Monday, February 03, 2014

The Role of Bystanders in Digital Dating Abuse, Intimate Image Abuse and Cyberbullying

In typical dating relationship violence the bystanders generally know the victim and/or the abuser. They may be mere witnesses to the abuse, or knowingly or unknowingly help facilitate it. These same types of bystanders exist in a digital environment but are joined by two significant additional types of bystanders – strangers who witness the abuse and know neither the victim nor the abuser, and “cybermobs”, ”flamers” or “trolls”.

Offline abusers, typically, avoid witnesses to their abuse (especially when the abuser is seeking to hide the abusive activity or blame it on the victim). Even when the abuse is designed to ruin the reputation of someone, it is staged not to appear as abuse.  As a result, offline abuse is often a secret to everyone except perhaps the victim’s closest friends and family. 

But because of the nature of online social communities with more than 1 billion users, it is highly likely that strangers will witness digital abuse that is posted online or sent in viral messages. When someone shares an intimate image of a third party taken by someone else, and you don't know the person in the intimate image, you are a "stranger witnessing digital abuse."

Those who receive or view that picture “of some naked girl” are strangers witnessing digital abuse. They can report it, ignore and delete it or pass it on. And their choice can make a significant difference in the duration and scope of the digital abuse. And, to the victim trying to contain the abuse, it can make all the difference in the world. Empowering bystanders to report what they see is crucial. To do that, we have to address the issues that cause them to ignore it and move on:
·        Awareness programs have to teach them what should be reported.
·        The bystander must understand that a good faith report, even if it turns out to be wrong, will not come back and haunt them.
·        The networks need to make reporting abuse easy and remind their users that abuse reports are confidential.
·        And they must be convinced that their making the report makes a difference. If they think their abuse report will end up down a black hole, they won’t bother reporting what they see.

Reporting abuse is one of the easiest ways for a bystander to do something. Yet, few make the effort. Sometimes they aren’t sure if the report is warranted. They may worry that they have misread the situation and might get blamed for making a report that turns out to be groundless. 

They also often believe that the person or account being reported is given their name or contact information if they render a report. Some don’t know where or how to report something, or believe that the network or site doesn’t do anything when abuses are reported. Few understand what the network or site will take action on, never having read the terms of service when joining.

On top of these unknowns, bystanders often don’t want to get involved. It might take more time and effort than they are willing to expend. They may not have a stake in helping a stranger. And if the target is known to them, the abuser may be as well.

This is why it is crucial for their reports to be effective. Knowing where and how to report different kinds of abuse can sometimes mean the difference between someone taking action based on a report or it sitting in limbo. This year, as part of our StopCyberbullying initiative, we will be helping bystanders report digital abuse, intimate image abuse and cyberbullying through guides, apps and helplines.

For more information, visit and