Behind the screen: exploring tech abuse in Scotland

20 May 2019

Photograph: Victoria Heath on Unslpash

Social media abuse is all over the headlines, but what does it mean and what is being done to understand it better?

It’s 11pm and I’m under the covers. I pick my phone up. I put it down. I try to get to sleep. I check my alarm again, just to be sure. A quick swipe of Twitter and then I will try again. The responses are coming in three to four tweets a minute. The same words. Different people. But are they real people? Nobody is using their real name, a real photograph. I put my phone down. It is 11:05pm. I can’t stop thinking of ways to respond. I rattle through the options. Some of these comments are just weird. And not true. They are bordering on ridiculous. But I should probably defend myself. I type out a reply. I delete. I retype, this time quoting the tweet so my followers can see the response. I hover my thumb over send. A notification comes in from Whatsapp: “Did you see what he is saying about you, now?” Open image. A screen grab of a tweet. I return to Twitter. Sighing, I hit “save to draft” and chuck my phone away.

This is 2019. And this is another night where social media discourse is seeping into my sleep pattern. I find myself dreaming in witty Twitter retorts. And letting the nastiest of the comments get under my skin. I take two beta-blockers to calm the anxiety. Is it worth responding? From experience, adding more words to the pile makes things worse. Yet, the other option: being criticised for not having an answer. I let the words play out online, muting and blocking like a chat room admin on steroids.

But the question in the back of my mind is how much of an impact does social media can really have? How real is all of this? Although threatened, it has never spilled out into real life beyond the endless scrolling on my phone. Could this be considered “abuse” – or is this just how social media is now?

I ask friends, each one going through their own personal social media battle. Checking their own accounts to find that screen captures of their own words are being shared and reshared by others. People they have never met. Forensically examined under this new lens of another account sharing their out-of-context tweets with certainty. This new perspective is so far removed from the person that I know in real life, yet there it is: amplified by the the likes and shares of others in agreement. Some of it is harmless. Some of it contains the most awful things, always untrue, written by anonymous accounts, about the people you care about. So you let it play out.

Our smartphones rarely leave our sight, we carry them around containing all our vital information we need to stay connected to. We use them for work, to stay connected to our friends and to remain in touch with what is going on in the world in ways we have never experienced before. For some, the expectation to maintain and deliver a public identity as part of their job is also added to the mix.

Bissie Anderson, a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling, is researching how social media has been challenging traditional media as well as how digital technology is transforming the institution of journalism. As more people arrive online and are using social media platforms to engage in discussion, the impact might give us a clue why online abuse is becoming more prevalent.

Anderson says: “The structures of social media networks  are basically designed around public displays of emotion. That means that what we see on Twitter or Facebook can be exaggerated; we cannot gauge public opinion effectively because these are exaggerated displays of opinion.

“Because the way that social media interactions between accounts are structured by the platforms, the way they encourage us to see these exaggerated displays, they can cause quite a destabilising effect on the public sphere and even democracy itself.

This impact of digital technology is also changing how we engage with the traditional political institutions that we take for granted. Anderson explains: “What is happening in a wider public sphere, in terms of attacks on institutions – and journalism is one of these institutions – is at the centre of this vortex.

“We have a new participatory culture, so the audience also has a voice, alongside this steady decline in trust for institutions. It is a paradigm shift: we’ve moved from this top-down transmission of information, so journalists speak to an audience, to a more horizontal one, where the journalist and audience engage as equals on the platforms.”

For many years I have worked in the realm of media and digital literacy, where I train individuals and community groups how to use journalism techniques to tell their story using social media. I have benefited from this flattening of media hierarchy to enable others to feel like they can use and be part of “the media” too. Yet, I have somehow (until very recently) managed to remain under the radar when it comes to this sort of online attention.

Although people told me of their own experiences, both positive and negative, it still only felt theoretical. Until I experienced it first hand, I could only watch from the digital sidelines.

I often work with young people and other groups who are considered to be vulnerable, especially when using the internet. Participants in workshops have described the experience of being bullied in the classroom, then that spilling into a group Whatsapp after hours. Finding anonymous comments on their secret YouTube channel or having had personal photos shared without consent. Some have been outed or had their personal details shared publicly (known as “doxxing”) by people they didn’t know – or even worse, people they did.

The Empower Project was set up by Ellie Hutchison in 2016 as a response to the trends in so-called “revenge porn”, which was made illegal in Scotland in April 2017 under the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm Act. Hutchison says: “Although revenge porn can still be a problem, it is important that we are ahead of the game, where we are working in the critical media literacy space that does not really exist at the moment.”

