When you’re a joke on the internet

When a businessman’s wife clicked photos of him in 2015, sitting on a stool, shirtless and scrubbing a cauldron, little did he know that he would soon attain internet fame, of the kind that he would have liked to do without.

In the years since, the months of October and November are a time he dreads. The photograph is invariably resurrected as memes to drive home a point in the war of the genders, especially when the festival season of Diwali draws near.

The most popular of these memes show him scrubbing the cauldron, with his wife standing next to him, both looking into the camera, blank-faced.

The meme usually surfaces after Karva Chauth – an annual Hindu ritual observed by married women in northern India, who fast on the day for the long life of their husbands. The festival heralds in the Diwali season.

“When October comes, I usually wait for a week or two, keeping a tab on social media. I also call up a cyber security consultant to keep him ready to help me,” said the 40-year-old Delhi-based businessman, who did not wish to be identified.

In the past few years, many in the city have been victims of internet memes. Such memes can be images, videos or pieces of text that are lifted off the internet, edited to add satire and then circulated widely. While these memes end up distressing their innocent subjects, they can mean opportunity of work for several cyber security professionals whom many of the “victims” approach for help.

Some of these consultants work for a fee, but several others do it for free – the incentive being to get more stable work as consultants associated with government agencies, private institutes, schools and companies, by adding such isolated cases in their portfolio.

In the Delhi businessman’s case, there could be a reason why the internet meme resurfaces around the same time each year. It is the superimposed text at the bottom of the photograph that roughly translates to: “Karwa Chauth is over and husbands should get back to doing household chores”, the cyber security consultant who handled the case said.

“When the meme was viral on social media, it was noticed that most internet users shared it to take a jibe at married couples known to them. For strangers, this could be just another harmless joke. But it is not so for the [concerned] couple,” said the consultant, who also did not wish to be identified.

BECOMING A MEME

For the businessman, the story began in 2015 when his wife had shared the original photograph on one of her social media accounts and someone saved a copy of it offline, the consultant said.

He further said, “When the couple noticed that the photograph was being shared online in their friend circles, they pulled down the original picture only to realise that the damage was done. When it went viral, the family first waited for the circulation of the meme to wane on its own and it took a few months for that to happen. But the meme resurfaced and later became an annual affair. Soon, it was being shared by strangers. That is when they asked for help.”

The 30-year-old consultant who handled the businessman’s case is a computer engineer who stepped into the cyber security profession around five years ago, initially helping cyber wings of a few state police forces. He went on to start his own agency and now has offices in Delhi and Noida.

“This year, the meme has not been spotted so far, bit I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” the businessman said.

Kislay Chaudhary, a Delhi-based cyber security expert, said, “A large part of the problem usually gets solved if one manages to get rid of all traces of a meme from social media platforms, though there can be nearly infinite copies of it on random websites. Those have to be tackled with regular follow-ups.”

Chaudhary further said that most internet memes often have a context which can be political, cultural or something related to a major sports event or anything that trends on social media. Hence, memes making comebacks on social media is quite common.

For instance, he recalled, there’s this one meme that often resurfaces whenever there is some major economic or political development that has to be criticised by internet users.

The meme is the photograph of a young person posing near a stream which is juxtaposed with a swimsuit model, and a text that reads “Expectation vs Reality”. But not all memes are “trouble stories” Chaudhary said, referring to the recent case of Vipin Sahu.

Sahu, a 24-year-old entrepreneur from Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district, is now a popular face on the internet and television. Sahu had gone paragliding in Himachal Pradesh but, once up in the air, fear got the better of him, Sahu said.

In a video, which he had recorded with a selfie stick and was uploaded on YouTube by his younger brother, Sahu could be seen and heard pleading for help, cussing at the top of his lungs and even fervently offering a few extra bucks to the trainer for a quick landing.

Screenshots of the video later became a source of internet memes, and a quick Google search with the keywords ‘paragliding meme’ now generates hundreds of them. The variations of the memes are wide – used as political satire to Bollywood puns. One of Sahu’s favourite pass time these days is to scroll through them. “What’s the harm in being a meme if that can make people laugh? But I understand that people can have bad meme experiences too,” he said.

REVENGE MEMES

In 2017, a 16-year-old girl of a private school in Delhi was wrongfully declared the class topper. Once the error came to notice, someone morphed one of her pictures, sourced from her social media account, added long canines to her lips and uploaded the edited image on a social media group in which students and former students of the private school were members.

“In the cropped version of the photograph, which later got circulated as meme, the girl could be seen attending a function in her school uniform,” Vicky Shah, the cyber security expert engaged in the case, said.

Although the image was taken down from her social media account soon after the consultant was roped in, copies of it were saved offline and the picture later became a meme, said Mumbai-based Shah, who is also a lawyer.

“It qualifies as a case of revenge meme. At one point, the meme would surface easily in search engines with the user typing some predictable keywords. It soon went viral on social media, being shared by people who did not even know the girl or the story behind the photograph in the first place. It took us a few months to minimise the digital footprints. Now it doesn’t appear easily on search engines,” Shah said.

Another case of revenge meme is that of a 27-year-old executive employed in an IT company in Delhi-NCR.

“It took place when the employee got a promotion in 2018. A colleague of his morphed a picture of him by superimposing the image of the tongue of a dog hanging out,” the cyber security consultant who handled the case said.

The consultant said, “The picture was taken down soon after it was noticed by my client but the image had by then become a meme. In his case, the meme was a quick visual representation to just pull someone’s leg, calling him or her a sycophant. The case now needs regular follow-ups to ensure sources which would re-generate are weeded out.”

The private cyber security experts who Hindustan Times spoke with say they have dealt with anything between 20 and 100 meme cases in the past four years — most of them cases of “revenge memes”. The number of cases, they say, has increased steadily over the years.

Rakshit Tandon, a cyber security consultant who works with several schools in Delhi-NCR in the field of cyber hygiene, said, “Revenge memes are common on pages operated by schoolchildren. Most such cases amount to cyber bullying. The earlier they get reported, the better it is. The viral nature of such memes may become difficult to control if they find a way out of those closed social media groups.”

“A stranger who comes across such memes may be indifferent to them, but that may not be so for the people in those memes or their relatives and friends. Such memes can cause great psychological damage,” Delhi-based Tandon said.

DELETING DIGITAL FOOTPRINTS

Shah described the process of deleting digital footprints of a problematic meme as “difficult”.

He said, “One has to start with reporting abuse and do that at a mass level on every social media platform, e-mails are sent to the companies owning these platforms. But what if the meme is re-generated at a pace faster than the rate at which it is reported and deleted?”

Identification of digital footprints and their replacement, Shah said, is the key. There are applications, he pointed out, which can be used to identify traces of an image across websites.

“Once the identification is done, take note of keywords with copies of the photo available on the internet. Keep uploading other photographs on a mass scale with the same keywords, till the search engine results with the same keywords are altered,” Shah said.

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