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Technology-facilitated abuse: the new breed of domestic violence

Research has shown that 73% of women worldwide have suffered online abuse. Shutterstock

Domestic violence is a serious national issue in Australia and globally. It is an inherently gendered crime. Research consistently shows the overwhelming majority of offenders are male and the victims are female.

Australian governments have recently taken a strong stand against domestic violence, focusing mainly on preventing physical forms of abuse. For example, in 2015, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced it would implement a A$30 million campaign designed to reduce domestic violence against women and their children. Another example is the New South Wales government’s Domestic Violence Strategy 2013-2017, which aims to improve the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence.

But what is missing from these strategies is a focus on technology-facilitated domestic violence. This is a form of domestic violence that provides abusers a pervasive way to control, coerce, stalk and harass their victims.

It includes a range of behaviours. These include sending abusive text messages or emails, making continuous threatening phone calls, spying on and monitoring victims through the use of tracking systems, abusing victims on social media sites, and sharing intimate photos of the victim without their consent (“revenge porn”).

A well-publicised example of technology-facilitated domestic violence is the 2010 incident involving Lara Bingle, whose nude images were shared without her consent by her former partner, Brendan Fevola.

The first Australian study conducted to specifically investigate the use of technology in the context of domestic violence is the 2013 SmartSafe Project. The study involved surveying 152 domestic violence caseworkers and 46 victims in Victoria.

Almost all of the caseworkers who participated in the survey (98%) said their clients had experienced technology-facilitated abuse by a former partner. Five of the most commonly used technology and online platforms by abusers are:

  • smartphones (82%);

  • mobile phone (82%);

  • social media (82%);

  • email (52%);

  • GPS tracking (29%).

Other Australian studies further highlight that technology-facilitated domestic violence is prevalent and has significant “real world” implications. For example, in its review of domestic violence homicides occurring between 2000 to 2012, the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team observed that technology was commonly being used to stalk, monitor, and control their intimate partners while the relationship was on foot. This challenges:

… misconceptions that stalking behaviours usually only manifest after the relationship has ended.

On an international level, the United Nations, in its 2015 “wake up” report, estimated that 73% of females worldwide have endured online abuse. The report also urged countries to recognise that online abuse can be just as damaging as physical violence, and has negative consequences:

… for all societies in general and irreparable damage for girls and women in particular.

Given the ubiquity of digital communication devices, it is unsurprising that some people are misusing technology to abuse and harass their current or former intimate partners. The challenge is developing ways to tackle such abuse.

Unfortunately, technology-facilitated abuse has been given little, if any, attention in government initiatives aimed at tackling domestic violence. For example, the Domestic Violence Strategy does not mention technology-facilitated domestic violence.

There are federal and state laws that may deal with some forms of digital abuse – for example, stalking offences or using a carriage service to menace and harass someone. But there needs to be a co-ordinated national response, rather than a patchwork of legislation throughout Australia.

This is especially true given the borderless nature of the internet. This allows abusers to traverse geographical barriers to reach their victims through the use of technology.

It is also evident that there needs to be non-legal initiatives that focus on perpetrator accountability and challenge victim-blaming attitudes. In the SmartSafe Project, it was reported that:

… often police put the responsibility back onto the woman and say she should stop visiting Facebook or using devices.

In 2016 federal parliamentary debates, it was also suggested that domestic violence victims take extra precautionary steps by:

Shut[ting] off GPS and wi-fi, stay away from social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram; whatever – and remember that the perpetrator will be monitoring the sites of your family and friends to see you wherever you are, because you might pop up; they might take photos of you. So please make sure that children do the same.

Victims (and their children) should not be told to abandon their digital communications. The focus should instead be on holding abusers to account. Telling victims to forsake their online presence effectively drives women offline, marking the internet as yet another male-dominated space.

The aim should be to prevent perpetrators from further abusing victims through the use of technology, and ultimately changing misogynist and victim-blaming attitudes.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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