You Think You’re Helping: The Silencing of Domestic Violence Victims On Twitter

Only the stories of those who are entirely sympathetic, that did all the right things, that say all the right words - those who have the privilege to speak publicly - will be heard.

by Nikki Murray on March 16th, 2015

Content notice: Discussion of domestic abuse, abuse patterns, reporting risks and online violence, co-optation and erasure. 

Code is a human creation. Computers are a human creation. Like art, they are a reflection of us, our beliefs. For example, Twitter still allows people to see the timeline of someone who has them blocked just by using the search function. The developers (statistically likely to be white men) who put this in place were not thinking of women who survived abuse. They were not considering that abuse survivors might want privacy from their abusers, and believe a block is a small but important protection.

A broken lock.

Photo CC-BY Sébastien Launay, filtered.

Linus Torvald asks us to not talk, but look at the code. And the code shows me that people who survived horrific abuse do not matter. When you have a glaring bug that allows users to use a loophole to trivially stalk their victims and you refuse to fix it, I look at your code and I see a continuation of abuse. Your code speaks louder than words. When you create a web application meant to be a tool of communication, and you do not create it with the least of us in mind, your code is a form of abuse.

There are very few measures being taken to combat online abuse. The ones that do exist seem to be in response to the months-long abuse campaign levied at women game developers and critics. However, domestic violence survivors have been dealing with a kind of abuse that does not garner large media attention. Domestic violence survivors rarely have the follower count to prompt Twitter into action, or the ability to use media to expose it.

While Twitter claims it is rolling out new and improved features for dealing with and combating abuse on its platform, it is difficult and frustrating for survivors of domestic violence to keep themselves safe when there are multiple ways of getting around a block. An abuser might create a new account if suspended, and then another, and another. A domestic violence survivor might have to go to the abuser’s page repeatedly to see if they are currently making threats, as until very recently, Twitter did not allow you to make reports on another’s behalf, and you have to provide direct links to the tweets in a report.

Report form on Twitter. Highlighted section has a radio button next to the phrase 'I understand that Twitter may provide third parties, such as the affected user, with a copy of this report'. Also contains fields to link to abusive tweets, describe the problem, and link to the username of the account causing the issue and their tweets.

Screenshot from July 2014

Twitter constantly tells us to go to the police, but the police have a history of furthering abuse, racial prejudice, and disbelief. This reliance on the police, and the assumption that they are able to, willing to, and equipped to help us is in itself problematic. Domestic violence survivors might have to deal with technologically ignorant police precincts that don’t equate a single Twitter account sending messages with abuse, or who ask if the survivor can “prove” that the person sending them harassing messages is really the same one they have a restraining order against. While Twitter used to give out personal details about you to the person you are reporting, sometimes the police do that too. When our abusers attempt to use the police against us in a SWATting attempts, we know they are not our allies. The police frequently blame us for our own abuse and rape, and Twitter’s handling of the process is upsettingly modelled in a similar fashion.

Failure to Build Safe Online Spaces

Online conversations about rape culture remind people that it is multiple system failures that allow those who harm us to continue. Twitter, as a platform, has been harming survivors of abuse by a lack of action, the actions it does take being insufficient, and by only taking abuse seriously when it reaches critical mass.

The multiple, longstanding failures in the core code of Twitter often lead to a person choosing to use the ‘protected’ or ‘locked’ feature, whereby all of your tweets are only seen by those already following you or those you allow to follow you after the protection setting is turned on. According to Beevolve, only 11.84% of Twitter users are protected, but 64% of those protected are women. When it is disproportionately women who are subjected to abuse both on- and off-line, it makes sense that they are the majority of people using this feature.

The “protected” feature, however, effectively silences you on one of the biggest social platforms in the world. In order to keep your abuser from using any work-around to see what you are up to, you abdicate your voice in online conversation. Only your followers will see your tweets appear in hashtags. The Big Organizations that create the hashtag will not hear your story. Any Major Public Figure or Well Known Advocate you tweet at will not see it unless they already follow you. Systemic “oversights” in code leads to a concealing of our tweets not just from our abusers, but from those who might want to hear our stories.

Lips pictured through a camera lens, making the 'shh' gesture.

