Social Media can be a problem for victims

Advocates work to keep victims of domestic violence safe on social media

The ubiquity and popularity of social media have made it easier for people to keep track of one another.

“Now everybody knows everybody’s family and friends,” said Barbara Helm, a safe adult advocate with domestic violence shelter and victim services provider Family Shelter Service. “Social media has become such a huge part of everybody’s life, and we have to let everybody know what we’re doing every minute of the day.”

This has presented professionals who work with victims of domestic violence with a host of opportunities and challenges.

“The online space is real life because if I’m holding my phone checking social media before I get out of bed in the morning, that’s my real life,” says Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “If there’s a threat to my safety on social media, it’s going to be the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see before I go to bed.”

While digitally disconnecting from someone you no longer want to have an interpersonal connection with is as easy as clicking a button, advocates for victims of domestic violence say that’s a proposition fraught with potential peril for people in abusive romantic relationships.

“On the negative side, social media is a tool for harassment and abuse. It is a medium by which threats and intimidation are conveyed, and can be used to monitor victims’ movements and activities,” said Alisa Neary, clinical director at Mutual Ground, which operates a shelter and provides services for victims of domestic violence. “Ultimately, it is a vehicle by which abusers establish and maintain control over their partner.”

“Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter and Instagram – things like that become a huge issue when a client is trying to leave their abuser,” Helm added.

That’s because experts say the slightest digital indication that an abuser is no longer in total control of his or her partner could be enough to escalate a situation further.

“If (a victim) were to post something about ‘I’m trying to leave my abuser, and I’m trying to get help,’ the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is when she’s in the act of leaving,” said Rebecca Darr, CEO of domestic violence shelter and counseling services provider Wings Program Inc. “If her abuser has no idea she’s planning on leaving, they’re following her posts and her social media, (and) now they know she’s thinking about leaving. That’s when she could be at the most dangerous point in her life.”

Social networks are well aware that abusers are using their networks to contact victims of domestic violence, and they’re doing what they can to make their networks safe and enjoyable for everyone.

“We’ve built tools – like blocking and our extensive privacy settings – to give people more control over their experience on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesman said. “Our team works in the community to provide training and guides to help educate people on how to stay safe online, including specifically for survivors of domestic violence.”

Facebook and Twitter have worked with the National Network to End Domestic Violence on policies and to develop online resources for victims of domestic abuse designed to keep those victims safe. Snapchat has partnered with a number of organizations to develop safety guidelines and has an area on its website where users can file a report if they are feeling unsafe.

Twitter, which has repeatedly come under fire for its inability to snuff out harassment, unveiled an update last year designed to make it easier for users to report threats to law enforcement.

But just because you find yourself in an abusive relationship doesn’t mean you should get off social media entirely.

“I have zero patience for people who tell victims of abuse that your only way to be safe is to get off the internet,” Southworth said. “That is unconscionable, and it’s not possible, given how technology is interwoven into all of our lives.”

While harassing social media messages may strike fear in the victims who receive them, experts say those harassing messages can actually serve to build a case against an abuser in the long run.

“We encourage clients to keep records of all harassing or threatening communications,” Neary said.

“In Illinois, harassment through any means, including social media, constitutes abuse, so a judge may issue an Order of Protection to prevent further abuse,” added Margaret Duval, executive director of the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic in Chicago.

Now that there are 1.71 billion active users worldwide on Facebook and 313 million active users on Twitter, domestic violence shelters and resource centers are establishing themselves on social networks to serve as resources for victims seeking help.

Shelters have their own Facebook pages with information on how to get in touch if people feel they are in trouble; in some cases, there is a button to send a Facebook message directly to a staff member who will respond.

Domestic violence phone hotlines are monitored and answered 24/7. Facebook pages for shelters, however, are not. Yet.

“We’re doing an overhaul of social media right now, so I do see that as being part of the plan, especially in light of all the issues that clients are having with social media that they’re bringing to us,” said Mo McGuire, a spokeswoman for Family Shelter Service. “We’re trying to open up more avenues for them to reach us.”

While people have reached out to Family Shelter Service’s social media channels seeking assistance, it’s a rare occurrence. McGuire could only recall two instances when victims contacted Family Shelter Service on Facebook, once in the form of an instant message, the other time in the form of a wall post.

But just because it’s only happened twice so far doesn’t it mean it won’t happen more often in the future.

“In the future, we could see an uptick in that for sure,” she said. “We probably need a better mechanism in place (for social media) to make sure (messages to the page are) addressed immediately because that’s not always possible with the way our organization is set up.”

Darr said shelters are facing two major obstacles when it comes to social media – money and resources.

“Social media sounds great, and it’s one of those things that organizations want to promote themselves, but they also need to have the internal resources and capacity to stay on top of who’s posting, what they’re posting and the responses,” she said.

It’s one thing for shelters and service providers to have a social media presence. It’s totally another for them to know how each social media site works and what advice they can give to people who are in abusive relationships.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of seminars and webinars around social media safety,” Helm said. “Technology changes so quickly. It’s a matter of staying up on that. The days of us saying I don’t do Facebook, I don’t do that Twitter thing – you can’t do that if you’re going to be involved in the lives of your clients, because if you don’t know what that technology is doing, you can’t help them get through it.”4

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.