Snapchat's face-mapping filters empower sexual assault survivors to tell their own stories

While most people who use Snapchat use it to exchange selfies or pictures of food and other minutiae of their daily life, a journalist in India has found a more serious and meaningful application of the popular social tool.

Journalist in India masks women's identities through Snapchat filters

Snapchat filters that conceal a user's face have allowed women in India to give firsthand accounts of their experiences with sexual assault. (Facebook)

While most people who use Snapchat use it to exchange selfies or pictures of food and other minutiae of their daily life, a journalist in India has found a more serious and meaningful application of the social tool. 

One of the most popular Snapchat features these days is a face-mapping filter that allows users to choose from a variety of virtual masks that are superimposed on top of their facial features when they take a photo or video.

The filters are usually little more than a goofy way to share content on the social platform, but for Yusuf Omar, a mobile editor with the Hindustan Times, they seemed like an ideal way to conceal the identity of young survivors of sexual assault, whom in India cannot be identified and are often vilified.

Omar, 27, got the idea last month while covering the Climb Against Sexual Abuse, a hike up the Chamundi Hills in Mysore, India. He filmed the event on his mobile phone but wanted to ensure the young women he was interviewing had an opportunity to share their stories while remaining anonymous. 

He gave the women his phone and taught them how to use Snapchat.

"I initially built a bond with them, using the funny filters on myself first and then with them," Omar said. "I think that warmed them up.

"On a very basic level, the sexual abuse survivors were empowered to make a decision as to which filters they were going to use to cover their face. And that also gave them a sense that they could trust me as a filmmaker."

'Eyes are the window to the soul'

Although the young women were not familiar with Snapchat, they did know how to take selfies and videos, which is the primary function of the app. 

Once the girls felt comfortable, Omar said, he gave them his phone and walked away.

It wasn't like I was waving a big broadcast camera in their face … It was very intimate ... I wasn't even part of that process.- Yusuf Omar, journalist for Hindustan Times

"It wasn't like I was waving a big broadcast camera in their face and lights and a tripod and a boom mic asking them in the most intimidating way to share the most private events of ... their entire life," Omar said.

"It was very intimate ... I wasn't even part of that process."

In the resulting videos, the women, their faces disguised using the Snapchat filter of a fire-breathing dragon for maximal face coverage, are seen relaying their personal experiences of sexual assault. 

"I was five years old when it happened," says one women in the video.

"They tortured me at home and never let me go out," says another.

Omar first posted the videos on his Snapchat story and later on the Hindustan Times Facebook page.

For the journalist, one of the most striking effects of the filter is the enlarging of the women's eyes. 

"I think that is important because they always say that the eyes are the window to the soul, right?" Omar said. 

"It almost, in some kind of ironic way, humanizes the story."

Changing the culture of victim-blaming 

Humanizing the stories of sexual assault survivors is something that does not happen often in India. 

A victim-blaming mentality is common among some prominent politicians and in some news media.

In 2014, Asha Mirje, leader of the National Congress Party, said that sexual assaults occur because of a "woman's clothes, her behaviour and her being in inappropriate places."

In its coverage of the 2015 gang rape of a woman in Bangalore, The Hindu newspaper ran the headline,"She Didn't Heed Friend's Advice," insinuating that the rape was the victim's fault. 

Yusuf Omar, a digital journalist with the Hindustan Times, often uses just his mobile phone to create documentaries and video stories. (Yusuf Omar)

Another politician, Botsa Satyanarayana, blamed the victim of the notorious 2012 Delhi bus gang rape

"The woman should have thought twice before boarding the suspicious private bus that night," he said. "Though the incident was condemnable, she should also have behaved keeping in mind the situation."

Omar says his Snapchat interview method is one way to shift the narrative back to the survivors so they can share their experiences without being afraid.

The resulting videos end up being "far more personal" than conventional interviews, Omar said.

Using Snapchat as a platform to interview survivors also creates an overall sense of empathy and understanding among those who view the videos, he said. 

"Everybody knows these filters. They are familiar with the process," said Omar. "It allows audiences to relate to the sexual abuse survivors, as well." 

Face-mapping security 

Although some filters appear to do a good job of concealing identities, there is uncertainty around how secure they actually are and if they can be removed to reveal the face behind the virtual mask.

"I absolutely wouldn't have any expertise in whether people can or can't cut behind the filters and see layers," Omar said. 

Omar showed several women in India how to use the filters and helped them tell their stories. He said one of the most striking effects was the way in which the filter exaggerates certain features and allows emotion to be conveyed through the eyes. (Facebook)

"Generally, to have built-in layers would require an immensely big file," he said. And Snapchat image and video files are tiny.

Snapchat did not respond to CBC's request for an interview.

On its website, the company mentions that it uses an "object recognition" algorithm, which is used to "understand the general nature of things that appear in an image."

Snapchat says this algorithm is not the same as facial recognition and that the filters "are used to recognize faces in general, (but) they can't recognize a specific face."

'A really powerful tool'

The sexual assault story was not the first time that Omar used a mobile phone and Snapchat in his reporting. 

Last year, he filmed the Climb Against Sexual Abuse in South Africa using his iPhone

Storytelling through Snapchat filters

5 years ago
Indian journalist Yusuf Omar talks about how he uses Snapchat’s face-mapping filters to tell powerful stories. 0:19

"I think mobile journalism tells sensitive stories with more dignity than any other camera that you could carry," he said. "It's far less imposing, it's far more discreet, it's far more intimate, and people often forget it's even there."

Omar has even done an entire undercover investigative story on drug dealing in the Punjab using only Snapchat. For him, the app is a not just a simple social platform; it is a way to create content with meaning.

"Snapchat is often looked at in a very juvenile manner, [but] behind that is actually a really powerful tool," he said.


Simran Singh is multimedia journalist based in Vancouver. She is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism with an interest in culture, society and politics and is completing a summer internship with CBC News.