According to statistics published in January 2017 by Global Web Index, approximately 2.8 billion people worldwide are prolific consumers of social media (Chaffey 2017). That accounts for nearly 1/3 of the total global population. Of internet users in the United States, nearly 90% report being regular or frequent users of Facebook (ibid), not to mention the myriad other social media platforms currently gaining popularity, from Twitter to Instagram to Snapchat. As such, social media permeates every aspect of people’s lives, the good and the bad, leaving the question whether there is a link between social media and domestic violence.
The power of social media is immense and its influence is likely only to grow as the millennial generation matures and continues to inspire its less technology-savvy forebears to hop aboard the seemingly rocket-fueled social media bandwagon.
Though social media is garnering increased attention from cultural critics, legislators, educators, sociologists, marketers, and the general public alike, one aspect of social media has received relatively little attention until very recently: the complex relationship between social media and domestic violence.
Social Media as Empowerment
In recent years, social media has been heralded as an instrument of the liberation of the oppressed. No longer simply a platform from frivolous chatter and mindless gossip, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have been used in recent years to broadcast revolutionary uprisings during the Arab Spring, to document hate crimes and also to redeem the accused in the US, and to solicit aid, support, and rescue for the suffering worldwide.
Social media, in this vein, has also proven a potent tool in battling the scourge of domestic violence (DV). Because DV operates, foremost, through the isolation of its victims, social media facilitates a connection to the outside world that is likely otherwise severely lacking in the victim’s life. Through the power of social media, victims can seek out the information, resources, and support that would be impossible to access outside of the digital world. Indeed, organizations like the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) have compiled robust social media toolkits to harness the power of these platforms. The mission statement of the non-profit organization, Break the Silence, proclaims its commitment to using social media “to educate communities on the dangers of domestic violence, connect victims and survivors, and assist them in the transformation of their lives” (BTS, 2017).
These sites offer more than just education and connection. They also save lives. An array of social media and smartphone apps have been created to discreetly summon emergency help, including law enforcement, when victims feel that they are in danger.
The Dark Side
As immediate and tangible as the benefits of social media are for DV victims, the dangers are just as significant. Social media offers unprecedented capacity for abusers to control, stalk, surveil, and harass their victims. In her study of technology-assisted intimate partner stalking, Woodlock (2017) writes, “because of technology, perpetrators were able to maintain control over their victims, even when they were in a different location. Technology provided perpetrators with quick, easy methods to harass and abuse, and this behavior was often more public….using social media to intimidate and embarrass a partner or ex-partner” (p. 587). She goes on to cite a study performed by Diamond et al. (2011) of women at a domestic violence shelter and the impact of Facebook on their efforts to evade their abuser: “The researchers found that perpetrators are using GPS as well as location-based features on Facebook to track women….The women spoke of the challenge in maintaining their safety when using social media such as Facebook, because when friends tagged them in photos, the privacy of their location could be compromised” (p. 588). This is, as Woodlock demonstrates, a stark manifestation of how social media can be deployed by perpetrators to retain power over the victim, maintaining “coercive control” through “isolation, surveillance, threats of violence, micromanagement of daily activities…and shaming” (p. 856). Woodlock notes that victims of coercive control experience effects similar to those who have endured kidnapping and being held hostage—only now, thanks to social media, the imprisonment never ends.
Normalizing Misogyny and Male Aggression
If social media plays a significant role in enabling abusers to control, intimidate, and stalk their victims, it also serves an equally dark purpose in perpetuating—and, indeed, magnifying—a culture of sexism, misogyny, and male aggression. In the heady anonymity of the virtual world, a free-for-all of language, images, and behaviors has emerged, and those darker elements of human nature have been given free rein. Without the check of social accountability, the modulating influences of shame, disapproval, and punishment that operate so effectively in regulating behavior in the real world, all of the aggression of the most primitive human instincts not only flourish but are validated and encouraged. These oppressive, sexist, and frequently violent communications are met with laughter and, often, further incitement. As Hardaker and McGlashan (2016) have shown, social media networks facilitate the development of aggressively misogynistic discourse communities where the sexual objectification of women and threats of physical and sexual violence against them have become both the norm and the raison d’etre. For more information on both the positive and the negative attributes of social media, please visit the Open Forest site at https://openforest.net/?s=social+media
Break the Silence. (2017). Home. BreaktheSilenceDV.org. Retrieved from http://www.breakthesilencedv.org/
Chaffey, D. (27 February 2017). Global social media research 2017. SmartInsights.com. Retrieved from http://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-strategy/new-global-social-media-research/
Hardacker, C. & McGlashan, M. (2015). “Real men don’t hate women” Twitter rape threats and group identity. Journal of Pragmatics, 91: 80-93.
Woodlock, D. (2017). The abuse of technology in domestic violence and stalking. Violence Against Women, 23(5): 584-602.