This article is a part of our September focus on Violence – you can access more content from this issue here
By Leona Hameed
The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) is one of the five organisations that make up Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board in the United States. In July this year, it teamed up with Facebook to produce this privacy guide aimed at survivors of domestic violence.
The guide focuses on protecting vulnerable Facebook users from “abusers, stalkers, and perpetrators” without compromising their ability to connect, through the website, with friends and family. Social media is an inescapable aspect of most people’s lives – “switching off” often isn’t a viable or advisable option. In situations of this kind of violence, maintaining relationships with friends and family members is important, and social media is a fundamental vehicle for this.
It is a refreshing initiative, and one that provides some of the most comprehensive guidelines to Facebook privacy settings. Facebook has been shadowed by persistent criticism over issues of privacy protection, and it is notorious for making changes to its privacy settings to the detriment of the user. For users who are interested in this aspect of the website’s history, the guide is worth a cursory read.
Undoubtedly, the means by which a perpetrator can seek out and harass their partner and victim has increased incalculably due to social media
It outlines three “lines of defense” for protecting privacy online. The first is about managing your friends. The second pertains to understanding your privacy settings, security settings and notifications. And the third is entitled “Be Safe”, demonstrating how to un-friend, block and report people who are harassing you online, as well as possible legal options if these fail to suffice.
Undoubtedly, the means by which a perpetrator can seek out and harass their partner and victim has increased incalculably due to social media. Jen Kingwell, Online Communications Officer at the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria (DVRCV) explains that the dangers women face online can include “having a current or ex-partner checking their emails and phone messages, impersonating them, or spreading lies about them to their social networks.” She also points out that “sending or threatening to publish ‘sexts’ to their social networks” is just one other way this abuse can occur. The ways in which victims are made more vulnerable by the advent of technology are endless.
When the Facebook and NNEDV initiative was first announced, many experts weighed in. In an interview with NBC News about the effectiveness of anonymity online, senior researcher at Microsoft Research Danah Boyd pointed out just one of many problems with finding a safe way to operate on social media. Friends of victims, she said, can unwittingly unveil critical details about the lives and locations of victims. They “may post an announcement of an event that, in effect, announces the location of a victim. And when victims’ comments on friends’ posts are made visible, this too can be used to glean information.”
Annette Gillespie is the CEO of the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service (WDVCS), and she explains that such technology without security can pose more immediate threats to victims. A client of WDVCS who was separated from a violent partner found that she was being stalked and threatened by him, Gillespie recalls. “He had hacked into her mobile phone and installed a tracking device app so he could follow her every move through GPS. She was terrified that he would eventually kill her.” A Facebook guide alone is not enough to protect vulnerable women from online threats, because while this example is extreme, it is certainly not uncommon.
On average, a woman dies every week as a consequence of domestic violence
When asked how prevalent domestic violence actually is in Victoria, Gillespie’s response is emphatic. “The statistics speak for themselves. Domestic violence is the leading cause of death, injury, disease and disability in Victorian women aged 15 to 44, more than other well-known risk factors including high-blood pressure, smoking and obesity.”
Gillespie’s organisation works with women impacted by domestic violence directly, and understands how rife it is even on a strategic level. “It is not unusual in Victoria for crisis accommodation and refuge beds to be full by midday across the state.”
According to the CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, Fiona McCormack, one in three Australian women will experience assault by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and one in five will experience some form of sexual assault..
“It costs the Australian economy 13.6 billion every year,” she adds, “and the Victorian economy 3.4 billion every year”. On average, a woman dies every week as a consequence of domestic violence.
McCormack, when asked about the ways domestic violence should be addressed most effectively, is clear that the solution begins with a strong stance in our communities against any kind of sexism or misogyny, wherever it may appear.
“I think sometimes when women’s groups speak out about the number of women in parliament or on boards the rates of pay, people think that we’re talking about equality, or parity just for parities sake, but what we know is that when we have a community with women who have all those things, where there is greater equality between women, violence against women is much less likely to occur.”
Overwhelmingly, she says, this is a gendered issue. One perpetrated by men against primarily women and girls. It is for this reason that McCormack believes communicating the root causes of domestic violence has been difficult.
“I think that people can feel really anxious about that, men and women. They can think that it’s somehow misrepresented or that it’s man-bashing, or that it’s saying that all men are abusive.” McCormack emphasises that this isn’t the case, and that until “we actually have the courage to look at this issue and admit that this is the dynamic, to look at why it is some men in our community choose to be violent” there will be no end to domestic violence in Australia.
Vig Geddes, an executive officer at the DVRCV, agrees that in order to truly address domestic violence effectively “we need to promote gender equality in our schools, we need to increase women’s participation in leadership in our community, we must work to ensure the economic equality of women.”
Some of the most severe criticism of Facebook, however, has been because of its refusal to create exactly this kind of sexism-free environment. Pages on Facebook dedicated solely to “slut-shaming”, rape jokes and other derogatory material seem to be endless. The company has been widely denounced for the double standard that was revealed when it responded to breastfeeding photos posted by mothers with immediate removal for “offensive content.”
In June of this year, when a 23-year-old Sydney-based psychology student supported a petition on Change.org that questioned why Tyler, the Creator was playing all-age shows she received unrelenting threats of rape and death from some of his 1.7 million Twitter followers for two weeks straight. When she reported individual tweets she was told by Twitter that the content did not breach guidelines.
Similarly, in response to the success of a campaign in the UK to put Jane Austen on the 10-pound note, British MP Stella Creasy received a deluge of rape and death threats over Twitter.
Recent high profile cases of cyber-abuse against women have forced Twitter to reconfigure its reporting mechanism for offensive or aggressive content. Changes were made in August this year that made reporting abuse easier, and increased the number of staff who police cyber abuse.
There are clearly a number of ways to look at the responsibility social media platforms have to victims of domestic violence, and the responsibility it has to the dialogue that allows domestic violence to flourish.
But social media doesn’t “exist in a vacuum,” Kingwell points out. How social networks “are used – and abused – both reflects and is informed by the cultural and socio-political landscape.”
There is no doubt, as far as Kingwell is concerned, that social media will make women more vulnerable if it is used to “humiliate, threaten and shame victims of sexual and domestic abuse.”
But the relationship between social media and domestic violence is more complicated than this. “Will it make women safer?” she ponders.
“It will if it is used to share information that assists women with violent partners, facilitates respectful discussion and debate and reflects community standards of equality and adherence to human rights.”
At the end of the day, Kingwell explains, “social media is simply a tool. How we use it is up to us.”