Safety and Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse

This week is the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s inaugural Technology Summit conference, where several staff from Facebook are joining to share their expertise and brainstorm how we can all better support survivors of abuse. In addition, we have teamed up with Facebook to produce an informative guide on privacy and safety for survivors. We are excited about this publication since we know how important it is to survivors to remain connected, both offline and online, to family and friends, while also maintaining their privacy and safety. 

Since joining Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board in 2010, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) has embraced its partnership with Facebook to consistently support the needs of victims of domestic violence, dating abuse, cyber-stalking and teen dating violence.

Privacy and safety go hand in hand for survivors. The most dangerous time for a victim of abuse is when they are preparing to leave or have left an abusive partner. It’s at this time that there is an increased likelihood of an escalation in violence and risk for lethality. It is critical that survivors have the information that they need to navigate their lives safely and, in today’s digital age, a significant part of our lives are online. 

We believe that survivors have the right to experience and live online (and offline) safely. We sometimes hear that survivors should just “get offline” if they are concerned about an abuser finding them or contacting them. This is not a solution. Survivors shouldn’t have to live their lives avoiding every possible situation that the abusive person could misuse. They can’t control that person’s behavior and we should work to continuously hold abusers accountable for their actions. Abusers go to devastating lengths to isolate their victims from family and friends. It is vital that survivors are able to safely rebuild those important connections, using Facebook and other social networks. Telling a victim to go offline to be safe is not only unacceptable, it further isolates her from people who love her. Our role, as advocates, professionals, friends, and family, is to make sure that survivors know the options to maintain their safety. That’s the empowering strategy – helping survivors take back the control that abusers have tried to steal from their lives. 

This guide addresses privacy on Facebook, as well as safety tips and options for when someone is misusing the site to harass, monitor, threaten, or stalk.  It refers back to Facebook’s Help Center in several places for more detailed information on settings and features – a site that all Facebook users should check out. 

We hope that this guide helps survivors of abuse know how to stay connected through social media while continuing to maintain their safety.

To read our full how-to guide, as well as learn more about Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board, please visit Facebook's Family Safety Center

NNEDV is one of five member organizations comprising Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board, along with Childnet International,, The Family Online Safety Institute and WiredSafety


The Internet IS Real

Guest Blog by Soraya Chemaly, keynote speaker at the Technology Summit 2013. 

Photo Credit: Kaofeng Lee

Photo Credit: Kaofeng Lee

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. 

Soraya L. Chemaly is a writer and activist. To view more of her work, visit: 

Twitter @schemaly | HuffPost | RHRealityCheck | Ms.Blog | The Guardian | Fem2.0 | Alternet | FeministWire | Salon | Women Under Siege | Role/Reboot | Tumblr

Technology Summit 2013

We are so excited to welcome attendees to Safety Net’s inaugural Technology Summit at the end of this month in San Jose, CA! During the Summit, we will cover topics ranging from learning how technology gets misused to abuse and harass to how to help victims address technology abuse and maintain privacy and safety. Click here to take a look at the agenda. 

In addition to more than 100 attendees, we are thrilled to have 21 experts on technology, privacy, and safety from across the country join us to share their expertise. Check out our faculty list.

If you’re not able to join us, check back here for updates from the Summit (we'll post something each day), and follow #techsummit13 and @nnedv on twitter for up-to-the-minute reports!

Take a peek at the Technology Summit 2013 program book.

For more info about the Summit, visit the main page here.

Technology Is Not Neutral

Photo Credit kaofenglee

Photo Credit kaofenglee

The Safety Net Project began with a very simple story: a survivor wanted to flee her abuser and wrote an email of her plans to a friend. The survivor even deleted the email from her sent folder, fearing that the abuser would find it when going through her email. However, she didn’t realize that the email still remained in her deleted folder. When a survivor leaves an abusive partner, the risk of escalated violence, injury, and lethality significantly increases. This proved to be true for this particular woman; when her abuser found the email detailing her plans to leave him, he killed her. 

Today, the intersection of technology and intimate partner violence has evolved as our technology advances and changes. Every day, we hear examples of how interconnected the issue of violence against women is with technology. Stories of teenage girls committing suicide after videos of their rape circulates on the internet are occurring all too often. We hear of female gamers and bloggers being attacked, stalked and harassed for speaking out against violence toward women in gaming spaces. We hear from victims whose exes post pictures, videos, and personal information about them on revenge porn sites. Abusers, stalkers, rapists, and traffickers now have social media platforms, text messaging, internet websites hosted overseas, spoofing and disappearing text messages technologies to facilitate their crimes.

Yet technology is not the culprit. The true offenders are the individuals who use power and control to harm someone they profess to love; who take advantage of the vulnerable to coerce them to share naked images of themselves online or sexually assault them in real life; who rapes, stalks, beats, sells another person.

At the same time, technology is not neutral, and those of us who use technology, build technology, and create policies around technology can make a difference.

The Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence has changed the way the violence against women field addresses technology and abuse. At the end of July, we will host our inaugural national Technology Summit in San Jose, CA. For the past ten years, the Safety Net Project has trained more than 55,000 victim service providers throughout the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia. We’ve worked with survivors, their advocates, law enforcement, technologists, and companies—all on the intersection of technology and intimate partner violence. We have launched national projects that look at how technology and privacy issues impact survivors and victim service agencies. We have created and supported a network of technology advocates working in the field of violence against women in each state and abroad so that this information and knowledge reaches the most important people: survivors, their advocates, law enforcement, and other service providers. The Technology Summit advances that goal.

The Technology Summit continues the national dialogue that Safety Net has begun on how advocates, service providers, technologists and technology companies can ensure that technology isn’t being used to facilitate crimes against victims. Together, we can strategize on how technology can help survivors of abuse, and create a world where offenders are held accountable for their crimes and survivors find justice and hope.