Feminist Friday: #Twitterpurge, Women, and Internet Culture

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?

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64 Comments

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  1. Since social media sights are supposed to be “social” then they should not only come with freedoms, but also with a high degree of social responsibility. It is absolutely dreadful that this was not only initiated, but that nothing of substance was done to discontinue it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought that allowing for what was in some cases child pornography to get online was simply appalling. The moderators ought to have erred on the side of caution and banned any images of that nature. I don’t really understand what they have to gain by letting this shameful display of human cruelty to continue existing on their sites.

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        1. Well, part of the problem here is that there is no moderation. Twitter doesn’t moderate or even monitor what happens on Twitter. They rely on user reports, and only user reports, to police the site, which is a problem that is magnified when content like this goes viral.

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        2. Absolutely, Diana. I know that Twitter has very few resources to deal with monitoring. I don’t really know what the solution could be other than teams of volunteers that can be trusted and who each would be in charge of a particular topic. I wonder whether that would work… Still, once the problem is discovered at least then they should be quicker to act.

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        3. Perhaps? I’m inclined to think that social media sites in general (and Twitter just highlights it because of the number of users and the abundance of content coupled with the ease of sharing) should be held to higher standards of content monitoring than they currently are. Free speech is important, but so is safety, and time and time again we’re hearing stories of stalking, harassment, and/or spreading damaging information, such as in this situation, with no onus on the social media network for what happens there.

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  2. Uuuugh, I was out of town when you posted this on Friday and I knew I had to come back to see what the discussion was. This is horrifying! The internet is like this giant megaphone that augments reprehensible attitudes and behaviors because people can more easily find other people who approve of them and encourage them, so they do and say these terrible things with peer approval and virtually no impunity. Misogynists are suddenly misogynists with far-reaching voices. And if someone happens to disagree with them – civilly or uncivilly – oh then it’s easy to dismiss them because they’re just activist trolls.

    Even worse are the people like the sexist dude I had a run in recently, who parade as “gentlemen” and then go around making judgments about women because of how many men they’ve slept with. At first you think that they sound sort of open to reason, so you try to have a discourse with them about slut-shaming, but then it turns out they’re just as obstinately and ignorantly sexist as the terrible people who thought #twitterpurge was a great idea.

    This is so frustrating. I’m sorry. I had a backlog of internet-based rage and had to get it off my chest. I just don’t understand the compulsion that takes you from “Oh hey, a naked picture from someone who trusts me enough to give it to me” to “I think the entire world should see this private photo.” That’s just utter crap.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I think you’re totally right. Especially about the slut-shaming. Men and women are both guilty of seeming nice until they encounter or discuss a promiscuous woman they don’t like, a pattern of behavior they don’t like, and then the true colors come out. And it’s easy for that to happen on the internet, where discussions are free-for-alls and asynchronous. I think that’s also one thing we’ve missed here—talking about the asynchronicity of the internet. I can come back to this Friday thread on a Tuesday morning and keep it going—and that happens with lots of internet postings. It’s not a one-off occurrence.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yep. If you’ll think back to the days when what we’re doing, day in and day out, was just a plan, I almost named a blog “Asynchronicity.” I may do that, yet.

        In all seriousness, the asynchronous nature of most internet communication is a very important and often-overlooked part of what’s going on on social media. On most networks, you can read something give no indication that you’ve even seen it, and spend a whole day thinking up a response. Then come back and post your response. There are positive and negative effects that go along with that. I’m not really sure how they shake out at this point, but I want them to be a net positive.

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        1. I think it’s a positive, but it’s very different, and it’s a difference that we don’t often end up discussing as being as relevant a quality of social media as it is.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I just want to say this has been a great discussion so far. Most of what I’d say has already been said, and I don’t know that I have very much to add. I’m still thinking about it, though. I may revisit it again.

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  4. I had never heard of this and I’m appalled that anyone would even think to do it. Maybe it calls for better policing and removal methods for the social networks themselves but it’s hard to balance free speech with privacy.

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    1. I agree. That’s really been the trick, and it’s why so many networks maintain a hands-off policy when it comes to the content on their site. I don’t think it’s enough, though, for users to be policing these spaces. We’ve got to become more aware of the Internet as an actual space and of certain acts (like posting nude photos sent with an expectation of privacy) as too problematic to ignore.

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  5. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Thanks Diana – we tend to take our participation of social media very complacently. Instant friendships become BFF’s very quickly for teenagers of both sexes and along with comes trust. It is devastating to have this happen. Everybody needs to exercise the block function if they spot any of these file # coming through their stream and report it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I just stumbled upon something I pinned a while ago:

    http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/mar/30/charlotte-laws-fight-with-internet-revenge-porn-king

    Completely relevant to everything we’re talking about. This mom fought to have her daughter’s pictures taken down. It is a great article. The most disturbing revelation for me was the article discusses how viewers of this one particular site had little interest in nude pictures that the girls themselves submitted. They were primarily interested in the pictures that created unsuspecting victims. It is the same undercurrent that makes someone want to rape or abuse a child. It’s about power and perversion. Also the article mentions the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative that’s working to get laws passed to fight this stuff…

    (I don’t know how to do a link when I’m leaving a comment, so you’ll have to copy and paste it if you want to check it out… sorry!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s not a solution. That’s blaming the victim for being an open, honest, and sexual (yes, and we were created that way) being rather than blaming the person who committed the egregious act.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Here’s an even simpler solution. When someone is comfortable enough with you to do the nude photo thing, and you both get pleasure out of it, DON’T SHARE IT ON THE INTERNET LATER just because you broke up or whatever.

