Opinion

Revenge Porn is Thriving on Social Media Platforms, and Nothing Is Being Done About It

Source: Le Monde

Sexual harassement cannot continue to go unpunished.

By Lavinia Troiani

Last month, during just another day in lockdown, I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline when suddenly, one tweet caught my attention. It was from a girl, showing part of a Whatsapp conversation between her and what I imagine was a friend of hers. The friend is telling this girl that someone they both know was added to a porn-related group on Telegram where we can see pictures of her. ‘Revenge porn’, as known by many. For those who are unfamiliar with this practice, revenge porn is the illegal sharing of sexually connotated pictures, audios or videos of someone without the victim’s consent. This is usually done with the intent of causing distress. In the UK, if you are found guilty of this, you can face up to two years in prison. 

This pornographic group on Telegram counted more than 50,000 members, nearly all men, who exchanged pictures of their exes, current girlfriends and friends, without previously having asked for their consent. Sometimes, the pictures were followed with the personal details of the victims: name, surname and sometimes even their phone numbers or addresses. The first shocking aspect was the pictures: along with pictures of a sexual nature, there was a staggering amount of what you could classify as more ‘normal pictures’, the kind that anyone would post on social media. Selfies, pictures of girls wearing clothes or in swimsuits. Nearly all of the pictures were followed by degrading comments towards the unsuspecting victims. A second shocking aspect lies with the fact that the group was far from being the only one. There are so many more out there exchanging pornographic and pedo-pornographic material freely, without victims even being aware that this is happening. 

A first issue that arises from this is the fact that laws currently in place cannot go fast enough to catch up with the forever racing pace of the internet. These groups break many policy standards that can be found on any social media platform, not to mention legal provisions such as the EU regulation known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which states that consent is required to use someone’s image.  Many social media platforms now comply with the GDPR within their policies, together with a clear assertion that pornographic material is against the law. However, those regulations are easy enough to circumvent, as anonymity and secrecy are central to the way those revenge porn groups operate. 

Telegram is notably organised around such notion of secrecy and the complete encryption of data exchange. These two aspects mean that people can join Telegram without a telephone number, which gives them a further reassurance that their profiles cannot be traced back to a name and a surname. This also allows people to avoid any type of punishment if the group is reported: admins can easily form other groups and share the link with the members so that there is always a back-up to continue with the exchange. Although these groups violate Telegram’s policy on pornography, no one – not even the admins – can be banned from the social media platform, and if they do, it is easy to create a new account.

This secrecy also means that victims can only become aware that their pictures have been shared without their consent if someone tells them that their pictures and information are being shared, or if they themselves enter the group and check. Moreover, in some countries, you can only make a claim with the police if you are the victim. This creates a loophole within the system, because unless you are aware of such violation of your own privacy and consent, it is going to be hard to report it. 

Another issue that is raised is that the police most of the times will be unable to successfully identify the perpetrator(s), because the encryption offered by these social media platforms, as said before, makes it very complicated to uncover their personal details. This adds to the powerlessness of the victims who sometimes will keep having their pictures shared for a very long time, with no possibility to eliminate the pictures or the comments off the internet. 

In addition to the difficulty of obtaining justice, it is important to consider the impact that revenge porn can have on the victims’ self-esteem and mental health. The divulgation of personal data can also make them further victims of anonymous cyber bullies, who take pleasure in perpetrating the insults and the discrimination past the secret chats and directly to the victims to make them feel ashamed. Even more unsettling is the fact that sometimes pictures posted on these groups are simple selfies or other ‘normal’ pictures that any young adult and adult might share on Instagram, Facebook or other social media platforms. This goes to show that there is no need for women to be ‘sexual’ or ‘provocative’ to be denigrated and over-sexualised. The fact that one group contained 50,000 members is also shocking and saddening. 

But what does this say? It might just be a critical signal of the importance for society to change: everyone should be taught about the dangers of the internet and the risks that someone might take in posting pictures, but at the same time there should be a discussion on the importance of respecting the other, women specially. As a woman, as a person, I should feel safe to post a picture of myself on social media, knowing that no one will sexualise it or share it with demeaning and objectifying comments. 

Lavinia Troiani is a final year Politics and economics student at the University of Surrey.

Leave a Comment