Over the weekend, the story broke that Dominic Cummings, senior advisor to the Prime Minister and architect of the Vote Leave campaign, had broken government advice and travelled to his parents’ house in County Durham in order to isolate with his wife.
He claims that he did so in order to ensure his young child would have adequate care, in case both he and his wife became incapacitated from coronavirus; his wife was showing symptoms before they left London, although not as they left the city, and it was later disclosed that Cummings also came down with the virus.
The Prime Minister and his Cabinet quickly leapt to Cummings’ defence, saying that he was prioritising the safety of his child and, therefore, broke no rules or laws. However, no such specific exemption existed in the coronavirus legislation at the time; it was, according to the government, up to interpretation.
After a flurry of tweets and statements—“caring for your child is not a crime” was the buzz phrase parroted by senior Tories—the Sunday Mirror and Observer published allegations that Cummings had visited Barnard Castle, situated 30 miles from Durham, where he was supposed to be isolating. No evidence has been presented to refute these claims, with the government instead taking the unprecedented move to deny them outright. A police investigation now seems to be underway, which will either fully exonerate or completely humiliate the entire government.
Either way, the government’s chosen stance—that Cummings was doing what any good parent would do for their child—will inevitably cause difficulties in the next month, when there will be a big push to reopen schools, despite warnings from doctors and teaching unions alike. If Cummings can flout guidelines to protect his child, why can’t every parent?
At the time of writing, over twenty Tory MPs, numerous Anglican bishops from across the country and journalists from across the political spectrum have called on Cummings to resign, or for Johnson to fire him.
This could have been a non-story if Johnson had had the backbone to immediately dismiss his aide. After all, both government scientific advisor, Neil Ferguson, and Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, resigned almost immediately after being found to have broken lockdown rules; and both did so without the threat of actively spreading the virus. Instead, the very integrity of the government has come under attack.
At a time when a lack of trust will cost lives, the Tories are playing with fire. Almost every tweet from official accounts (10 Downing Street or the Cabinet Office) is being relentlessly mocked. After Johnson’s Sunday press briefing, the Civil Service’s primary Twitter account posted a now-infamous tweet that was swiftly deleted but shall not be forgotten: “Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters.”
People are saying that Cummings must stay because the Prime Minister relies on him to lead—but surely, if you rely so badly on appointed advisors, you are not fit to run a country during an unprecedented crisis. Similarly, others are claiming that Cummings is hanging on because he knows where the proverbial bodies are buried, which could make the coming weeks particularly fascinating.
The government is going as far as to purge social media accounts of old slogans, specifically those that could now be deemed damaging, such as: “If one person breaks the rules, we will all suffer,” and, “Breaking the rules is breaking the law.” Dominic Cummings has always believed that he is above the rule of law; perhaps now he will finally face the music.
Let the record show that this was the week Johnson went full-blown Trump: he has an Attorney General who prioritises political affiliation over the rule of law; he is prepared to gaslight the whole nation, spouting nonsensical hypocrisy, and when staunchly right-wing press have criticised his actions, his supporters have denounced this as left-wing propaganda.
This whole debacle has been heartbreaking. For the first time ever, I emailed my MP to express my outrage. Rarely, if ever, have I been so ashamed by the actions of my government. After Johnson’s Sunday briefing, I was practically shaking with rage—and I know I am far from being the only one. Cumming’s Monday statement did nothing to alleviate pressure; if anything, he dug himself deeper into a hole.
Cummings’ defence on Monday evening amounted to doing the best for his child by utilising loopholes most were unaware of, without being certain either he or his wife had coronavirus. He claims that he went back to work after his wife presented symptoms. If everyone were to accommodate such uncertainties into their approach to lockdown, things could be even worse—while it is worth noting that the UK nonetheless has the worst death toll in Europe.
The pique came as Cummings explained that his 30-mile (each way) trip to Barnard Castle was to “test his eyesight,” before making the 260-mile trip back to London. “On the point about eyesight, I’m finding I have to wear spectacles for the first time in years,” said Johnson, “so I’m inclined to think that’s very, very plausible.” Because of my own optical prescription, I am required to wear glasses or contact lenses whenever I drive; if I don’t, this is a simple and standard breach of vehicular law. The same, apparently, does not apply to senior advisors to the government.
