We live in a world that is increasingly driven by technology. Our lives are more connected than ever through the web, and we rely on devices and apps to communicate and conduct our daily business. For many of us, this near-constant interconnectedness is the new normal.
Unfortunately, for survivors of domestic and sexual violence this can pose serious problems. Offenders have found myriads of ways to adapt technology to perpetuate violence and abuse. We hear stories all the time: revenge pornography, threats and stalking through social media, internet trolling and more. Communities who want to address domestic and sexual violence are sometimes left unsure of what they can do to help.
But we shouldn’t lose hope. Even while we face these challenges, we need to recognize the opportunities offered by these new tools. Technology and social media can have a positive impact on the work to end domestic and sexual violence.
- Amplify the voices of survivors. Through social media, survivors and their allies have claimed new space for their stories and perspectives. Online campaigns like #YesAllWomen and #NoMore have brought individuals’ stories into the mainstream. Online activists are sparking conversations that challenge old questions in new ways, and are engaging a whole new audience in the process. Arguably, public awareness around sexual assault and domestic violence has never been as high as it is right now — and we have to give social media much of the credit.
- Pressure decision-makers. Last fall, when video of Ray Rice beating his then-fiancée Janay Palmer went viral, it sparked a national dialogue about the role of sports culture in responding to abuse. As a result, the NFL has changed its policy and practice around domestic and sexual violence; other professional sports leagues are also taking notice. Similarly, the story of Emma Sulkowitz — the senior from Columbia University who began carrying her mattress around the school to protest her rapist being allowed to stay on campus — is one of a wave of personal stories that have put pressure on university officials nationwide to change the way they handle sexual assault on campus. There is no doubt that these online conversations are impacting real-world policy in our communities and institutions.
- Offer new ways of seeking support and safety. Increasingly, services for survivors can be offered in digital formats, providing one more point-of-entry for someone to reach out for help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, and some Maine-based support services have chat services available. For individuals, apps like Circle of 6 offer tools to help friends keep one another safe, and mobile-friendly program websites ensure that information and resources are only a few taps away. Technology offers new opportunities for holding offenders accountable, with videos, GPS records, and texts and emails being used by law enforcement and prosecutors in their cases.
Technology offers no panacea to the problem. No singular app can keep a person safe, and online activism alone isn’t going to stop violence. But they are pieces to solving the puzzle, and provide new and different ways for communities to engage. We are doing a disservice to survivors and our larger communities if we only focus on the ways technology and social media are used to perpetrate abuse; we must actively work toward using technology and social media for violence prevention.