Editorial/Opinion

Facebook and revenge porn: Safety measures

By Sharanya Sekaram

Last year, Facebook rolled out a new policy they intended to implement to combat the issue of revenge porn. Tying in with the idea Facebook has purported about building a safe community both online and offline, they explained: “Today, we are announcing new tools to help people when intimate images are shared on Facebook without their permission. When this content, often referred to as ‘revenge porn’, is reported to us, we can now prevent it from being shared on Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram.”

I personally found it startling that apart from writings on tech sites, the rolling out of this tool elicited or created very little conversation. There has been much accusation that Facebook faced for not addressing issues that are gendered in nature. This conversation can also be linked to the growing discussion of the intersection between gender issues and internet governance – a key example arguably of what this can entail.

It is vital in this context to understand what constitutes revenge porn and why it differs from commonly available mainstream pornography. Revenge porn begin as images (often intimate in nature) that were shared consensually, usually when the subject was in a relationship with the receiver. When the relationship ends, these images are circulated without the sender’s consent in order to humiliate and intimidate the subject.

Halder and Jaishankar (2013) define revenge porn as “an act whereby the perpetrator satisfies his anger and frustration for a broken relationship through publicising a false, sexually provocative portrayal of his/her victim by misusing the information that he may have known naturally and that he may have stored in his personal computer, or may have been conveyed to his electronic device by the victim herself, or may have been stored in the device with the consent of the victim herself; and which may essentially have been done to publicly defame the victim”.

This practice has been described as a form of psychological and sexual abuse, as well as a form of domestic violence. It is important to understand that unlike the non-consensual pornography distributed by hackers or individuals seeking profit or notoriety, revenge porn has a greater psychological dimension to it.

The material shared stems from a once trusted partner and comes under the greater issue of intimate partner and relationship violence. It is not only an exploitation of the subject’s body, but a violation of their trust, love, and relationship.

In June 2015, Google announced it would remove links to revenge porn on request and Microsoft followed suit in July. Both placed forms online for victims to complete. Facebook’s new policy and tools involve the following: “If you see an intimate image on Facebook that looks like it was shared without permission, you can report it by using the ‘Report’ link that appears when you tap on the downward arrow or the ‘…’ next to the post.

“Specially trained representatives from our community operations team review the image and remove it if it violates our Community Standards. In most cases, we will also disable the account for sharing intimate images without permission. We offer an appeals process if someone believes an image was taken down in error.

“We then use photo-matching technologies to help thwart further attempts to share the image on Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram. If someone tries to share the image after it’s been reported and removed, we will alert them that it violates our policies and that we have stopped their attempt to share it. We also partner with safety organisations to offer resources and support to the victims of this behaviour.”

The first two steps seem no different to Facebook’s standard reporting feature which includes regular images shared without permission, images that contain hate speech, etc. It is the third and fourth steps that are heartening and indicate that those at Facebook who have considered this issue are aware of how it differs from standard erotic or exploitative images.

The use of photo-matching technology matters, as often, the major issue in the circulation of these images is that they spread everywhere, and once the original image is taken down, it has already spawned several others. It is unclear if the use of this technology is limited only to shares off the original post or if this will include those who copy the image and repost it.

One hopes it will be the latter for if not, that is a gaping hole in the company’s attempts to address the issue. Even those of us who aren’t the most tech shrewd understand a post created and not shared is not dependent on the original image any longer. It is a separate post of its own, garnering its own shares and likes. It is also up for question if this technology also includes those shared via Instagram direct messages, which can include large groups of people and be just as public as one’s timeline. Will users be able to report images being shared via more private channels such as this?

The partnership with safety organisations is a key and commendable step and addresses the underlying issues of revenge porn.

A second-best solution

Often, the victims are women, and within a patriarchal society, it is women who pay the price for such exploitations. We ask why she shared those images to begin with, we decry her for daring to express her sexuality, and we fail to draw the line between consensual and non-consensual sharing.

Facebook has also published a guide called “Not Without My Consent” and it states: “We remove intimate images shared in revenge or without permission as well as photos or videos depicting incidents of sexual violence. We also remove content that threatens or promotes sexual violence or exploitation, including threats to share intimate images.”

The guide also shares links to organisations and support groups that deal with the issues at hand. The encouragement to document will also be important when firm legal action can be taken. It is a comforting, simple, and well-articulated guide that vitally acknowledges the victim and greater issue of intimate partner violence at play.

This is, however, a step and not a solution. As a sharply insightful article on the popular tech site Wired points out: “The key word there, though, is ‘trying’. Like child porn or doxxing, revenge porn inflicts damage the first time it’s shared, so removing something after it’s already been posted is a second-best solution. And this measure wouldn’t even catch the non-consensual porn shared within a closed ecosystem like the Marines United Group.

“We have to work pre-emptively. We’ve got a real problem with people sharing these images in a likeminded group,” Franks said. “In that situation, a woman might not find out her photos had been shared for eight or nine months, or ever.”

This practice has been described as a form of psychological and sexual abuse, as well as a form of domestic violence. It is important to understand that unlike the non-consensual pornography distributed by hackers or individuals seeking profit or notoriety, revenge porn has a greater psychological dimension to it. The material shared stems from a once trusted partner and comes under the greater issue of intimate partner and relationship violence. It is not only an exploitation of the subject’s body, but a violation of their trust, love, and relationship.