Reviewing The Romance: Dating Apps Fighting Digital Abuse

The world of online dating has no second chances, quite literally

It is interesting to witness how virtual dating and online dating apps are slowly becoming an accepted norm in India. 2020 altered our lives in unexpected ways, redefining dating rules as single Indians navigated virtual and socially distanced dating etiquettes, and different approaches to relationships evolved in this new environment. The way that we communicate with one another has truly changed forever. 

There has also been a fast and consistent growth in the online dating platforms for a few years now and the pandemic has only thickened its popularity. Whether it is Bumble reaching 100 million users or TrulyMadly’s overall revenue surging by 4x in past year, the online space made sure to keep the romance alive, despite the testing times.

“Covid-19 definitely brought in a sense of isolation among young individuals as social interactions were curtailed owing to a remote life. While we were seeing significant spikes in signups and revenues even months before Covid-19, in the first two-weeks of lockdown we saw the volume surge by nearly 30%, which is generally season during the Christmas and New Year holiday season,” shares Snehil Khanor, Co-Founder & CEO, TrulyMadly.

Talking of a few trends, Samarpita Samaddar, Communications Director, Bumble India adds, “Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve seen a surge in virtual dating on Bumble. We saw a 38% increase in Video Calls and Voice Chats on Bumble since March 2020. We observed a rise in the use of Video Calls and Voice Chats with people spending roughly 20 mins on average on Video Calls or Voice Chats on Bumble in India. We’ve observed an increase in the volume of messages exchanged and video chats initiated, showing us that our community is looking for means to connect socially during this time.”

Shahzeen Shivdasani, Relationship Expert & Author agrees that people are taking the time to actually make meaningful connections now. "Pre -Covid, a lot of people used these platforms to find quick physical bonds, which is no secret. Now, the latest trend is actually getting to know someone and being more open to letting a relationship grow. People are also being very creative with their video dates due to the pandemic, and I feel these innovative dates are truly bringing people closer together as they form more of an emotional bond," she observes.

Rise In Digital Abuse

As a natural consequence, there has been an evident rise in women facing issues of cyberstalking, bullying, and harassment on these dating platforms. Digital abuse has many of the same behaviours as that of offline abuse- coercive, controlling, degrading or embarrassing. 

In a recent survey by Bumble, it was found that 83% of women in India experience online harassment of some kind, and 1 in 3 women experience it weekly. Further, about 70% women that such instances have increased since the lockdown. 

It wouldn't be wrong to call this phenomenon a full-blown digital pandemic in itself. Experts suggest that while such abuses were prevalent before the Covid era too, it has only become more potent and horrific post lockdown, across the globe. 

Battling The Bully 

Demonstrating commitment to create safer and healthy relationships on dating platforms, the chances of high-intent dating apps facing such problem is relatively lower, as compared to free casual dating apps or social media apps. The former ones primarily reply to the users reporting abuse and take prompt action. Through their marketing efforts, they create awareness and instructions about behaviours that are not accepted. 

These platforms also deploy Machine Learning Algo to pre-emptively flag "Bad Actor" profiles and put them in a Moderation Queue, where a team of moderators verify their profiles and ban them permanently if they are found violating the community guidelines. 

“The profile of dating apps in India ranges from the ‘casual hook-up enabler’ to the ‘serious about helping you find your soul mate’—mirroring the variety of people they cater to. Protecting users from abuse is obviously important for all the apps from both a moral and business standpoint. Some apps, however, are inherently positioned and designed to be safer though,” believes Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, 82.5 Communications

With users valuing committed relationships and rediscovering the joy of getting to know each other before meeting in person, online dating platforms are diligently working towards proffering a safe environment, with stringent moderation techniques. 

Asserting zero-tolerance policy for cyberstalking, bullying and harassments of any kind, Able Joseph, Founder and CEO, Aisle mentions, “If a user is reported by multiple users, their account is automatically suspended until we review the requests. Repeated offenders, which is a rare sight, are permanently banned from the platform. Our users can choose to display only their first name on their profiles. We also have a block and report feature on the app.”

He further adds that most Aisle users have a purpose, as the intent of most users are established. “We do not have the level of inappropriate behavior like casual dating apps. Our algorithms can flag unexpected usage behaviour, they get reviewed separately. If a user is found to not abide by our terms of use, they are usually banned,” he says.

Khanor too emphasis how their platform is ensuring safety for its users and curating a community of singles looking for a real compatible partners. For this, they are using initiatives like Stringent moderation and Trust Score to verify users.“Our gatekeeper Algo - ChowkAIdaar rejects more than 40% of the users who apply to become a member on TrulyMadly. On top of that, every profile on TM has a Trust Score that varies from 0 to 100%, where 30% is the minimum.

To increase their trust score, users can link their social profiles, verify their passport or Aadhaar ID or do a selfie verification where we run a facial recognition scan on their face in real-time and then ensure all the photos that they have uploaded are theirs only,” he explains. 

Bumble also uses artificial-intelligence programs to scan for violations like hate speech, even when no users report the behavior. For example, the AI recognizes at least 700 “stop words” (including dozens of racial slurs) to proactively block bad actors. “Each time a violation is reported by the algorithm, it gets referred to a team of human moderators who decide whether the behavior merits blocking. 

As a platform that’s committed to helping people create safe and healthy relationships, Bumble has a zero-tolerance policy for fake profiles. In addition to our robust set of safety features, it has an anti-spam team to proactively detect and flag fake profiles within the app,” shares Samaddar.

In response to safety concerns, as part of Bumble’s recent Stand for Safety initiative, they released a first-of-a-kind safety guide, in partnership with Safecity, Red Dot Foundation's flagship public safety platform, to empower women in India with crucial information to recognise, prevent and combat rising digital abuse and harassment.

From a more creative lens, Chattopadhyay suggests that all the apps must send out the message that even a casual encounter is not an invitation for abuse. “To that end, apps have introduced features like blurring of nude photos—letting the recipient unblur it only if they wish to. While measures against cat fishing, channels for reporting abusers and perhaps even panic buttons as in ride sharing apps can help make dating apps safer, communication too must play a significant role in making all types of modern love safer,” he adds. 

Allaying apprehensions and ensuring a safe dating environment, experts believe high-intent dating will continue to be the preferred choice for Indians as they want serious relationships and keep a partner at the center of their life decisions. Further, they sense a higher adoption, as millennials as well as Gen-Zs are shunning concerns associated with dating apps and are embracing it more confidently, especially if they want to find a compatible life partner and not just a hookup. Also, surge in Tier-2 & 3 city users will continue, not just in terms of users but also in terms of revenue.