While anonymously perpetrated online abuse is common and frequently in the news, the reality is that in many cases, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows, and often, the harassment is a tactic of ongoing abuse. These perpetrators often pose serious dangers to victims in “real” life, a fact that is often minimized by a more prevalent stranger-danger media narrative. In an Office for Victims of Violence (OVC) survey, “A Glimpse from the Field,” conducted by the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), 97 percent of victim service providers surveyed say they work with survivors who were abused, harassed, or stalked by their abusers through the use of technology.
Technology is a tool that abusers use to facilitate harassment, control, and abuse. In the context of domestic violence and sexual assault, online harassment and crimes are part of a larger system of abuse. The abuser or rapist want power and control over the victim (either through physical control, fear, or isolation) and to force her or him into doing what the perpetrator wants. Through technology, perpetrators monitor survivors’ activities, control what the survivor can or can’t do, or harass the survivor regularly and in a variety of ways.
Technology, a Tool for Abusers
Abusers harass and control victims in four main ways:
(1) Disrupting the victim’s use of technology, such as hacking into a victim’s online account and locking them out of it or forbidding them from using their technology devices.
(2) Impersonating the survivor, in which the abuser creates accounts on porn or dating sites or even on mainstream social media, pretending to be the survivor in order to harass the victim or her/his friends and family.
(3) Sending harassing messages repeatedly through texts, messaging applications, or email.
(4) Monitoring and tracking a victim through various devices or spying tools, such as monitoring computer or cell phone software, hidden cameras, GPS, etc.
Abusers will also target friends and family, including, often, their own children. In the survey, 66 percent of programs reported that abusers monitor children’s social networks or other accounts, and 60 percent of programs reported that abusers have spied on the survivor through the children’s technology. Even if survivors ensure that their social media and other accounts are secure and their privacy settings are high, abusers can still sometimes gain information through others to stalk and harass.
Holding Abusers Accountable
Many abusers think they can get away with their abuse because the technology allows them to be anonymous or that there are no laws preventing them from doing what they are doing. In some cases, it is true that laws are too narrowly written to apply to abusers’ specific misuse of technology. Laws need to be created or expanded and penalties need to be increased. However, in the majority of cases, existing laws, such as computer crimes, eavesdropping, and privacy, are sufficient to hold abusers accountable. However, they are often not applied thoroughly and consistently. Law enforcement and prosecutors need to understand how a particular technology is being misused and know which laws are being broken in the context of new media and tech.
The hard reality is that many technology abuse situations are not taken very seriously, and the abuse is minimized. Survivors often hear “We just can’t prove it.” In some cases that might be true. In most cases, however, there will be a digital trail and other pieces of evidence, even offline, of the abusers’ behavior. Abusers don’t limit their abuse to only a few angry rant-filled posts on Facebook. In cases involving intimate partners, the abuser may also be monitoring the victim’s devices, hacking into their online accounts, or impersonating the victim online—all in addition to traditional tactics of abuse
As a solution, survivors are often told to get rid of their technology, change their phone numbers or email accounts, or get off social media. Depending on what’s going on, these may be helpful safety strategies, but they are not solutions to abuse. Taking away the tool does not stop those behaviors. Abusers will simply find another way. In fact, abusers may escalate their behaviors and move their tactics offline, which can be a serious safety issue. Taking technology away from survivors also further isolates them and prevents them from accessing help when needed. Survivors should not have to change their lives to accommodate someone else’s harassment and abusive control. Even though technology is involved, abuse, stalking, and rape are still crimes and survivors need to know that their cases will be taken seriously. Until abusers are consistently held accountable for these tactics and crimes, survivors will continue to be victimized. Tech companies, law enforcement agencies, anti-violence advocates, and survivors need to be trained and equipped.
The Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence works to educate everyone on how technology is misused in the context of intimate partner violence. The project was established to look at how perpetrators misuse technology, how survivors can use technology safely and strategically, how victim service providers should think through privacy and security issues when they use technology, and how technology and related policies can impact and enhance consumers’ (including survivors’) privacy and safety.
Safety Net provides trainings and technical assistance for victim service providers in the United States, as well as internationally. We have many resources and guides for survivors as well as victim service providers, and some of our resources are in multiple languages.
Note: Follow NNEDV’s techsafety.org blog as well as NNEDV’s social media accounts for more information about Safety Net and NNEDV.
Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.