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Zosia Bielski

Zosia Bielski

Facebook’s move to counter revenge porn isn’t enough to protect women Add to ...

"Revenge porn" sees bitter exes publishing intimate photos and videos of their former partners online – images no one outside the relationship was ever meant to see.

In a bid to stem the rise of revenge porn, Facebook announced Wednesday morning that it will disable the accounts of users posting this stuff and will also run photo-matching technology to delete any duplicate images should they start popping up on other Facebook accounts, Messenger or Instagram. The social-media giant also promised to report the most egregious cases to local law enforcement, especially where minors are depicted.

It’s an important step forward in a relatively new war.

Russell Smith: How the digital age is changing the way we break up (and who gets to keep the naked photos)

“This is really a game changer in our ability to detect these images, irrespective of people reporting on them, and to be able to take them down,” said Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook Canada, in an interview Tuesday.

But while Facebook’s effort is admirable, at this point it’s also just stanching a bad wound. More than 65 per cent of children between the ages of 9 and 17 said they would non-consensually share intimate images and sexts to make their friends laugh or “for fun,” according to distressing research submitted by Shaheen Shariff, an associate professor of education at McGill University, to a report tabled last month by the Commons standing committee on the status of women.

The study asked children and teens to weigh in on a common scenario: A young woman sends her boyfriend an intimate video or photograph in trust. The boyfriend turns around and posts everything online. “Fifty-one per cent said it was not okay for her to be upset because she brought it on herself, supposedly,” Shariff told the committee.

It’s troubling that the instinct to humiliate an ex (and then blame the victim) is alive and well among young people, who we expect to be more forward-thinking than older generations. What these young study respondents also don’t seem to realize is that revenge porn is a serious criminal offence.

Canada’s anti-cyberbullying law came into effect in March, 2015. Today, sharing nude or partially nude photos, or those depicting an explicit sexual act, without consent can land you in jail for up to five years.

A 29-year-old Winnipeg man was sentenced to 90 days in prison this year after posting three nude photos of his ex on Facebook after she confessed to cheating – even though he deleted them half an hour later.

While deterring revenge porn and trying to expunge it from the Internet are important, we need to get to young men before they upload their naked exes to Instagram.

Most things broadcast once on the Internet live there forever – the damage is done. Awkward as it may be, parents and teachers need to drum into preteens that revenge porn is a horrible (and illegal) thing to do to someone, with devastating, long-term impacts. Whether you call it empathy building or bystander training, the message needs to be compelling, and students need to hear it early.

We need education that leaves no grey areas on what constitutes a healthy relationship and what makes for an abusive one.

Ontario’s revamped sex-ed curriculum is promising. It raises the issue of sexual cyberbullying in Grade 4, when students are supposed to learn that it causes emotional pain, and advises them to get counsel if someone approaches them for sexual pictures.

By Grade 5, they should know that sharing such photos is illegal.

Consent comes in Grade 7, and by Grade 9, students review the red flags of abusive relationships. In Grade 10, they’re to be taught what being a good ex means, including keeping consensually shared intimate images to yourself. The message is clear: People don’t own their exes or their exes’ bodies.

As the status of women’s committee report points out, revenge porn is a particularly brutal crime against women and their mental health. The online attacks can be relentless, coming at all hours of the day and reaching them at home, which used to function as a safe haven for bullying victims.

Perpetrators feel disinhibited and grow more cruel than they might be in person because their victims can’t see them. And the audience reach of the victimization is immense, going well beyond the classroom.

Revenge porn is just one disturbing crime among many in a wide spectrum of cyberviolence against women, which aims to humiliate and break victims down, as evidenced by the suicides of 15-year-old Amanda Todd in 2012 and 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons a year later.

Both young women were cyberbullied with sexually explicit photos posted online.

“Anything we can do to bring accountability in the face of anonymity is a good thing,” said Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu, the committee chair who helped table the report last month and consulted with Facebook on cyberbullying. Gladu is happy with Facebook’s current efforts: “The length of time these images remain up and the sharing of the images to a broader audience are part of the victimization.”

While it’s laudable that Facebook will now be playing whack-a-mole with revenge porn across its platforms, the fix is far more complex and has to start years before nude selfies start floating around school halls.

We just need teachers and parents who are willing to go there. If they don’t have the tools, they should invest in people who do – classroom programs such as Roots of Empathy and MediaSmarts, which introduces the concept of good digital citizenry.

The best type of teaching falls under the idea of “social norming”: Young men need to grasp that revenge porn is not normal, that using their female classmates’ sexuality against them – and bullying them to death with it – will never be normal and should not elevate them among their male peers.

If we don’t lay out these norms for young men early, we shouldn’t be surprised when something far more toxic calcifies in them.

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Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

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