What Cummings did must surely be illegal with or without lockdown restrictions. Moreover, he was happy to take his child on this peculiar trip, when he was unsure of his own ability to drive, bringing into question his central defence of “doing the best for his child.”
In trying to do the complete opposite, the UK government made it very clear that it is one set of rules for BoJo and his mates, and another set for the rest of us. As far as I can tell, this is indefensible, yet the government is happy to give it a go. What are they protecting? What is more vital than the lives of the public? Only time will tell.
Video and phone sex, sexting, sending nude pictures, having Zoom orgies, streaming porn, you name it, we’ve probably all done it (or some of it). Months spent in forced isolation have brought what we call ‘internet sex’ to a whole new level. But as you should know by now, the internet is not all good. While most of us were enjoying sexy talk safely, since 23 March the number of people contacting the Revenge Porn Helpline—a service funded by the UK government in order to help victims of intimate image abuse—doubled. The quarantine hasn’t only affected the number of domestic violence cases, it has also seen a surge in online sex-related harassment.
According to Clare McGlynn, a law professor at Durham University interviewed by the BBC for the article Coronavirus: ‘Revenge porn’ surge hits helpline, the overuse of social media mixed with the psychological stress brought by the COVID-19 pandemic might have played an important role in triggering abusive behaviours in subjects already at risk. This resulted in the rise in the circulation of revenge porn.
Revenge porn is a way for partners or ex-partners to impose control over someone; to threaten and shame their victims without physical involvement. The consequences of non-consensual sharing of intimate pictures or videos online can be overwhelming for the victim—in a split second, thousands of people could watch it and comment on it. Beyond the emotional and psychological effects of having to face such public exposure of an otherwise intimate image or video, the victim is then left to battle the removal of the content from the internet as soon as possible, which isn’t always easy, as we’ve learnt from the Fappening scandal.
During the first month of lockdown, over 200 cases were opened by the Revenge Porn Helpline, a disturbing new record number since revenge porn finally became a criminal offence in the UK in 2015. Today, perpetrators risk a maximum punishment of up to two years in prison, and on 6 May it was announced that starting this summer, threatening to publish intimate visual content might also be considered a criminal offence. This would mark a crucial step in the fight against online sexual abuse.
While law enforcement continuously adapts the justice system in response to this somewhat recent form of abuse, online platforms that host revenge porn are equally creating stricter regulations to help contain this toxic phenomenon.
Revenge nudes circulate widely on Facebook, 4chan, Telegram channels and other websites solely dedicated to the sharing of non-consensual intimate imagery. In response, victims and activists are calling out the platforms’ civic responsibility to make sure the issue is fronted from all sides. For instance, after facing heavy pressure from its users, Facebook formed a team of approximately 25 people who work on stopping the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.
With around half a million reports filed a month, the team has two main goals: actively working to remove the content reported by users and finding potential harming images the second they are uploaded onto the platform.
AI has been used by social media platforms to aid in the identification of hate speech, violent content, fake news and harmful propaganda, and it’s no different with revenge porn. Some believe that AI could recognise revenge porn if it is first exposed to a wide collection of data that contains nude pictures accompanied by sentences such as “look at this” and denigrating emojis in order to perfect its recognition process.
But many remain sceptical about AI’s ability to identify and understand the revengeful context behind the sharing of an intimate image—an attribute that has been classified so far as intrinsic to human empathy. Speaking to NBC News about Facebook’s attempts to ban revenge porn from its platform, Katelyn Bowden, founder of BADASS (Battling Against Demeaning and Abusive Selfie Sharing), a Facebook victim advocacy group she launched after being a victim of revenge porn herself, said: “I believe they are taking it seriously, but they are looking for a technical solution to a human problem.”
Bowden was invited by Facebook as a consultant in order to help the social media platform tackle its growing problem. The truth is, a team of 25 reviewers is not able to do the job alone, and neither can AI without the support of human moderators, who, according to Bowden, would have to become a much larger team in order to truly have the capacity to respond to the surge in revenge porn on the platform.
The breach of sexual privacy and the non-consensual circulation of intimate content create an unbearable sense of emotional distress and shame for its victims. Responsiveness and a better functioning support from both law enforcement and the platforms hosting this sort of content are strongly needed and could, at least, help victims regain control over something that feels out of their hands. Furthermore, the spread of revenge porn should not be exclusively tackled through filtering strategies; sex education and conversations around consent should be at the top of the prevention agenda.