The Empower Project Flyer Photograph: Jennifer Jones

As an organisation, it creates spaces for young people to explore how technology and online environments facilitate gender-based violence, encompassed by Hutchinson’s term “tech abuse”, as well as what the community response should be. They also work with the Scottish government, elected officials, education outlets, youth workers and others to widen out the discussion around abuse driven by technology.

More recently, they have run campaigns in schools to address “cyber-flashing”, commonly known as the unsolicited “dick pic”, and opening up conversations with young people about understanding consent around the images they share on social media. They are now undertaking research around how tech abuse impacts different communities, from experiencing racism, transphobia and misogyny online. As part of this, co-directors Elena Soper and Emily Liddle are currently running a series of participatory events across Scotland to open up dialogue about these issues.

Interview with Elena Soper, co-director of The Empower Project at the Impact of Tech Abuse on Communities Event in Edinburgh. Video: Jennifer Jones

Hutchison says: “The language used in the media to describe tech abuse is still focused on blaming the young women, talking about the risk of women taking photos. But let’s have a chat about the white young boy and their behaviour for a minute.”

“We are seeing new trends of young men and boys becoming engaged in Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) discourse. So language from extreme parts of the internet being is used in classrooms – terms like ‘snowflake’ and ‘cuck’ – and teachers do not understand where it [and its context] is coming from. It is absolutely something we need to be looking at, because if we don’t, we are getting domestic terrorism and higher rates of gendered violence.”

Hutchison feels strongly about the role of empathy and how this can connect us back with the person behind the screen experiencing tech abuse: “We can look at this from the perspective of tech abuse. We need to reconnects people with the offline person that they are abusing online. I think that is one of the ways forward. I don’t think we need more legislation, I think we need better practice on the ground.”

Young Media Voices Website.

Jemma Tracey is the project lead on Young Media Voices, run by Children in Scotland. Over the last year, she has been supporting a team of children and young people aged between eight and 17 to engage in training, support and mentoring from media professionals to help them develop their own platform for news and media. For Tracey, this allows young people to not only produce their own content but also feel represented within a more adult-focused media landscape.

Tracey says: “I feel quite strongly that we have a responsibility to provide that platform to children and young people. The way that it stands, the way that we consume a lot of knowledge and information in media, is always coming through an ‘adult’ lens. I can’t think of an example where young people are co-creating knowledge. And that is the politics young people are dealing with [when it comes to media representation].”

Co-production process during Young Media Voices training. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

Both the young people and the adult facilitators taking part in the Young Media Voices programme have had to explore together the opportunities and challenges of available media tools and how that can be used in a positive way to talk about issues such as consent or longevity of the content that is chosen to go on the Internet. For Tracey, developing a website to host their content as well as the process of skilling up young people to make media allows them to share and develop their opinions and knowledge through making media that reflects their interests.

Tracey says that this output can be wide ranging: “from dance tutorial videos, to climate change activism… [For example] there are few people in the group who are Gaelic speakers, and they use this phrase regularly about ‘bringing gaelic back from the grave’. They can apply the Gaelic language, take it out of the classroom and apply it in pop culture because it is not really a thing that happens at the moment. We also have Arabic speakers in the group, so we’d like to translate that and make it more accessible to a wider range of people and young people beyond the group.”

Young Media Voices Training. Photograph: Jennifer Jones

When I ask Tracey how she feels about tech abuse, she reminds me of the empowering potential that the Internet was once known for, saying: “If you think back to why we have the internet, why it started, it was at a point where we felt that we could do so much with this, perhaps it was at a very idealistic perspective… We can do so much learning, and sharing – and connecting internationally and things like that. Unfortunately, the reality of social media, there is a lot of anonymity offered. It can bring out the worst of humanity and that is a real shame.

“People are not thinking about the impact their social media use has on other people. This is why projects like this are really important. I always had this in the back on my mind. The internet can be a really dark place.

“Okay: so let’s put some really positive things out there to drown that out. It is not idealistic and it isn’t going to fix everything, but is about how there is somewhere that children and young people can go, or young women and feminists can go, for something online that is good for them. Then that is a positive thing.”

With this in mind, I am left thinking about the possibility of creating a safer internet. Or indeed, spaces where it is possible to develop solutions that support individuals and communities that are most vulnerable to tech abuse. And perhaps, this starts by reflecting on our own behaviour when we intimately interact with the screen from the comfort of our beds.

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