability in court: “Every government does that [traceability].”

Whether she is in favour of traceability over Aadhaar: “Traceability even over Aadhaar, yes, yes. There should be some … [way through which] you can easily trace. … Aadhaar linking is also traceability. You find out who has done it. That is the first step towards it” “Aadhaar should be the document that is used, or if there is any other thing, [when] you have a social media account. I don’t think anything else has come which gives us an identity apart from Aadhaar right now. We used to have ration cards, we used to have passports, we used to have all these things, but Aadhaar actually connects all these documents of ours in that.”

On SC’s judgement that private entities cannot ask for Aadhaar to verify identity: “But that [using in] conjunction with a private entity cannot [be a constraint]. A private person is the one who is putting this out in public using his[/her] name and his[/her] whatever, opening accounts and doing such things. Where are we going to get a response for this? … You will have to have some method from a traceability, at least, something to keep the trolling form happening. For me, you need security at the end of the day. Imagine you are writing something, and you are hounded for it the entire day, and let’s say, not for one month, but for one whole year where you are dragged through hell. When negative things [posted], it’s not okay. Even though you can be a strong person, great, and all that, it will come back to hit you. It hits a personal, a certain personal space of a person when they are [low].”


Read more: Section 57: Why Aadhaar can’t be used as authentication by private companies


On how lack of content moderation undermines the need for privacy and anonymity: “They [anonymity and privacy] do [hold importance], they have their benefits. But negative ones, even when they are posting such things, let’s say, on social media, the negative comments are not being removed. These kinds of posts are not being removed. Even when you are putting [posts describing] what this person has done to you, hoping to inform the person that so and so has happened, or your content has been removed because it’s too abusive or whatever it is, they [social media platforms] are not completely deactivating that account saying that you can no longer use it. At least the social media accounts should take a charge on that. There would be some kind of security. You have built a large software for the entire world, can’t you keep in place some kind of a security status?”

If social media platforms are responsible for content posted on their site: “See, anonymity and all that, even without Aadhaar, whatever it is, they took it. Social media itself is open, it has been there, everybody writes, everybody talks about the work they do, whatever it is, there is something which connects to the world, giving a good kind of a leverage and other things. Even if there’s something wrong that has happened, they can write that openly. When someone has done something wrong, if I feel that a person has done something wrong, I will say that in the entry and if that person has an issue or whatever it is, even if they make up something, I have proof, I have enough proof; without that I am not going to write. But there are people who are writing without proof. So that kind of anonymity is not needed.”

Whether traceability can be abused by totalitarian regimes to restrict speech and increase surveillance: “Exactly, if you see, Dubai does not have WhatsApp video call. WhatsApp does not have video call feature or whatever [in Dubai], I am not sure [what it is called]. Certainly, these kinds of things can happen. That is what I feel. These kinds of things can happen, the government can intervene. And cybercrime is helping in wonderful ways, it has been helpful, but when you are coming from different societies or different interests, [there can be problems]. For example, [a video of a dog being raped] was made and that video clip is circulated on WhatsApp, and I have informed someone in Humane Society International India. I told them that this is the video, and what it is, this is the original video I got from this person and he tells me no, he also got it through another forward. So to trace that would be easy, if there was some kind of security thing.”

The troll who targeted both Krishnamurthy and Rubin is still active online.

(NB: Krishnamurthy’s statements have been lightly edited for clarity.)

Follow our coverage of this case here.