The month of October is often honored as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but we also acknowledge Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Read more to learn about why cybersecurity is important for survivors of intimate partner violence and how we can create a safe online space, free from violence for all.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court is a case to decide how courts should determine someone’s online communications: whether it is threatening or is protected First Amendment speech. The specific case is Anthony Douglas Elonis vs. United States. Elonis was convicted of making threats against a variety of people, including his estranged wife on Facebook.
Elonis’ threats of harm against his wife included a rap lyric that said, “Fold up your PFA [protection from abuse order]…is it thick enough to stop a bullet,” as well as a detailed post about how it technically wasn’t illegal for him to say: “the best place to fire a mortar launcher at her house would be from the cornfield behind it because of easy access to a getaway road and you’d have a clear line of sight through the sun room,” accompanied by a diagram. His other threats included wanting to blow up the state police and sheriff departments; threats against an FBI agent; and claims to make a name for himself by “[initiating] the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”
The issue at hand: should Elonis’ intention of carrying out those threats have to be proven for those threats to be credible? Elonis and his supporters argue that “subjective intent” is the standard to prove threats are real. NNEDV and others argue that “objective intent,” taking into account the content and the context of the statements, is the correct standard to determine the credibility of threats.
Are Online Threats Real?
The perceived anonymity of the internet has allowed many to harass, intimidate, and threaten others, particularly women, in more ways than ever before. In recent years, we have seen a rise in young people committing suicide after online bullying, female bloggers and gamers viciously attacked online, and women being threatened by “anonymous” mobs for daring to speak out on women’s issues.
The reality is that after any kind of threat, victims fear for their safety. They will leave their homes, change their names, change their phone numbers, abandon careers, leave school, and withdraw from online spaces, including major platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. Survivors have gone to great lengths to feel safer. So are online threats real? The consequences to the victims are very real.
Furthermore, in most cases of domestic violence and stalking, online threats aren’t made in isolation. They are often made as part of other abusive behavior, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; intimation; harassment; and attempts to control the other person. Nor are victims' fears unfounded. Each day, an average of three women are killed by a former or current intimate partner in the United States. Context is important. If a victim is so terrified of her abuser, and a judge agrees and gives her a protection order that forbids the abuser from even going near the victim—that context matters. So when he goes home and writes a “lyric” about how a protection order will not stop a bullet and posts it online so everyone can see—that is terrifying. This isn’t a Taylor Swift breakup song. This is a threat.
Freedom of Speech
Those in defense of Elonis argue that the intent matters for a variety of reason. The central argument is that if threats are assessed by the victim’s perception of the threat rather than the person’s intent when making the threat, it could chill freedom of speech. In ACLU’s brief, not taking into account the speaker’s intent could result in “self-censorship [so as] to avoid the potentially serious consequences of misjudging how his words will be received.” Moreover, the arguments claim that it is difficult to assess how speech is perceived when made over the internet because the audience’s reaction to online threats could be interpreted in so many different ways.
The Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project claims that requiring proof of intent is necessary because Elonis’ statements were artistic rap lyrics. The inflammatory and violent statements, while distasteful, were artistic self expression. Those who are unfamiliar with the rap genre, the argument in the brief asserts, could hold negative stereotypes and “falsely and incorrectly interpret them as a threat of violence of unlawful conduct.”
Online Threats and Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Violence Against Women
Their arguments only work if you lived in a world where outlandish speech is only made in the name of art or political speech. In the real world, online threats, particularly against women or intimate partners, are not artistic or political speech. It is violent speech that terrorizes victims. Regardless of whether the abuser or stalker intends to blow up the victim’s home with a mortar or cut her up until she’s soaked in blood and dying (another of Elonis’ online posts), he is accomplishing one of his goals, which is to terrify the victim.
Threats against women cannot be minimized because they happen online. Or because the abuser hasn’t yet carried out the crime. Or because we’re worried that enforcing consequences for these threats will cause people to feel less free to speak their minds and hinder freedom of speech. In the context of domestic violence and stalking, threatening language is threatening. Needing to show subjective intent would make it more difficult to hold abusers and stalkers accountable for terrifying victims and would imply that it’s okay to make such threats, as long as, you know, you didn’t really mean it.
