Stalking Through Social Media
Social media have become one of the most popular modes of personal and professional communication. While advances in technology have made platforms like Facebook and Twitter readily available from almost any internet capable device, there are cases in which this 24/7 easy access serves as a convenient tool for abusers to track and further victimize their current and former intimate partners. Since information is the best protection, it is important for everyone to know the privacy risks and limitations of social media, while also understanding how to benefit from the resources and supports that it can provide. Simply disconnecting from all social media is neither a helpful nor a realistic solution. With careful preparation and awareness, social media can be a helpful tool in safety planning.
To learn more about stalking through social media, see the Q&A.
This Q&A was conducted with Kaofeng Lee, Erica Olsen, and Stephen Montagna of the National Network to End Domestic Violence
Q: What is social media?
A: Social media is user-generated content that promotes engagement, sharing, and collaboration. It includes a wide range of websites and applications that can be accessible from computers, smart phones, and tablets.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are three of the most popular social media platforms, although there are many more. Programs working with survivors should discuss all types of social media used by survivors and their children in order to address privacy and safety concerns. This may include shopping site profiles, online gaming, school/university forums, community specific networks, online dating, or topic-specific platforms (e.g., parenting, sexual orientation, disabilities, hobbies, etc.).
Q: How do abusers misuse social media?
A: Abusers misuse social media to harass, manipulate, and threaten. Abusers often send harassing messages or post offensive images – even explicit images of the victim that may or may not have been taken with consent (sometimes referred to as “revenge porn”).
Abusers also impersonate victims on social media in order to cause harm by sending inappropriate messages or creating fake dating profiles. Many high-profile cases of impersonation have resulted in physical or sexual assault.
Abusers also misuse social media to stalk and monitor the victim’s activity, which is why understanding privacy controls and security settings is important.
Q: How can survivors safely use social media?
A: Social media usually involves sharing personal information. Users should look at privacy options and take note of what will always be public and what they have more control over. Some sites have rules against using fake names while others allow them. Many sites encourage users to share their location as well. Survivors should only share information that they are comfortable with.
Personal information can also be shared accidentally by the survivor or purposefully by others. Community groups may share photos or information about the survivor on their websites without consent or notice. Encourage survivors to talk to their friends, family, and others about their privacy preferences.
Location can also be accidentally shared through social media. Survivors should use caution if uploading photos from their cell phone. If the geo-tagging feature is on, the GPS coordinates of where that photo was taken may also be uploaded. Location sharing should also be turned off within social media platforms.
Despite privacy risks, survivors can use social media safely and should be empowered with education about increasing privacy online. Removing oneself from social media is simply not a helpful or realistic solution. Survivors can also find resources and support online, including information about service providers, job listings, and forums for survivors to communicate—breaking the isolation they may feel.
Q: What can a survivor do if an abuser is misusing online spaces?
A: It depends on what the survivor wants to happen. One important step is documenting all contact and harassment. The survivor can take screenshots or photographs of the activity. A few platforms, like SnapChat, will tell the sender if the recipient takes a screenshot, so it might be safer to take a picture of the screen since notification may escalate abusive behavior. The survivor can also save all messages. It may be tempting to hit delete to make them disappear, but original messages will be important for evidence.
If the survivor wants to pursue charges, talk with police as soon as possible. They may need to contact the social media sites for additional information, and time is critical to get the documentation they need.
Survivors can also look to the Terms of Service of the sites. If the abuser has violated the terms, the site may remove the abusive content. However, if content is removed, it may be harder or impossible for law enforcement to gather it later on, so documenting it beforehand is important.
Encourage survivors to meet with a local domestic violence program to discuss safety planning. There are many ways to strategically use technology to maintain safety, Including searching the victim’s name online to see what information is available to the abuser.
Q: How can I help support survivors to be safe online?
A: You can help by educating:
- survivors on privacy settings and account security.
- community members and agencies (schools, churches, employers) about prioritizing privacy when posting online
- agencies working with survivors about technology misuse and evidence collection.