Helping Domestic Violence Survivors Safely Break The Silence

by Storyful journalist Emily Thomas

Unsplash/Milada Vigerova

Emma Murphy couldn’t keep silent any longer. On July 6, the 26-year-old mother of two from Dublin, Ireland, appeared in a Facebook video wearing a pink GAP hoodie with her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her black eye was hard to miss. In the 5-minute video, Murphy details her repeated alleged abuse at the hands of her partner and the father of her children, after she confronted him about cheating. As her son plays on the staircase behind her, Murphy fights back tears while recounting how the abuse began and how she gathered the courage to leave. She decided to share her story so visibly, she says, to raise awareness about domestic violence so that other women might feel empowered to walk away from similar situations.

“Our lives are completely torn apart and they’re going to know that their daddy hit their mommy and that’s not something children should see,” she told the camera.

Facebook/Emma Murphy Global Business Developer

Murphy ends her video with a call to action for other victims to leave their abusive partners: “You need to find the courage and get away from anything that’s as unhealthy as violence go to your friends and family, people who love you, who care about you.” Her video logged 6 million views within days of posting and to date has almost 10 million views and thousands of comments. A scan through them reveals that her story helped inspire other survivors to share their own.

As October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, we looked at some of this year’s most moving stories of abuse from social media, to put a face to the sobering statistics of domestic violence and offer some guidelines for journalists on covering socially-native stories of abuse. For example, each minute, almost 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner in the US, according to a 2010 survey by the CDC (for black women, the rate is 35 percent higher than for white women). Worldwide, estimates show 35 percent of women have been or will be abused by an intimate partner, with some measures as high as 70 percent, according to UN Women and the World Health Organization.

We spoke with Erica Olsen, deputy director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, to gain more insight about the implications of survivors using social media platforms like Facebook to raise awareness about domestic violence

“Emma Murphy’s online disclosure was an incredibly courageous act,” Olsen told Storyful. “She has definitely drawn attention to the issue of domestic violence and created a space where people are talking about it, which is critical to creating social change.”

Journalists may have to battle conventional wisdom that awareness equals safety in all instances, however. It’s crucial to “avoid one-size-fits-all suggestions for survivors,” Olsen said. While Murphy’s story appears to have had viral success, we can’t look at it in isolation.

In May, The Daily Beast covered the story of a woman named Lily, contacted by her ex-partner on Facebook via her “other” messages, where notes from non-Facebook friends get sent. Lily says he had repeatedly beat and raped her nearly two decades ago and was now easily able to find her online because of Facebook’s “authentic name” policy, which requires users to provide their real names on their profile. (Read NNEDV and Facebook’s Privacy and Safety Guide for Survivors of Abuse here.)

Another woman who spoke to the outlet grappled with a similar dilemma: Maintaining a social presence, or possibly endanger her family’s safety. She joined the social network to watch over her teenage children’s activity.

“I couldn’t tell them at that point that the main reason we all had to stay offline was because their biological father was still looking for every one of us and had threatened to kill us,” she told the Daily Beast. “It’s a fine line to walk when you want to protect your children but know deep down that they’re going to [go online], even behind your back if necessary.”

The most dangerous time for victims of domestic violence is when they are attempting to leave or have left, Olsen said told Storyful. “Many abusers respond by escalating abuse and violence. Stalking, assaults, and murders are more likely to occur during this time and anyone who wants to escape an abusive partner should make sure they do it when they feel comfortable and safe to do so.”

Once relocated, an abused person’s ability to stay anonymous or to hide her whereabouts becomes extremely important for her safety, Olsen said. “Even if their location or personal information isn’t a concern, survivors should consider whether the abuser would retaliate for the public disclosure.”

Survivors discussing their stories with journalists can choose to remain anonymous to protect their identity and their family, or like Murphy, use their real names as a form of power. The major issue is, however, that anonymity isn’t often an option on social media, as Lily’s story demonstrates. For victims, it’s crucial to consider the risks before posting publicly about their abuse and for the press to take this into consideration. Olsen says to consider safety and privacy concerns before posting a story from a personal account to ensure personal information, like one’s location, isn’t public.

Women from the Laynie Foundation, a non-profit mental health agency, participating in the Black Dot Campaign

The Black Dot campaign, which launched on Facebook in September, was a very different type of public awareness effort that demonstrated these dangers. The viral campaign encouraged victims of domestic violence to draw a black dot on their hand as a symbol of a call for help. But, it potentially put its participants at risk. The campaign, started by a survivor of domestic abuse, inspired many victims to participate and ultimately post photos of their dotted palms on social media platforms — not what the creator of the campaign says she envisioned. She had hoped it would be a silent way for victims to start a conversation about abuse with friends who recognized the symbol.

(This image appeared on another news outlet without the user’s account name blocked out)

“When things go viral and worldwide, you kind of lose control,” she told BBC Trending in September. “A lot of survivors are putting their dots on their hand, but that’s not what the original idea was.”

After heavy criticism online, the campaign closed down.

“With the Black Dot Campaign, the safety strategy suggested was really something that could work best if it wasn’t a well-known strategy for getting help,” Olsen says. “After something like that goes viral, survivors aren’t the only ones who have heard about it, but abusers have too, making it a possibly unsafe option for survivors to attempt.”

A search for the campaign on Google turns up dozens of articles, many with embeds like the Instagram post above without the user’s account information blurred out or permission granted to the outlet to embed. This additional exposure via digitally publishing on a news platform to thousands of readers increases a social media user’s risk of being discovered. Journalists need to be empathetic and ethical when embedding; blur names and identifiers when possible, and always seek permission to embed.

As journalists, we seek to bring to light the voices of the marginalized — the victims, the survivors, the justice-seekers, the fighters. It’s a good day if we can accomplish that. But it’s important for journalists to consider that additional exposure to victims — in this case, survivors of abuse — often equates to an increased risk of danger. While journalists are increasingly relying on social media to add depth to stories by embedding publicly available Facebook, Instagram or Twitter posts, many users may not comprehend the consequences of these actions and soon find their personal story under tomorrow’s trending topics.

For journalists covering domestic violence stories that originate on social media platforms, Olsen suggests three hard and fast rules:

1) Always include contact information for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Someone in crisis can use this, or recommend it to someone they care about. (See below.)

2) Avoid one-size-fits-all suggestions for survivors.

Nuance and language are critical when covering stories of survivors. “There have been many instances where survivors have shared their stories and media coverage will include questions on what [could have been done] differently to avoid being a victim or to have left the ‘situation’ earlier,” Olsen says. Survivors are entrusting their intimate stories; there’s no room for hindsight about what could or should have been.

3) Ensure accountability is on the abuser.

Abusers are responsible for their actions. Coverage of this issue sends messages to abusers and survivors. The media need to make sure those messages are the right ones.

If you are a victim of domestic abuse or want more information on domestic violence and resources for victims, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline online or at 1–800–799-SAFE (7233).