Opinion

Revenge porn spikes during COVID-19 lockdown. Here’s everything you need to know

By Sofia Gallarate

May 21, 2020

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Human rights

May 21, 2020

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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.

Quarantine saw a spike in revenge porn

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.

A balance between human empathy and AI technology

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.

Revenge porn spikes during COVID-19 lockdown. Here’s everything you need to know


By Sofia Gallarate

May 21, 2020

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Chayn, the survivor-led platform that empowers women in abusive relationships

By Sofia Gallarate

Jun 24, 2019

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When I was growing up I had a friend who was a victim of domestic violencefirst from her father and later from her boyfriend. It seemed as though she could not escape this cycle of abuse that was inflicted on her by those with whom she shared a life. She was young and struggled to break up with the partner who was hurting her, and I, as her closest friend, often felt powerless and incapable of helping. Throughout the years, I met more women going through similar situations, and each time I felt like I didn’t have the tools to support them while they felt like there was no one they could reach out to for help.

Hera Hussain, founder of the open-source organisation Chayn, went through a similar experience: after seeing two friends struggling to flee their abusive marriages due to the lack of information and support networks, she founded Chayn in 2013, a global volunteer network addressing gender-based violence by creating intersectional survivor-led resources online. Since then, the organisation has served as an online guide for women on how to build domestic-abuse cases without a lawyer and to recognise and deal with the symptoms of a toxic relationship.

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“We’ve found that in most contexts Chayn operates in, the very architecture of information is biased because it is written from a male perspective. Basic information on divorce and child custody laws are missing in many countries, and if found, it is often riddled with bad information.” Hussain told Screen Shot when asked about the premise of the project. By using open-source knowledge, Chayn is filling a gapit now reaches and empowers vulnerable women who may not leave the house very often, but will likely have a smartphone with internet access.

The project provides guides translated in multiple languages, uploaded by domestic violence survivors and volunteers from across the world. It also uses GIFs, catchy graphics, podcasts, op-eds, and even a chatbot. “We help women find information to answer questions such as, ‘How do I get divorced?’, ‘What are my rights under the child custody laws in my country?’, ‘Am I depressed?’, ‘Do I have anxiety?’, and ‘Do I have PTSD?’ to questions like ‘How can I build up my CV?’.” Hussain explained to us that the aim of Chayn is to turn firsthand experiences into empowering knowledge that could eventually provide other abused women with psychological, cultural, and legal support. Building an inclusive technology is pivotal for Hussain, as it allows—regardless of education, class and race backgrounds—an increasing number of women to crowd-source knowledge on domestic violence and collaborate on the creation of a platform whose informative resources work under Creative Common (CC) licenses.

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Despite the various successes of the platform, which has reached over 200 thousand people since its start, not everyone agrees on the reliability of the volunteer-run network. According to Hussain, numerous people (mainly men), have criticised the project because it provides non-professional advice on sensitive and complex matters. But the positive response that Chayn is receiving clearly shows the shift in direction when it comes to the distribution of knowledge on gender-based violence worldwide. 70 percent of the 400 volunteers who are currently contributing to the organisation are survivors of violence themselves, thus confirming that the platform is generating measurable benefits to the people who sought help.

When asked about the potential of the internet and technology in supporting women, Hera is far from being naive but sees the potential of the web in giving power back to those who need it the most. “The online world presents women with both obstacles and new opportunities. As the gap in access decreases, women are demanding their place as both creators and consumers of tech. With the chance to reach a wide audience on a shoestring budget, tech enables women to understand what is happening to them and what to do about it. From finding sources of help to escape abuse, tackle mental health issues, find refuge to educate themselves and finding ways to earn money—there is no limit to how we can use the appropriate technology to enable women to become creators of their own fate.”

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As Hera told Screen Shot, Chayn is currently starting to build a salaried team and making the transition from a volunteer-run organisation to a hybrid model able to support the ambitions of its community. It is also about to launch another digital service called Soul Medicine, which will enable women to sign up to receive bite-sized versions of its content at a time that is safe and convenient for them.

Chayn recognises that in order to overcome the emotional attachment and the complex psychological dynamics that are inevitably linked to toxic and abusive relationshipsand to eventually secure a long-term separation from a violent partner—it is necessary to have access to legal and psychological knowledge, as well as a support system. As I witness this digital-based project grow I can’t help but realise how much a platform like Chayn could have helped me and my friend a few years ago, by showing her how to navigate a situation that was way too complex to overcome alone. For this reason and many more, I am thankful that Chayn is now out there.

Chayn, the survivor-led platform that empowers women in abusive relationships


By Sofia Gallarate

Jun 24, 2019

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