“Blue whale is not a game, once you enter you can’t exit,” read the suicide note of a 19-year-old college student from Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district, who committed suicide by hanging himself recently. While the fatal game is suspected to be behind several teenage suicides across the globe, including India, there are many other such menaces on the internet. Close on the heels of Blue Whale is Sarahah, an anonymous messaging application, that has turned into a tool for malicious cyber attacks, such as bullying, hate-messaging and sending anonymous threats. Reportedly, a girl in Mangalore recently contemplated suicide on being harassed via this app, but was saved after counselling.
Initially released in February this year, Sarahah is available in Arabic and English, and started off as a harmless application, but soon turned into a menace. It has been developed by Saudi Arabia resident Zain Al-abidin Tawfiq, who came up with the idea when he joined the corporate sector after college and felt the lack of a constructive feedback mechanism. Through this app, Tawfiq’s aim was to enable people to send messages to their peers, friends and colleagues, without revealing the sender’s identity. In fact, his idea seemed to have drawn inspiration from applications that were briefly in trend before, such as Ask.fm and Sayat.me, which also allowed users to send and receive anonymous messages through social media.
This app gained popularity as users could post the messages they received to other social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, which helped generate curiosity among their peers. Several users also linked their Snapchat (instant photo sharing and messaging app) accounts to Sarahah to be more accessible to their peers.
Kshitij Kumar (22), a new media journalist in the capital, downloaded the app because of its popularity in his social circle. “Once I set up my account, I copied the link and shared it on Facebook,” he reveals. So far, he has received only flattering messages, but several users have had unpleasant experiences. Saira Khan (24), a Pune-based IT professional, who tried the app on being intrigued by the messages her friends were sharing on Facebook, received abusive messages regarding her religion. “I was so upset after reading the messages, criticising me for dressing and behaving in a certain way. I posted a huge rant on Facebook afterwards,” she says.
Users such as Durga M Sengupta also encountered hurtful messages about a medical condition she is battling. “I got on it out of curiosity and inspiration for a possible article,” says
Sengupta, who works as an editor for a digital news portal. Initially having decided not to let it affect her, Sengupta was shocked to see what people had said via the app. “I can deal with hate from strangers but not from people who obviously know me,” she says, having promptly uninstalled the app after the hate messages.
Another shocking example of the misuse of anonymity came to light when an Indian user tweeted a screenshot of the anonymous rape threat she received on Sarahah. The user, who chose not to be named, spoke about her experience to the media and said, “I’m horrified. And I’d like people to not tell me it was my fault for downloading an app.”
Twitter trolls, who take refuge behind fake profiles to attack people online with vile comments and messages, also fall in the same category, and are considered to be the price one has to pay for being on Twitter.
“The power to say hurtful things under the guise of anonymity should be seen as what it is—cowardice,” says Kolkata-based Arunima Kar (25), who studies social media trends for a news organisation. However, given the dynamic nature of the internet, it will not take long before some other challenge, meme or application potentially replaces Sarahah and pushes it out of sight.