Read our brief for the Elonis v. United States case here.
Read our official press release statement here.
In addition to being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, this month is also Cybersecurity Awareness Month. When we think about cybersecurity, we often think of security from identity theft, fraud, phishing, or hackers who steal passwords and information. But cyber – or online – security has a broader meaning for victims of domestic and sexual violence and stalking. Cybersecurity also means personal safety – safety from harm, harassment, and abuse while online.
For many survivors, being online can feel unsafe because the abuser or stalker is accessing their online accounts to monitor their activities; posting harmful and negative things about them, including sexually explicit images and personally identifying information; or using cyberspace to harass and make violent threats under the cover of “anonymity.” Abusers and stalkers often compromise the security of survivors’ technologies by installing monitoring software on cell phones or computers or forcing them to reveal passwords to online accounts.
In a study conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, victim service providers report that of the survivors they work with 75% have abusers who access their online accounts, 65% have abusers who monitor their online activities, and 68% have had their pictures posted online by the abuser without their consent. In a survey by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, when abusers and stalkers distribute sexually explicit images of victims, 59% includes the full name of the victim, 49% include social media information, and 20% include the phone numbers of the victim. Online harassment, in the context of abuse and stalking, can have serious and dangerous consequences.
So this month, as Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Cybersecurity Awareness Month coincides, let’s think about cybersecurity and safety beyond safely making an online purchase but how we can create an environment where all can be personally safe from violence while online. How do we create a safe online space that doesn’t tolerate abuse? How do we support those who are victimized online, whether their ex is making threats via social networks, or someone is distributing sexually explicit images of them online, or they’re being threatened by a group of strangers online simply because they have an opinion about gender and dare to be in a male-dominated space? And how do we hold accountable those who are threatening, abusing, and harassing victims online?
This month—and all months—help us figure out the answers to these important questions. Comment below if you have thoughts or ideas.
In February, a New York court dismissed a case against a man who posted nude images of his ex-girlfriend online by sharing them on his twitter account and emailing them to her employer and family. While his actions were reprehensible he faces no punishment because, unfortunately, legal limitations in New York, and many other states, do not currently make what he did criminal. But that is changing.
When sexually explicit images are uploaded online and distributed without consent of the person in the image, it’s often done as a tactic of abuse meant to cause humiliation and harm to the person. Many of these images may have been taken or originally shared with someone else under the expectation of privacy and within a trusting relationship. Some images may have been captured without the victim’s knowledge. In either case, it is an unacceptable violation of trust and privacy. This abuse has been coined “revenge porn,” a term that has been getting a lot of media lately.
Whether the victim willingly took or originally shared the image is irrelevant. Sharing a picture with one person does not mean consent was given for mass, public distribution of the image, and it definitely is not a green light for the person who received the picture to do what they please with it. We make many decisions that can have severe consequences if someone we trusted abused that trust. I can give my neighbors a key to my house and still have a personal and legal expectation that they will not steal from me when I’m not home. I can give a store employee my credit card and expect that will only use the information to finalize the purchase that I have requested. If they do, I am legally protected.
We must stop blaming the victim and start holding abusers accountable in these cases. The person who shared these images with the intent to harm, injure, humiliate, and abuse. By focusing on the victim’s actions and questioning why the victim shared the picture in the first place, as Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami said, "…what we're really saying is if you're sexual with one person, society is entitled to treat you as sexual for all purposes…”
Fortunately, the perception of this behavior is changing, as is the legal landscape around it. Due to the strength and determination of many survivors, states have begun drafting and enacting legislation to address this issue.
Read our new handout on Images, Consent, & Abuse for more detailed information on this issue and tips for survivors. Additional resources can also be found at withoutmyconsent.org. This issue has gained momentum and attention recently as people speak up and speak out. Learn more at the above links and share to continue the conversation.
Guest Blog by Soraya Chemaly, keynote speaker at the Technology Summit 2013.
When people think of how the Internet is used to exacerbate violence against women, they often, with good cause, think of stalking. According to the CDC's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), one in 6 women and one in 19 men are stalked during their lifetimes. Less conservative estimates that define stalking as a reflection of fear felt by targets makes those numbers 1 in 4 women and one in 13 men.
