Incidents of revenge porn rise in lockdown, as perpetrators spend longer online and victims suffer in isolation
By Sophie Davies
BARCELONA, June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - French activists are tackling an explosion in revenge porn unleashed by the pandemic with a run of virtual raids on social media platforms where the sexually explicit material is shared.
French politics student Shanley Clemot Maclaren leads the raids, with up to 400 people logging on to a platform at once to report abusive material and get it removed.
The group adopted the strategy after finding platforms were slow to respond to individual requests to take material down, or finding the images would disappear only to resurface days later.
"It works really well – it's our best tool. Because there are lots of us, the platform receives a big notification," Maclaren, 21, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We have so many accounts in France that we cannot organise specific raids for other countries yet, but we keep an eye on dangerous accounts from other countries," she added.
The raids are mounted twice a week, overseen by a lawyer, Rachel-Flore Pardo, and conducted by activists in France and its overseas territories of Guadeloupe, La Reunion and Mayotte.
Data is hard to come by but incidents of revenge porn are sharply up in the pandemic, officials and experts say.
"We have noted a strong upsurge in these acts since the start of confinement," Marlene Schiappa, French Secretary of State for Gender Equality, told a French newspaper in April.
Across Europe, revenge porn is an offence in France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Malta.
Social media platforms have been criticised for failing to stop the proliferation of revenge porn and Maclaren conceded more work was needed to push them to play their part.
Experts say the risk of abuse has risen during lockdown, with perpetrators spending longer online and using new technologies to assert power over victims.
A Twitter spokeswoman said the platform has a "zero-tolerance policy" on the sharing of non-consensual nudity, and has dedicated teams to identify such content.
"Abuse and harassment have no place on our service," the spokeswoman said. "Today, 50% of abusive content that we take action on is identified proactively using technology, instead of relying on reports from people using Twitter."
Instagram and Facebook did not respond to requests for comment. A Snapchat spokeswoman said the firm takes very seriously "the safety and wellbeing of our community".
Maclaren noticed a surge of revenge porn after France imposed lockdown rules in March to stem COVID-19, with many more photos and videos of naked girls appearing on social media, all tagged with the victims' names and home city.
She started an online awareness campaign in April called #stopfisha to find victims and help them report "fisha" accounts - from the French verb afficher, meaning to shame.
More than 500 fisha accounts have emerged on French social media since lockdown began, compared to just occasional accounts beforehand, said Maclaren.
She said the group has got more than 400 accounts deleted by reporting the abuse, although some do reappear.
In Britain, one of the few countries where data is collected nationally, the state-funded Revenge Porn Helpline said it had opened some 250 new cases in April - a record number and double that of the previous April.
But even in countries where strong laws prohibit revenge porn, victims say they feel let down by platforms that do not act as well as by entrenched cultural attitudes.
"Italy has a strong legislative framework against revenge porn, recognising it as a crime with prison sentences of up to six years, but definitely we need ... collaboration with online platforms," said Sodfa Daaji, an Italian-Tunisian activist.
She said victims in Italy are often shamed for the images rather than perpetrators being punished for the crime.
"The societal response to revenge porn still has patriarchal roots, which tends towards accusing the victims," she said.
Blame culture is also endemic in Portugal, where support networks for victims of online abuse are virtually non-existent, said Margarida Teixeira, a women's rights activist in Lisbon.
"I honestly wouldn't know where to tell someone who had experienced revenge porn to seek help," she said.
Activists say lockdowns have made it easier for abusers to inflict harm, because victims have less support.
"If you are a person seeking to abuse someone, making sure they are cut off from people who love them is essential," said Emma Holten, a Danish revenge porn victim-turned-activist.
"During lockdown, even support between friends can be difficult - much less wider society," she said in a video interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Isolation has long plagued victims, said Stephanie Corrao, who embarked on a two-year battle to get intimate images removed after her ex-husband posted them online in 2017.
"I fought and fought until people listened, I made a district attorney see just how bad it was and that they needed to help me," the 38-year-old finance manager and activist said from New York.
Within six months of her photos going online, they were on more than 50 sites and it took hours of work and nearly $8,000 in website removal and lawyer fees to remove them, she said.
The personal cost was far greater, said Corrao.
"It wasn't until I hit my lowest point and wrote my own suicide note to realise how important it was for me to speak out on this," she said.
(Reporting by Sophie Davies @sophiedaviesed; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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