Over the weekend Something Happened on the Internet. Well, something happened on Twitter. It was called #twitterpurge, and though it seems to have slowed down a lot since then, it hasn’t quite ended. The hashtag was primarily used for revenge porn, with users posting nude photos of ex-girlfriends or lovers under the hashtag. The #twitterpurge hashtag is a stark contrast to #Yesallwomen, a movement that created mini-texts of empowerment and confession using tweets. This time, we were reminded that the Internet is not a safe place for women.
So what is this hashtag, and where did it come from? Last year, a film called The Purge was released. The premise was that, for one night, all crimes were made legal; this “purge” of crime had the dual effect of lowering crime stats for the rest of the year and providing population control. This year, the sequel to the film, The Purge: Anarchy was released. In the days leading up to the film’s release, a group of Twitter accounts managed by a teenager in the Los Angeles area started tweeting nude photos of what appeared to be underage girls, using hashtags like #SVCpurge and #twitterpurge. According to the Guardian, the premise was “to try to replicate the anything-goes phenomenon on the social networking site.” And it quickly caught on.
Users posted photos that had been sent to them with the expectation of privacy, and they sometimes used the Twitter handles of the girls in the photos as identifiers. Some of these girls were underage, which means that the users were distributing child pornography when they posted the nude photos. All of the girls were subjected to horrible comments about their bodies and their morality, often termed thots, sluts, or whores.
In a succinct statement of the problem, Mary Adkins says:
“Porn” is a misnomer since it draws the focal point to the wrong spot, at least from the victim’s point of view. Victims have lost jobs, dropped out of school, moved, changed their names, attempted suicide, and more, after having their photos posted without consent. The nonconsensual exposition of privately taken or acquired images of a person, particularly nude images, coupled with assaultive language amounts to deeply damaging abuse. (Emphasis mine)
Twitter policies have made the identification of and removal of these photos difficult, especially those that are not technically illegal. The network relies on users to report harmful or illegal content, maintaining, as most social networks do, a hands-off approach to policing content. This is increasingly problematic, especially with a large phenomenon like #Twitterpurge that involves thousands of users and Tweets.
The result is that there are still many nude photos out there of women who gave zero consent for their photos to be shared, and these photos are being passed around. And this is not the first time something of this kind has happened. It wasn’t that long ago that the subReddit Facebook Cleavage was the latest viral trend—a Reddit where users post their female friends’ Facebook photos, generally without the consent of the original poster, sometimes retaining identifying information. This is technically within-bounds of Facebook policies and Reddit policies, the photographs residing in a grey area as concerns ownership.
But these aren’t just photographs—they’re women’s bodies.
Using an image of someone’s naked body without consent is reprehensible. It takes away the agency of the person whose body is being used. And posting private communication, especially nude or explicit photographs, violates trust even when it does not violate social media policies or laws. The use of these photographs, of women’s bodies, can have devastating results–depression, job loss, suicide—for those who are affected. It has happened, and recently. More than once.
The stigmas we attach to nudity and to sex are front and center in movements like #Twitterpurge. They are being mapped onto women’s bodies. Often, the answer to this kind of treatment is that of name-calling or of chastising the original sender of the photograph. But is that the answer?
What do #Twitterpurge and movements like it say about Internet culture? What do they say about our boundaries and our treatment of women?