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Updated 22 Sep, 2017 03:20pm
Is Sarahah internet’s new self-esteem metre?

Barely three months ago, no one had heard of the Sarahah app but now it seems that everyone is talking about it; the app recently passed the ‘drive-a-teen-to-suicide’ test with flying colours.

Sarahah is an anonymous messaging app. Once a user registers, they receive a customised link that they can share with their friends; anyone who has link can send them anonymous messages. The recipient has no way of knowing who posted the message and nor can they respond to it. Sarahah was originally a website created by the Saudi Arabian developer, Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, and its primary purpose was to allow employees to post anonymous feedback about their employers; it was a whistleblower of sorts.

Later on, Tawfiq thought that this concept could be used by friends and acquaintances to give feedback to each other anonymously. While popular in the Middle East and Africa, a little more was needed for it to take off in the West. On June 13, the Sarahah app was released on the Apple and Google Play Stores; it soon became one of the top three free apps on both platforms. This surge in popularity was aided by the app’s Snapchat integration, which made it far easier for teens to use.

Anonymous users can be trouble, but we never learn. Soon enough, Sarahah became a tool for cyber bullying and harassment. Sarahah calls their users ‘honest people’. The problem is, anyone allowed anonymity finds it easy to be honest, often brutally so. One only needs to take a look at comments on platforms such as YouTube to gauge how demeaning, misogynistic, and downright diabolical internet users can be.

Predictably, Sarahah started harmlessly enough but now it is a major tool for harassment based on race, religion and even gender.

Sarahah has another problem: its mobile app uploads users’ address book to the internet. Ultimately, this can allow one to deduce the sender of a particular message, and the whole promise of anonymity can fall apart.

Predictably, Sarahah started harmlessly enough but now it is a major tool for harassment based on race, religion and even gender. Originating in Saudi Arabia, the app has gained popularity worldwide and is doing particularly well in India. People have received death and rape threats over it and there is no way of knowing if this is trolling or the real deal.

A 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 spoke about her experience and said, “I’m horrified. And I’d like people to not tell me it was my fault for downloading the app.”

Apparently, the notoriety of the app has not gone unnoticed by the founder, who says the app has taken several precautions against cyber bullying. It now has a feature that filters keywords and prevents certain messages from being sent; it also added a tool to allow users to block accounts.

"We're taking this as a serious issue, and focused on [building] new features," he says. "As of August 2017, the app has more than 62 million users...we're getting close – day by day – to one billion messages sent," Tawfiq told CNN Tech.

If there is a takeaway from this situation, it is this: the internet cannot be regulated. Here is the least we can do to avoid getting embroiled in the seedy underbelly of humanity:

  1. Carefully go through the privacy settings of an app, its online reputation, and most importantly, the kind of content the service invites, before you decide to join it.

  2. Not every new app, platform, fad or website is worth joining.

  3. Use a VPN if possible, so that even if a service tries to mine your data and secretly sell it, it can be prevented.

  4. Monitor the apps your children are using and forbid their use based on factors discussed above.

Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night.