Photo CC-BY Guian Bolisay, filtered.

Yes, if you are protected you can tweet and not worry quite as much about abusive partners, trolls, harassers and stalkers. But if you have decided having your voice heard by Major Domestic Violence Organization is important and you are unlocked, you are quickly drawn into the horde of people who are causing harm. These hashtags are soon flooded with ‘sea lions,’ concern trolls, and outright abusive people.

This past January, the National Center for Victims of Crime started the #NSAM hashtag for National Stalking Awareness Month. One woman tweeted on it about her experiences with online stalking. Her stalker soon began tweeting on it himself, often tweets about how locking her account would force him to stop stalking her. Not once did NCVC attempt to assist her, or tweet out to others on the hashtag about this dangerous stalker.

Tweets with identifying information blocked out. Tweets read: 'Dear #NSAM: You have a #stalker in your midst. Here is my OOP against him. Please do not engage '. (Photo attached to tweet is the order of protection). Additional tweets read: 'End unwanted legal cyber-following TODAY. BLOCK in Facebook & PROTECT your Tweets in Twitter' and 'After you PROTECT your Tweets only your APPROVED followers can see your Tweets in Twitter Search.' (includes link to a Twitter support article on the subject.)

Do the Big Organizations who start these hashtags and benefit from them have an obligation to keep users of them safe? Now that Twitter allows us to report tweets and accounts on another’s behalf, should organizations that intentionally create hashtags to have focused conversation also have someone dedicated to reporting accounts who invade the hashtag? Should the organization create a BlockTogether account, block the people who come to the hashtag maliciously, and encourage people who want to use the hashtag to subscribe to that blocklist?

Yes, an organization that intentionally creates a hashtag for people who have survived abuse must take steps to ensure that that space is actually safe for them to speak. This means knowing what tools are available beforehand, advertising them, and taking an active role in using them to set clear boundaries around the space. This means clearly communicating to allies who are there that if they want to personally fight with any of the trolls, they need to remove others from the conversation so as not to spam a survivor’s mentions with things that might be triggering. This might mean having a blog post or a webpage hosted elsewhere that explains the rules of engagement for those allies using the hashtag in good faith, and a list of resources for those who might be triggered or need help after using the hashtag. This might mean telling people who are using the hashtag and do follow a locked account that is also tweeting on it to get permission before manually retweeting it, and find out how the original tweeter would like it to be manually retweeted.

This is a lot of work, and the Big Organizations which use hashtags to start these conversations should be prepared to do that work. Putting systems in place to keep discussion of abuse and violence online safe should always be a bigger priority than having a hashtag trend.

Abuse By Curation And Editing

When there are not platform tools to protect them, and the tools and strategies available to keep abuse victims safe are not employed, survivors either do not take part in the online discourse, or they only share part of their story for fear of victim blaming, or they take part behind a locked account. When steps are not taken to ensure survivor safety on a Big Organization’s hashtag about surviving abuse, it is clear that our voices are only important insofar as they serve someone else’s agenda.

Survivors’ stories are often tokenized and used only for legislative or advocacy purposes, with or without consent. If a Big Organization created the hashtag, the organization itself might be tempted to use our tweets in their newsletters to sympathetic congresspeople. They might want to use our tweets in the email campaigns for donors. They might want to use our tweets, collected from the hashtags we risked so much to participate in, on their website donation pages. Twitter has made embedding tweets all the more easy, and your tweets can be trivially embedded without your permission.

Similarly, an advocate or reporter may believe sharing tweets from the hashtag stream in the article they are writing will get their point across. However, they might not share all of the tweets, leaving in the parts they deem important, and leaving out the parts they believe aren’t relevant. This is a re-framing of a person’s story that might not be alright with them. If advocates or writers do not get permission to use the tweets to begin with, they are co-opting a person’s voice, violating the survivor’s consent, and potentially putting them in danger and subjecting them to further abuse. It may lead abusers who otherwise might not have seen their tweets into the survivor’s mentions. There is no promise that the increased traffic and “visibility” will be all positive praises of a person’s strength… and even if it was, survivors do not exist to inspire you, and our survival is not always something we want praise for.

“Perfect Survivors”

Cracked pane of glass.

Photo CC-BY jinterwas, filtered.