For the majority of women who experience stalking, women between the ages of 18-24, one of the most common ways they experience it is electronically. The most recent Bureau of Justice statistics reveal that 1 in 4 stalking victims report cyber stalking (for example, 83% get e-mails from their stalkers.) Stalking is integrated seamlessly with cyber stalking, defined by Take Back the Tech as: “(repeatedly) sending threats or false accusations via email or mobile phone, making threatening or false posts on websites, stealing a person’s identity or data or spying and monitoring a person’s computer and internet use. Sometimes the threats can escalate into physical spaces.”
But the Internet allows for endless creativity. Email messages and explicit threats, while hugely harmful and fear inducing, are only one dimension of how abusers can use the online environment to extend their reach and influence.
Recently, I was contacted by a woman whose abusive ex-husband was regularly posting illustrations of past physical assaults against her. To a random viewer, or a content moderator, these images might seem vaguely disturbing, or maybe offensive. When viewed in isolation, they gave the appearance of being benign. When asked to remove this content, the hosting platform declined since their processes had no way to account for context. The images did not identify an individual by name, nor did they seem particularly graphically violent or threatening. But, to person who experienced the violence, the images were triggering, anxiety provoking and hostile. She grew increasingly anxious every day, restricted her activities and repeatedly contacted the police, who could not nothing to help her.
In another instance, a woman (who’d gotten a restraining order against an abusive spouse), found herself the subject of his daily online updates of her whereabouts, clothing and movement. Attempts to have his content removed, or to have his online profile suspended yielded no results. Her anxiety drove her to stay in her house for days and sometimes weeks at a time. As no threat was explicitly made, no false posts created, no identity stolen, no electronic theft of data involved, neither the hosting company, nor law enforcement, both of whom she’d sought help from was able or willing to intercede on her behalf. In a situation like this, the incidence of cyber-stalking is sufficient to be considered an aggravating circumstance, but not a cause for action in and of itself. Despite it’s real deleterious effects.
Technology used in these ways can make it all but impossible for victims of domestic violence to isolate themselves from their abusers, while simultaneously leading their day to day lives. More than 50% of stalking victims lose 5 or more days from work in any given year. Victims often miss work, lose jobs, and cannot take advantage of promotions. National Institute of Justice studies found that victims who work, “experienced twice as many stalking tactics and were stalked three times longer than unemployed victims.” Typically, stalkers often compromise their target’s ability to work by harassing and lying to coworkers, vandalizing workplaces and other similar tactics designed to destabilize their targets.
Prevailing ideas about what constitutes harm (it must be imminent) and what would justify a suppression of speech make this response fairly typical. Online threats, harassment and stalking, especially if part of a matrix of intimate partner violence, often result in loss of speech and physical freedom for their targets, but are often treated as jokes and dismissed as “not credible.”
Women who live public lives are often cyber-stalked, sometimes by cyber mobs making explicit, graphic and violent threats. Without fail they are belittled for expressing anxiety or for changing their behavior as the result of fear. When student debater Rebecca Meredith became the target of a vicious and misogynistic online mob assault in which her rape potential was debated publicly, a writer made a point of mocking her publicly for making a “fuss about ‘misogyny.’” Many people grappling with cyber-harassment get this message from online companies and law enforcement officials.
This type of online amplification of violence against women happens every day and the harm that victims suffer as a result is routinely ignored and trivialized. There is no appropriate recourse, or even frame of consideration, for understanding the impact of online abuse. We have retrofitted (already insufficient) off-line parameters, so that law enforcement, legal and judicial responses cannot adequately support victims.
Part of the problem resides in the idea that our online identities and experiences aren’t “real.” For women in particular, because so much of our identities and reputations are tied up in our bodies and perceptions of our sexuality, this division between "real world" and the virtual one is particularly remote. Nonetheless, it is enshrined in technology, in policies, in our legal frameworks and in our notions of safety, harm, self-defense and free speech.
Challenging an online culture that rewards abusers and penalizes victims requires that legal, judicial and technology norms be reviewed, challenged and rewritten in ways that take into account the pervasive threat that victims of stalking, cyber stalking, sexual assault and domestic violence live with. Imminent harm is an insufficient and outdated criterion on which to base our ideas about safety and danger, threats and free speech.