As I write this, details are emerging about a Discord server (an online chat group), consisting of up to 500 Irish men who have been sharing thousands of private images of women without their consent. Early reports indicated that most of the images are ones the women would have shared with a romantic partner, privately, which have since been forwarded and shared repeatedly, eventually being added to these massive collections of thousands of such images.
The scale of this recent discovery and the technology platform being used are novel, but unfortunately none of the other pieces of the story are new.
This trend involves two overlapping phenomena. Firstly, a change in personal behaviours, particularly in romantic relationships, facilitated by technology. Secondly, a deeper, more organised misogyny online which is radicalising young men at an alarming rate.
In recent years there have been many high-profile cases like this. In 2016 there were reports of a Facebook group of up to 200 men on a college campus sharing pictures of women they’ve slept with. In 2017, a video of journalist Dara Quigley naked was shared online, leading to her tragic suicide.
This recent story was different in both scale and intensity. It involved men trading thousands and thousands of images in collections they have built up over time. This is reminiscent of the “celebgate” incident in 2014, where the men involved would deploy elaborate schemes to attain and trade these intimate pictures, almost as if they were trading cards. I remember reading about one young man who would find a girl he liked on Facebook, message her boyfriend and offer to trade her nudes for celebrity images he might have, or try to blackmail the boyfriend into making the exchange.
That level of intent seems to be present in the Irish case too. Hundreds of men pouring hundreds of hours into acquiring, trading and discussing these private images. The discussions on these forums are less about scintillation and attraction and much more about deep seated contempt, anger and misogyny.
This trend is a powerful undercurrent in spaces men occupy online. There is an industry of pseudo-intellectuals and self-help-gurus preying on the frustrations and loneliness of young men, who feel robbed of a world promised as theirs to inherit, and being taught that women and feminism are to blame.
These young men can be militant when they organise online, with the most high-profile case being “Gamergate” in 2015, which involved incredible levels of targeted harassment towards women in the computer game industry. Like the generations of men before them who decried the acceptance of women in Golf clubs and country pubs, this generation aggressively defended a space they felt was theirs alone.
After the initial peak of activity, much of this group turned their focus to politics, creating “pepe the frog” memes and becoming one of the first sizeable support bases for a candidate with long odds and not much popular support – Donald Trump.
So where do we go from here? Let’s look at the technology, legislative and cultural options available to us.
The technology platform in use in this case was Discord, a chat-room type software which is incredibly popular with young people, with over 250m users worldwide. But before it was Discord it was often Facebook or Reddit, who have since staffed and resourced moderation more adequately to combat this activity.
Unlike hate-speech, bullying or political fact-checking, image-based sexual abuse is relatively easy to spot and remove, it is mostly just a question of resourcing and financing moderation teams and AI systems to do the work.
Unfortunately, as end-to-end encryption becomes the default for most messaging platforms, fighting this from a tech perspective alone might become more difficult, so to address this we also need legal changes and cultural changes.
On the legal side, sharing sexual images of a person without their consent is not currently illegal in Ireland. The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill which seeks to rectify this is working its way through the Dáil, moving to committee stage in December. This is positive and something our legislators should prioritise and expedite.
Of bigger importance again still is the cultural change needed. This is a tech newsletter, not a psychology one, so I can only offer a non-expert opinion here.
I have faith in the promise of young men in this country, I know they can grow to become better men than my generation and the generations before me. Indeed, many of them already have. We don’t help them by setting the bar low, and we don’t help the good ones thrive by letting the bad ones off the hook.
Through awareness campaigning, consent education, consciousness raising and empathy growing, I think we can build for a future where more and more men, when we’re sent or we see an image that was clearly private, personal and shared without consent, that our first reaction will be disgust or sadness, not enjoyment or interest.
Until that’s the case however, and for the cohort of men for whom that will never be the case, we need much stronger laws and increased resourcing of enforcement by all tech platforms to protect women’s privacy, safety and lives in a way that any citizen of a free country should have the right to expect.
Graham Dywer, convicted of the murder or Elaine O’Hara, may win his argument that the mobile phone data used to help convict him was obtained in contravention of EU law. The case is due before the ECJ in January. Link.
Paying Publishers. In several countries there is legislation at various stages of drafting and discussion about taxing tech companies to subsidise media companies. Some of this is progressing without waiting. Several publishers have already struck direct licensing fees with Facebook, YouTube already pays content creators, and now Instagram are planning a revenue-share programme with publishers. Link.
Global Rules. In an interesting case that I think sets a bad precedent, an Austrian supreme court has ruled that Facebook must remove specific posts not just in Austria, but all over the world. Link.
Driverful Cars. Uber are looking to sell their driverless car unit. Full driverless technology is a lot further off than many (myself included) would have predicted it’d be by 2020. Link.
💡 Interesting Links
Grilling YouTube. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while you’ll know my pet-peeve is how little scrutiny YouTube gets when it is one of the worst places for harmful content spreading online. So I was delighted to see this piece in Wired suggesting the get grilled alongside the others. Link.
Warning Labels on Trump’s Facebook posts, claiming that he had won the election, only slowed their spread by 8%. I’m not sure their goal was to reduce sharing, so trying to measure believability might be more important. Twitter, who did aim to limit sharing, reduced quote tweeting by 29% on their flagged tweets. Link.
Moderation Cartels. “The fear that a single actor can decide what can or cannot be said in large parts of the online public sphere has led to growing calls for measures to promote competition between digital platforms. To what extent should platforms have consistent content moderation policies? If standards and guardrails are imposed on the public sphere, should platforms work together to ensure that the online ecosystem as a whole realizes these standards, or would society benefit more if it is every platform for itself?” Link.
Reddit Quarantine. A paper looked at Reddit’s “quarantining” of harmful forums (called subredits), instead of banning them completely. It dramatically reduced the number of people seeing content from the subreddits, but the regular users seemed to become more defensively hardened in their beliefs. Link.