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The rise of image-based abuse online: It’s time to stamp out the trolls

Updated: May 10, 2019

It is starting to feel like each and every day there is a new example of people behaving badly.


This article by Asher Flynn and Kelly-Ann Allen was originally published in the Women's Agenda and can be found here.


It is starting to feel like each and every day there is a new example of people behaving badly.

In the past fortnight, we have been (re)exposed to a toxic culture permeating the NRL involving the non-consensual creation and sharing of nude and sexual images among players and clubs. While one player has been charged for his role in (allegedly) creating and distributing image-based abuse material, several other horrific examples of this devastating harm, including one video tagged ‘boot the slut’ have surfaced, with little recourse for those involved.


Image-based abuse refers to the non-consensual creation, distribution and/or threat to distribute nude or sexual images. Recent research conducted by Monash and RMIT Universities found that at least 1 in 5 Australians aged 16 to 49 years have experienced it. And the impacts can be devastating.


The same study found that victims were almost twice as likely as non-victims to report experiencing high levels of psychological distress, consistent with a diagnosis of moderate to severe depression and/or anxiety disorder. And those most likely to experience victimisation represented some of the most vulnerable groups in our community, including Indigenous Australians, people with a disability, lesbian, gay and bi-sexual respondents and young people aged 16 to 19 years.


Image-based abuse is against the law. Federally, and in almost every state and territory in Australia (Tasmania is the last remaining state to implement change, although it is on the agenda), perpetrators can face up to two or three years’ imprisonment for creating, distributing and threatening to distribute nude or sexual images.


Companies, including social media giants, are also subject to law requiring them to remove image-based abuse material from their sites, or face significance fines. But even with laws in place, which should actively demonstrate that such behaviour is unacceptable and violates social norms, image-based abuse continues to occur.


Although it is not possible to put a figure on the number of online sites that trade in image-based abuse material, or the number of closed groups that circulate image-based abuse using social media and similar services like WhatsApp or Snapchat, in another study conducted on behalf of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, researchers found a growing demand for image-based abuse. And what was the consistent link among the websites, image-boards, community forums, blogs and social media pages specialising in the upload, distribution and discussion of non-consensual semi-nude, nude and sexual images? The sharing, viewing, and derogatory commentary of images of women, primarily by and for heterosexual men.


But image-based abuse, is just one example. For many who access news online, reading the comments section can be as relevant and informative as the article itself. And this is where we find clear justifications for bad behaviour. Take the current NRL example, the first comment posted on a Sky News “breaking story” tweet referring to the player involved stated: “What crap. These guys did nothing wrong”. Similar comments appeared following the 2017 AFL Grand Final when Richmond Tigers player, Nathan Broad, admitted to distributing an image of a woman’s breasts without her permission.

The comments section is also where we find bullying and trolling appearingin epic proportions. Ginger Gorman has recently written about this phenomenon in Troll Hunting, where she eloquently captures the deviancy, harms and devastation of this deliberate form of abuse.


While we may be briefly offended by inappropriate content directed at another person online, most of us are quick to scroll on. Our ability to be mere bystanders to abuse, sexism, racism and bullying may be a product of disinhibition; the very same effect can be used to begin explaining the bad behaviour in the first place.


Very few of us report inappropriate content or stand up to perpetrators online. In a 2017 Australian national survey, it was found that almost one-fifth of the 4,122 respondents had been bystanders to image-based abuse, but 44% did not say or anything about the behaviour. In a similar study of 4,248 American adults in the US, 66% of respondents (86% of those aged 18-29) reported having witnessed online harassment directed at others, only 30% said they had engaged in bystander action.


If the same behaviour was to play out in real life, playing the passive bystander may risk both moral, and in some instances, legal consequences. Yet similar behaviour is diluted by a 0.4-mm glass screen or not seen as serious enough to warrant reporting. It is as though the etiquette that would normally ‘govern’ our day-to-day life is not translating into our online behaviour. And with the increasing use of technologies in public life, there will be a corresponding increase in bystanders witnessing online abuse.


As a society, we should be demanding socially appropriate behaviour in all contexts, in all circumstances, at all times, for all people, particularly among members of society who are role models for younger and older generations alike. We need to lift the bar on what we expect from others, and to safely call out and report instances of abuse. Just as victims need the support of others, perpetrators need to understand their behaviour is not justified or tolerated. It is vital that we begin exploring safe and effective ways to encourage and support online bystander intervention.


The delineation between online and offline worlds has, to all intents and purposes, vanished. It is time to start treating online bad behaviour as bad behaviour.

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