Modern field guide to security and privacy

Why an algorithm may be the answer to fight 'revenge porn'

Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter have all taken a harder line against so-called revenge porn. But many experts are calling for a more robust technological solution to scrub it from the Web.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Online harassment is one of the unfortunate byproducts of the Internet Age. And despite efforts from digital rights advocates, parenting groups, and lawmakers, the problem of abuse, bullying, and humiliation via social media seems to have only grown worse in recent years.

Now, three of the biggest social media sites in the world have issued new policies meant to make it easier to kick abusers off their platforms.

Facebook changed its community standards to take a harder stance against hate speech, violent images, nude photos, and bullying. Twitter banned doxing, the act of posting sensitive personal information to harass, discredit, or humiliate someone. And, for the first time, both companies along with Reddit explicitly banned so-called “revenge porn,” which is the practice of posting sexually explicit images of someone without their consent.

The collective actions have been hailed as a move in the right direction to curb online abuse and privacy violations. But many advocates say more still needs to be done, and are calling for better technological solutions to help end these abuses on both large social media platforms as well as upstart social apps. 

“It'd be ideal if there was some way for these platforms to share information," said Erik Martin, the former general manager for Reddit who recently joined Depop, a mobile shopping company. He suggested that tech companies could exchange information about abusive content in the way that The Spamhaus Project releases information about spam networks to help block spammers. 

An algorithm could even be designed to search the Web and flag sexually explicit images that have been identified as revenge porn, said Mr. Martin. That way, he said, those kinds of damaging and humiliating images could be removed from the Web faster, and in a way takes the onus off the victim for having to search every Internet platform for the videos or photos.

According to their new policies, Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter will delete offensive content and in some cases ban the user from their platforms. But eradicating revenge porn is trickier because images that show up on Reddit and Twitter can, and will, spread to other platforms such as Tumblr and 4chan, a sort-of digital bulletin board. What's more, Twitter and Reddit will act only if victims or others find and report offensive online behavior. 

Yet algorithms can play a big part in discovering and then hiding abusive content on the Web, according to Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami who helped draft a federal anti-revenge porn bill. She wants Google to bury the offensive content by updating its algorithm. Ms. Franks told Mashable that Google could hide photos categorized as revenge porn within its search function. It already does something similar to remove child pornography from search results.

Revenge porn has mostly been associated with jilted boyfriends posting explicit images of ex-girlfriends. According to a recent study by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 90 percent revenge porn victims are women. Hackers have also become the culprits by breaking into computers and cloud storage services in search of sexually explicit photos and videos. Last year, hackers broke into iCloud accounts of dozens of celebrities, releasing photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton.

The practice first garnered mainstream attention in 2010 when a website called Is Anyone Up began posting revenge porn photographs. The site has since been shut down and its creator, Hunter Moore, pleaded guilty last month to aiding and abetting hacking in order to obtain sexually explicit material.

Charlotte Laws, a prominent anti-revenge porn activist who helped make the case against Mr. Moore, said she's pleased Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit have taken actions against the practice, and hopes other sites will follow their lead. 

“There is definitely a societal shift in favor of protecting victims,” said Ms. Laws. “The atmosphere is 100 percent different than it was three years ago when I began fighting Hunter Moore and revenge porn.”  

Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D) of California plans on introducing the federal anti-revenge porn bill in the coming months. So far, 17 states now have anti-revenge porn laws.

But laws won't stop the practice unless Internet users as a whole band together against the revenge porn, said Laws. To spearhead that charge, Laws launched the "Tribs over Trolls" project where strangers online send compliments en masse to people being harassed.

“This is essentially a push for people online to spring into action when they notice someone being bullied,” Laws said. These online strangers would neutralize and hopefully drown out the abusive users with their nice tweets and messages sent to the victim. Instead of an Internet where abusers hide behind anonymity to attack people, she's advocating for one in which they overwhelm abuse with positivity.

 

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