8th March 2017
In July 2015, Emma Murphy posted a video of herself on Facebook after she'd been beaten by her abusive boyfriend. Today, it has been viewed 10 million times with 23,000 comments. Many of these comments come from women who want to share their own stories; intimate experiences across geographical boundaries. Their connection is that they know what it's like to live in fear of a partner or ex-partner. They know what it’s like to experience domestic abuse.
We hear frequently that the internet is a scary place. Every week, we read stories of trolling, revenge porn, online bullying and harassment. This abuse is not new, perpetrators simply have more tools at their fingertips. But if they have new ways of inflicting fear, we must have new ways of overcoming it.
And so, instead of developing the knowledge we need, all too often we tell women to simply ‘leave’. Survivors of domestic abuse, who may already feel isolated from friends and family, are told by well meaning police officers or others trying to support them to ‘get off Facebook’ or ‘delete Instagram’. This is the digital equivalent of doing what we’ve always done: telling women to ‘just leave’, putting the onus on them to change their lives and uproot themselves from networks and communities. This seems preferable or easier somehow to dealing with the person actually causing the problem – the perpetrator. It also invests the internet with a fear factor, though the internet has no more inherent danger in it than a home – it's the people who inhabit it who determine how safe or otherwise it feels and is.
If we ask women to abandon membership of their online communities we're taking them out of the world. The average person in the UK checks their phone around 150 times a day. We can’t end domestic abuse by hiding women away: on or offline.
Instead, the internet needs to be harnessed for good, as a safe way to provide the connections and resources needed to be independent, connected and informed. What would you want for your best friend? What would you want for yourself?
We recently carried out a major piece of research (funded by Comic Relief, in partnership with We Are Snook and Chayn) and found that survivors find it hard to locate quickly enough the information they need – to identify their partner's behaviour as abuse, and to find out what their rights and options are. This is the stuff that ensures women can make their own decisions and take back control, but we've hidden it in a maze of individual agency websites built for our own organisations' purposes. We need to radically rethink and improve how we deliver information. Whether or not the site carries our particular branding should be completely irrelevant.
Tech can also be used to help protect victims and hold perpetrators to account. When it isn't safe to store physical evidence or attend in-person appointments on a given day, how can we use the cloud to store evidence away from our devices, or use single click technology to get a police officer to the door in minutes?
We want survivors to be able to connect to others who have gone through similar experiences. The internet can be a sanctuary, to talk to others and know that it can and does happen to anyone, help is available and life can be better. As a SafeLives Pioneer survivor said 'there's an army of us out here, and we want our voices heard.'
We know 9 out 10 professionals see tech as part of the solution. So the next step is to get support to pair up specialist tech for good organisations with frontline professionals, to increase confidence and knowledge so that we can turn tech to our advantage.
The days of conferences in dusty halls aren't gone, but if we rely on them forever we'll only ever support a fraction of the people we can reach online.
We don't have all the answers. However, in undertaking this research and building tech solutions to connect, we have started to play our part in exploring how digital can help end domestic abuse for women today and tomorrow. As a sector, we are behind the times. Perpetrators have worked out how to use technology to inflict fear. It's time to fight back.