Wednesday, January 5 2022

Dive In


Solidarity is a verb.

That’s what the poster at a pro-Palestinian rally said in an Insta image shared by actor Emma Watson—who was then criticised by senior Israeli diplomats. One tweeted: “Fiction may work in Harry Potter but it does not work in reality”—while another declared: “10 points from Gryffindor for being an antisemite.”


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Big Story

The ‘selling’ of Muslim women: The sequel

The TLDR: Yesterday, Mumbai police arrested an engineer in Bangalore and a woman in Uttarakhand in connection with an app called ‘Bulli Bai’—which created and shared hateful content targeting Muslim women. This is not an isolated case—but part of an appalling trend that has gathered steam over the past six months. What’s surprising is that this time the police have actually taken action.


Wait, hasn’t this happened before?

Yes. Back in July, the app called ‘Sulli Deals’ was uploaded on Github—an open-source community platform for tech developers. Basically, anyone can upload their software and share it with others. The aim is to promote collaboration among techies. But in this case, ‘Sulli Deals’ was created and shared to target and humiliate Muslim women. Here’s how it worked


  • The creators scraped photos of hundreds of Muslim women from social media platforms—including journalists, activists, analysts, artists and researchers. 
  • Most were Indian, but other nationalities including Pakistanis were targeted too. 
  • Basically, you open the app, click ‘Find me a sulli’ and it brings up the photo of one of the women. That’s it. The straightforward aim is to sexualise and demean these Muslim women.


The fallout: Thanks to widespread social media outrage, the app was taken down by Github—which cited “longstanding policies against content and conduct involving harassment, discrimination, and inciting violence.” And a number of FIRs were filed by the women featured on the app. But the Delhi police claims they could not trace the creators because of lack of cooperation from Github:


“We wrote to them and sent them a legal notice. GitHub officials asked us to follow Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty guidelines… We again sent a request and they forwarded it to their legal cell. They said some documents were missing and we had to apply again. We have approached the Home Ministry to push for an investigation from their (the company’s) side.”


But, but, but: An Alt News investigation in November pointed to a number of Twitter handles that boasted of creating the app. As they noted, the Delhi police could have easily asked Twitter to hand over the IP addresses—and traced their mobile numbers. Also this:


“Furthermore, two domains were registered during the app’s creation — sullideals.in and sullidealing.co.in. Both were registered through GoDaddy. One of the [Twitter] accounts (@mightyeagle30) that claimed to be part of the team that created “Sulli Deals” had sullidealing.co.in as their Twitter account bio... The police could reach out to GoDaddy, the registrar of the aforementioned domains, to find out payment details, including credit card details, to track down those who registered the domain names.”


But none of this has been done as yet.


Ok, so now we have Bulli Bai…

Yes, which is almost exactly the same as Sulli Deals. You open the app and it flashes the face and details of a Muslim woman—one of many scraped off social media—as ‘your Bulli Bai of the day’, like so:


And it too was created on Github—which makes it very easy to keep uploading the same hateful apps under new names:


“[A]nyone can open an account and upload a code after providing just an email id. So even if an account is blocked or terminated, a new one can be created with another email id—and the offensive software code or apps can be uploaded again with perhaps a slightly different name.”


Given the lack of action against Sulli Deals, this is hardly surprising.


And what happened with Bulli Bai?

Github has once again taken down the app. Ismat Ara—a journalist with The Wire—filed an FIR with the Delhi police. And a woman with the Twitter handle @SidrahDP filed hers with the Mumbai police. The contrast between the two police forces has been stark.


The Delhi police: has once again approached Github seeking details about the developer of the app—and is making inquiries into “the intention and purpose behind the creation of such an application.” For a change, they have also written to Twitter for information about the account that first tweeted about the app. “This is to know how the person concerned came across the alleged application.” And it is once again being hectored by the National Commission for Women for not moving fast enough.


The Mumbai police: OTOH has already traced at least two people connected to the app:

  • They tracked down and detained a 21-year-old engineering student named Vishal Jha in Bangalore via his Twitter account—which he used to share content from Bulli Bai. 
  • He has been sent to police custody for further questioning by a Mumbai court—and the police now have a warrant to search his residence.
  • Also detained: Shweta Singh, an 18-year-old woman from Uttarakhand—whose name the police obtained from Jha. Both are suspected to be part of a larger group.
  • Jha and Singh allegedly connected over social media and created the app together: “Four Twitter accounts were used to upload pictures on social media, of which three accounts were being handled by the woman, while the fourth account was being managed by Jha.”


Key point to note: The two of them created an account with a Sikh-sounding name, ‘Khalsa Supremacist’. And in order to make it look authentic, they created other such accounts—including one called ‘Justice for Sikh’—which followed the handle. This is similar to what happened with Sulli Deals—where several such accounts pretended to “expose” a Muslim man as the creator of the app. 


Key pattern to note: Sulli Deals was hardly the first instance of this kind of misogynistic hate directed at Muslim women. In our detailed explainer on that app, we laid out a broader pattern of sexualising and humiliating Muslim women:


  • Before the app came along, there were already number of Twitter handles with names like DesiSulliDeals and Sullideals101 that ‘auctioned’ well-known Muslim women.
  • Right after Eid, a Hindutva YouTube channel posted photos of women dressed for the occasion—and asked its followers to “rate” and “sell” the women.
  • And an Article 14 investigation pointed to scores of Twitter handles that “share hundreds of pornographic videos of women in hijab every day”—presenting Muslim women as objects meant to be violently raped.


The bottomline: We don’t think this story needs one.


Reading list

Indian Express has the most details of the latest arrests. Also in Indian Express: A detailed explainer on Github’s content policies. We looked at the long history of sexualising Muslim women in our previous explainer. We highly recommend reading Article 14’s deep dive into online sexual violence against Muslim women. You can also check out Alt News’ investigation into the creators of the Sulli Deals app.


Headlines that matter

A new variant in town?

Yesterday, social media was abuzz with news of a new variant detected in the south of France—identified as B.1.640.2. The trigger: A recently published study that found it in 12 cases back in November—including one person who recently returned from Cameroon. This version has 46 new mutations as well as 37 deletions. But despite all the buzz, this variant has been around for at least three months—and has only been classified as a “variant under monitoring” by the WHO. And there is no sign that it is more infectious or spreading rapidly. Indian Express has more details. Also read: This thread by epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding who is somewhat worried. 


Elizabeth Holmes is going to jail

The founder of Theranos was found guilty of engaging in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud investors—but was acquitted on charges of cheating patients. Each of the four charges she is convicted for carries a maximum of 20 years in prison, plus a fine of $250,000. The Stanford University dropout—who was once hailed as the next Steve Jobs—claimed to have developed a revolutionary blood test that was cheap, fast and could screen for 200 health conditions using a proprietary technology. Wall Street Journal and BuzzFeed News have more details.


A travel list for art lovers

The rankings for the ten best cities for aficionados of arts and culture are out. At the very top is Venice, of course—for its number of monuments and statues (94 per million people), as well as museums (183.3 per million people). It’s followed by Miami and Florence. In fact, there are four US cities in the top eight—including San Francisco, Santa Fe and Seattle. Check out the full list here. (Travel and Leisure)


In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • An ad starring Winnie-the-Screwed


A list of curious facts 

  • Venus and her 'Greek Foot'
  • The genes that control our facial features
  • The most expensive rice on the planet
  • A smart watch collar for your dog

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