Learning about the tools and ways we can manage our privacy online is incredibly important in the digital age. We should all be equipped with the knowledge to make informed decisions about our own digital footprint. There are a myriad of reasons why people choose to be more private than public on social media, and vice versa.
However, I’m growing wary when general advice is given by online safety institutions encouraging people to manage, control or lock down their privacy settings on social media in order to ‘protect’ themselves from forms of online abuse, particularly image-based abuse, which this piece will focus on.
I argue that such advice may be necessary in specific circumstances, but is problematic as a general course of action because it:
- cannot guarantee individuals protection from online abuse;
- may mitigate the risk of abuse but often fails to manage victims’ expectations;
- shifts responsibility away from perpetrators;
- disproportionately disenfranchises certain groups and individuals;
- is a short-term fix with long-term consequences;
- screams victim blaming under the guise of protection;
- is not conducive to creating an online world in which we are all safe and free to express ourselves, let alone exist, without being abused; and
- fails to actually address the underlying problem at hand.
At the fundamental level there is no guarantee that one can completely protect themselves in the digital age from certain forms of online abuse, including image-based abuse.
Image-based abuse takes many forms from distributing, surreptitiously recording, or threatening to distribute or record intimate images/videos without consent. It includes non-consensually sharing altered intimate images/videos. In the digital age of ‘upskirting’ and ‘downblowsing’ people can be victimised without knowing it. Peoples images can be manipulated from a LinkedIn profile picture, altered into pornography and shared online. The reality is – some forms of online abuse occur beyond our control, even if we follow the advice of controlling or locking our privacy settings on social media.
The most compelling reason why it may be important or in fact, necessary to advise people to control or lock down privacy settings on social media in order to protect themselves from image-based sexual abuse, is that it may mitigate the risk of abuse occurring or continuing to occur, especially when victims may be in danger. Two points to make here:
First, when some online safety institutions encourage people to control their social media settings, it is not accompanied with the explanation that doing so just mitigates the risk of online abuse, as doing so will not guarantee protection from online abuse.
Failing to qualify statements and calls to lock down your social media, fails to adequately manage the expectations of victims and the public, and what’s more concerning is that it gives victims and the public a false sense of security that they are protecting themselves if they follow such advice.
Second, there are horrific cases in which a victim is in danger or is living in fear of the perpetrator/s. Cases where the abuse is relentless, merciless and unforgiving. Cases where the victim’s safety is of paramount importance and that means doing everything possible to try to keep the victim safe. As a survivor of image-based abuse there were times in my journey where I deactivated social media because the emotional distress was overwhelming. In such cases it may be necessary to encourage victims to manage their social media settings, as sad and unfair as it is. However, I believe such advice should be reserved for specific circumstances rather than a general course of action for the public.
Why? Because as a general course of action, even if it may mitigate the risk of online abuse it places the onus, burden and responsibility squarely on everyone except the perpetrator, it places it on us to protect ourselves from online abuse, when the only people who should be changing their behaviour are the perpetrators who are committing the abuse.
Now, you may be thinking, obviously its the perpetrators who should be the ones changing their behaviour, but there are ‘bad’ people in this world who are going to commit these abuses anyway. Common sense would dictate that an appropriate course of action would be to control or lock down our social media settings.
While I hear you and understand what you are saying, I would still argue that the defensive approach to managing, controlling or locking down your social media settings is not going to work long-term and is not conducive to creating an online world in which we are all safe and free to express ourselves, let alone exist, without being misappropriated or abused. I’ll explain why shortly.
For now, let’s examine who would be the most affected by such general advice. We know that image-based abuse disproportionately affects certain groups in our society: young women, the LGBTQI community, people with disabilities, etc. So, when you make calls to people to control their social media settings, its these groups who would be the most receptive to such advice, and therefore be disproportionately affected by such advice.
We know that social media is used as an economic opportunity for people to build personal brands or grow businesses, its used as a platform to engage and contribute to social and political discourse, its used to connect with friends and family. Sometimes, using social media is necessary for work and career progression.
There are so many benefits to social media that you are disproportionately locking certain people out of by encouraging people to control or lock down social media settings, further disenfranchising certain groups and vulnerable individuals. It’s these groups who lose out the most from the cultural life of our times, leaving other demographics to dominate the social media landscape.
In the short-term, while generally encouraging or advising people to control or lock down their social media settings may mitigate the risk of abuse occurring, noting there is still no guarantee; in the long term, the consequences of such advice can adversely impact the very people you are trying to protect by impacting the configuration of online discourse that excludes the voices of certain groups and individuals, by socially isolating certain groups in our society, by disempowering and depriving people of economic opportunities, among other things.
I’d even go so far as to argue that encouraging people with general advice to manage, control or lock down their social media settings to protect themselves from online abuse is akin to telling people to lock themselves in their houses because the real world is full of dangers.
It’s well-meaning but it screams victim blaming under the guise of protection.
We see victim blaming all the time. It’s the kind of attitude that attacks and criticises the conduct of the victim, instead of the perpetrators of a crime. It’s the kind of attitude that shifts accountability and responsibility away from perpetrators and places it on the victim. It’s the sentiment that somehow the victim is at fault for the wrongdoings committed against them, or worse that the victim deserves the harm.
Victim blaming attitudes are rife in discussions of rape, image-based sexual abuse and family and domestic violence:
If she wasn’t wearing such revealing clothes she wouldn’t have been raped. If she didn’t send nude photos, he wouldn’t have uploaded them online. If she didn’t post “revealing” photos to social media, they wouldn’t be photo shopped into porn. If she was being abused at home she should’ve just left him.
Attitudes that shift responsibility away from perpetrators of crime are dangerous for so many reasons, but I believe the most concerning is that it is not conducive to creating an online world, let alone a world, in which we are safe to express ourselves, let alone exist, without being abused. To illustrate this, I’ll go back to a point made earlier, that essentially there are always going to be ‘bad’ people in this world who commit atrocities, so common sense would dictate that a good course of action is to control or lock down our social media settings. To which I would concede that you’re right, there are always going to be people who perpetrate harm onto others, but I fail to see how anything will stop if you keep advising people to control or lock down their social media settings in order to protect themselves from online abuse.
- To what end are you advising people to do just that?
- Are we just going to keep retreating while perpetrators may or may not be held accountable for their actions?
- And even if we retreat by controlling our social media settings and perpetrators are also held accountable for their behaviour, we’re still the ones who lose out all round.
If this path continues, I see no end. We’ll be stuck in a cycle where we are forever on the defensive, thereby fostering an online world of fear which makes space for perpetrators to our detriment. We can’t just stop living because there’s bad people out there. We can’t just be stuck in the house because there’s dangers in the real world, and we shouldn’t be missing out on fully participating in the online world because there are people who perpetrate online abuse. I say:
Take Up Space Unapologetically
Lastly, general advice encouraging people to manage, control or lock down their social media settings does not address the underlying problem at hand. It does not address the reality that perpetrators are treating the people they prey upon, commonly women, with no regard for that person’s humanity or dignity. It does not address the motivations behind why perpetrators commit online abuse. Frankly, efforts should focus on holding perpetrators accountable rather than encouraging people to do this, that or the other to maybe safeguard themselves.
While equipping people with the knowledge to make informed decisions about their digital footprint is important; general advice encouraging people to manage, control or lock down their social media settings in order to protect themselves from forms of online abuse is problematic. And I would urge leaders in the online safety space to reconsider doing that.