Compounding the dangerous cultural climate for domestic abuse survivors is the myth of the “perfect survivor” and how it plays out in online spaces. If we speak about domestic abuse publicly, and later speak about something else that betrays we are not the “perfect survivor,” we are made unwelcome by the movement, sometimes by domestic violence organizations themselves. Once our stories stop being easily consumable, once they add the nuance of messy and chaotic lives, they stop being profitable. The recanting of support for abuse survivors is why Beverly Gooden created #WhyIStayed. So many small things can make you an imperfect survivor: being queer in any way, being a woman of color, not pressing charges, staying with your abuser for any amount of time after the abuse, being non-monogamous, getting back together with the abuser, and anything else that is subject to determination – and judgement – at a later date.

Only the stories of those who are entirely sympathetic, that did all the right things, that say all the right words – those who have the privilege to speak publicly – will be heard.

Abuse can manifest in many ways, and the “warning signs” that so many organizations post on their websites, the lists that advocates hang in their office at the shelters they work for, are often created with one type of survivor in mind: the perfect survivor. The survivor who is white, monogamous, heterosexual, who went to the police and did so after the first time he hurt her. Abuse in other communities can be erased because, for example, we don’t want to talk about the fact that queer people can be abusive. We don’t want to talk about the harm people can cause because we fear it will smear an already marginalized community. Abuse can be one partner threatening to out the other as queer or trans. Abuse can be threatening to lie to your partner’s other partners. There are so many warning signs that are left out of the conversation because they exist in the imperfect victim’s world. By not protecting these voices or allowing them to speak at all, we are missing information on how abuse can work, and abandoning the most marginalized victims of domestic violence.

A Separation of Identities

A concrete step with stencil reading 'conceal your identity.'

Photo CC-BY Aslak Raanes, filtered.

These layers of abuse, from Twitter itself, from abusers, from Big Advocacy, from the Perfect Survivor myth, unravel in ways that the creators of these platforms may not intend, but ultimately become yet another means of silencing us. Abuse survivors play a dangerous game of identity hiding, identity concealing, and identity self-erasing on the internet. Outing ourselves as abuse survivors can lead to our abuser finding us. It can lead to thousands of trolls waiting in the wings with their triggering language, their shaming, and their calls for further abuse.

Because of Twitter’s long-standing refusal to combat abuse and fix holes in their tools, many of us must lock our account. This isolation, however, is not good if you are someone who wants to be vocal about activism, your career field, academia, or any other subject matter. Many people network for job opportunities and leads on Twitter. Having an unlocked Twitter account allows for easy sharing of ideas and exchanging of knowledge. An abuse survivor must heavily weigh the pros and cons of keeping their account public or private.

Others may opt to have a separation, both a more private (via locked or pseudonym) and a public account with their public name. This forces them to tease out which parts of their lives they want to share with which audiences. We are not allowed to be whole humans, with all of the messy stuff that goes along with being human. We are not allowed to be both a survivor of abuse and a woman in tech. We cannot attach our status as survivors to our name as it invalidates any career choice we have made. So we must speak of it on a different account, and either risk a doxxing or stay private and locked.

How far does this separation of identities extend out from Twitter and into offline life? I was easily able to hand my restraining order to the feminist organizations I’ve worked for. But which tech companies can I go to after accepting an offer and say “I have someone in my past who tried to kill me, here is my restraining order?” Do I risk my safety to keep a job offer? This is an erasure of my experiences, and this endangers me. It opens me up to danger from my abuser, or danger from the loss of financial stability. It makes me choose between a career path I’ve been working toward and my safety.

The fact that we’ve created these systems on Twitter and other social media tells a story of how code is written without survivors in mind. Positively, many feminist coders have created tools to mitigate the threat and plug holes in the platform: BlockTogether, auto-blockers, and the BlockBot are all means to create safe spaces.

But when allies of domestic abuse survivors do not use these means or create their own, it perpetuates harm. When these allied organizations fail to take measures to protect us, we are unable to tell our stories without self-erasure or fear of our stories being curated or edited.

This leads me to conclude that the doubt we have, as survivors, of not being believed or heard in these spaces is not a self-doubt, but rather an external force seeking to suppress our stories.