An Indian university has been shut for a week after massive protests broke out over allegations that a female student secretly filmed other women in a hostel bathroom.
Thousands of students at Chandigarh University, a privately-run institution in the northern state of Punjab, protested on Sunday after rumours began spreading – both at the university and online – that several videos of women bathing had been posted on the internet without their knowledge. According to several tweets, these had been filmed by the woman and shared with her boyfriend.
Both the university and the Punjab police have denied this. Police officials said on Sunday that they have only found videos of the woman on her phone. Still, she, her boyfriend and another man have since been arrested on charges that include sharing private photos of others without their consent.
“The investigation is underway, and the accused’s phone has been sent for forensic examination,” said Rupinder Bhatti, a senior Punjab police official who heads a special investigation team looking into the case.
Ms Bhatti also denied a newspaper report which cited anonymous police officials who said that a second video, which appeared to be of another girl, had been found on the woman’s phone.
After the administration and police accepted some of their demands, the students ended their protest late on Sunday. But it is still a trending topic online, where it has kickstarted a whirlwind of misinformation.
Pawan Duggal, the cyber law expert, says that the case illustrates the challenges ahead for universities and other stakeholders regarding online misinformation.
“There needs to be a practical approach – closing universities is no solution,” he says.
What exactly happened?
The protests, which began late on Saturday, intensified the next day, taking the country by surprise. The story dominated the news cycle and social media conversations on Sunday.
The BBC spoke to five female students at the university – four spoke on condition of anonymity – to try and piece together the details.
One of them, Shikha (name changed on request), said she was in her dormitory on Saturday evening when she saw a group of students running outside. Suddenly, her friend barged in, visibly panicked, saying that she had heard that a student had taken her life after her video was uploaded online.
When they ran downstairs to check, Shikha says she saw “chaos like never before” – some girls were screaming while the crowd kept getting bigger.
Shikha says another friend told her that “a fresher” at a neighbouring hostel had filmed some students while bathing, triggering the protests.
The university said in a statement: “[There have] been no videos found of any students which are objectionable except a personal video shot by a girl which was shared by herself to her boyfriend.”
But Shikha and the other four students told the BBC that they still think the university and the police were trying to “cover-up” the crime.
They alleged that the accused had filmed other students – but none of them has seen these videos or personally knows anyone who seems to have been filmed.
Ms Bhatti told the BBC that the arrested woman has denied filming anyone else and reiterated that they hadn’t found evidence of any other videos yet. The BBC has also emailed questions to the university’s administration but hasn’t received a response yet.
What happened online?
While the protests were going on, rumours began spreading online.
Several tweets claimed that some students had tried to take their lives, believing their privacy had been compromised – some also shared a video of an unidentified girl being lifted into an ambulance to back this point.
But the university and the police have denied this, with the latter saying one girl had collapsed due to an “anxiety attack”.
On Twitter, some users requested others not to forward the alleged videos of the girls if they received them – however, no one has confirmed yet that they have seen these clips. They haven’t surfaced on social media so far, either.
Many users have also shared videos of the woman alleged to have shot the videos – some show the hostel’s warden scolding her, while in others, she is being confronted by other hostel residents.
Mr Duggal pointed out how difficult it is to contain rumours online.
“Right now, India is seeing a new phenomenon where more and more people have jumped on the digital bandwagon,” he says, adding that people have shared personal data online “without understanding the privacy ramifications”.