Social Media Shaming: When Sexual Assault Goes “Viral”

“I have a reputation for a night I don’t even remember…I just want this to go away.”

That was one of the last things 15-year-old Audrie Potts posted on her Facebook before taking her own life after a photo of her assault was circulated to nearly the entire high school. It’s a familiar feeling for the many girls whose names have been made into headlines throughout the past months.

Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off of life support following an attempt to take her own life after a photo of her assault was distributed all over cell phones and social media sites.

In Torrington, Connecticut, two male 18-year-olds were arrested and accused of the statutory rape of two 13-year-old girls. What followed was an attack on the young girls over Twitter and social media and a trending “#FreeEdgar” hashtag in support of the perpetrators.

In Steubenville, Ohio, Jane Doe didn’t know she had been sexually assaulted until she found out about it through videos uploaded to YouTube and images posted on Instagram. When the case went public, backlash on social media against her, the victim, was relentless.

Lately we’ve seen social media channels become venues for public shaming and sharing information without ones consent to large numbers of people. “Viral” shaming adds a new dimension to an already horrific situation — continued emotional abuse from not just the perpetrator, but any outsider who decides to “share” or chime in. In this way, even after an assault a perpetrator can still exert control over their victim, making them feel powerless. It can feel impossible to know how to make it end, and it can feel like there’s nowhere to turn for safety and privacy.

What can you do as an online “bystander”?

While there are tips for “how to stop compromising pictures of you being published online,” these pictures and videos can get posted anyways without your knowledge or consent. The person who holds responsibility is the one who posts the content.

Responsibility also falls on bystanders — people who see the image being taken, see the assault in action, view the image online, distribute it, or even just pass it by. If you witness an assault, what do you do? If you’re sent a picture, do you pass it on? Do you join in on the actions or victim shaming just to be a part of the joke?

Begin to hold yourself and those around you accountable for what’s being said and posted. If you see something, report it. On Facebook, use the report link that appears near the content to send a message to have it removed. Twitter also has different forms for reporting a violation. YouTube has a “Safety Center” for requesting videos to be flagged or removed.

If you know someone who is involved in a situation of online abuse, ask how you can help. Offer to document the abuse (by taking screen shots or tracking where it’s showing up online). It can be helpful to be a third party keeping track of what’s being said and shared, especially if charges will be pressed.

As a Victim

Different states have specific laws, but no matter where you are, taking some type of legal action is always an option. Document the content, because it can be used as evidence. Contact the bar association in your state to find an attorney who specializes in Internet privacy and rights. The organization Without My Consent discusses different courses of action.

No matter what you decide to do, safety plan for your emotional well being as content is circulating. Know that you can ask for help and do ask for help, because it’s too much to take on alone, especially when it can feel like you’re up against the entire world.

Do you have a trusted coworker, friend or counselor you can talk to? Building a support system is important — and there’s always someone to turn to. You shouldn’t go through this whole process alone.

RAINN has many resources, including the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE, and they offer free, confidential advice 24.7.

In the wake of these all-too-similar stories, it’s easy to feel helpless. We can honor the victims of these and other tragedies by taking social responsibility seriously — holding ourselves and others accountable for what’s said or posted, and starting productive dialogues.

Social media is what we make of it, and we have the ability to make it a powerful tool for change and positivity.

Further Reading:

“Revenge Porn: The Fight Against The Net’s Nastiest Corner” by Adam Steinbaugh

“Criminalizing ‘Revenge Porn’” by Tracy Clark-Flory