      That solution puts the responsibility where it belongs.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. There is a great deal of trust in naked pictures. I still have naked pictures of a boyfriend I broke up rather messily with. I keep them because they were good memories of us being intimate together. I will never share them with anyone. That would completely violate that intimacy and trust and cheapen the experience we shared; even though there were harsh words exchanged at our parting. The willingness to broadcast such things, given in trust and intimacy, says a lot more about the a$$hole sharing them than it does about the person so featured. I suspect it will take a few lawsuits to end this crap.

        Liked by 2 people

    3. There are cases, many of them, of hacking someone’s personal computer and taking photos they never intended to share with anyone. The problem isn’t a photo. The problem is a sick twisted desire to shame and embarrass.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, you hit it on the head. I read that article. All of it. You’re right. And all other issues aside, the hacking just needs to have a draconian punishment attached to it. That’s the only thing that will stop it, I think.

        That’s about all i have the energy for tonight, but I’ll have more to say in the morning, I am sure 🙂

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  7. I agree with Leah, there needs to be specific training and protocol for law enforcement. As it stands now, they seem to be winging it in their responses and everyone wants someone else to deal with it. It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to manage/police when it comes to pictures being posted. I don’t know what that management would look like, but surely someone smarter than me can come up with a solution.

    But also, the underlying problem is the same story, different day. People feeling the right to own, use and abuse women and their bodies. This is the core of the issue. The lack of concern for these girls. By those who post the pictures and by those who respond in an aggressive way towards these girls. This will keep happening, whether on Twitter or FB or off line, as long as women are viewed as commodities. Sorry to broaden the topic, I know it muddies things even more, but that is the part that astounds me. That so many people feel the right to do these things.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think law enforcement and social media policies are a big part of this conversation–what they’re not doing, what they could do, etc. It seems beyond time to start doing some serious looking at how to protect people on the Internet and social media when they are violated. And I’m glad that you broadened the topic. As you said, I see this as a bodily violation. It’s the use of the body without consent, even if it is on a digital platform.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think that part of the problem is that we don’t really think of the internet as “real.” We make up personas and try to distance ourselves from the cyberrealm and real life. But this line is gradually blurring, especially for our youth. You’re right that law enforcement really is just doing their best to interpret current law, and keeping up with this change in the way our society works is challenging. Perhaps it should be treated like media circulation? (I don’t really know, I’m just throwing it out there as something to consider and spark discussion.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m glad you brought this up. Diana and I discussed it while she was writing this post. It’s something I harp on a bit. These last few months have convinced me that social media is so advanced and pervasive now that it should be thought of as one more area of real life. I never use the “online/real life” distinction any more. I say “online/offline.” That’s a small change, but it’s an important one, I think. This is why I’ve taken such pains to make sure that anyone who finds the Sourcerer blog or Twitter account can easily find a personal blog or Twitter account that display actual photos of me. The sorcerer has become a persona, and a very attractive one, apparently, but I don’t want it to ever become a mask.

          I’ve wandered a bit. The point is that I’m not sure a lot of people who do things like share these images fully appreciate the consequences of their actions.

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        2. I wouldn’t disagree. For this reason I have a fairly public online persona as well. Our youth chat with each other via text message while they’re at the dinner table; you would think they would realize that there’s very little distinction between the two these days. Business is conducted online with greater and greater frequency; most people won’t even accept faxes for communication anymore, never mind letters. If we’re going to be a computerized society, then the consequences of online actions need to be taken seriously.

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  8. It seems important that men jumped on this to post revenge pictures of women, rather than anything else something generic like the “all crimes are legal” inspiration. I mean, was anybody twitter purging anything else?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes, you’re right.

      There were a few other things posted, gruesome photos of “this will happen to you if,” but by and large the hashtag was used for revenge porn. It started that way, with the teenager in the Los Angeles area posting nude photos of what seemed to be an underage girl, and I guess it took off from that original post.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Absolutely horrible. The one positive of misogyny being so exposed in this way is that we know have a greater awareness of the extent to which it exists and needs to be weeded out. #Twitterpurge, etc. leaves a physical trail -evidence that there is a real problem here that needs to be remedied.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I absolutely agree that this has done more to expose misogyny and how prevalent it still is. This and the response to #YesAllWomen by some people and the FB cleavage debacle are providing a horrific and costly paper/digital trail. Our responses and reactions can serve to call it out and fight back. The shame needs to be directed squarely at the people posting these pictures. They should be the ones cowering and fearful. Not the girls who were manipulated or victimized.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m with you, Gretchen. It’s up to women and men to speak out against the misogyny that we see- name it, call for change- and yes, don’t blame the victims. I’ve been very much bothered by the blog posts by women who are anti-feminist -and it is important to remember that a lot of them are caught up in the patriarchal paradigm and not allow the system to continue to turn women against each other over this one.

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        1. Yes. By and large, those women against feminism are young white women. And I think those women miss, all too often, not only the feminists who have created the world they live in, but also how imperfect things are for other women.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree—-I just wish there were some way to really combat this sort of thing. Our social network policies and laws need to catch up with our technology, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m reminded of this article from back in January: http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/women-arent-welcome-internet-72170/

    #twitterpurge shows how easy it is now for misogynists to launch attacks on individual women. But I want to be clear that the existence of the Internet, which has provided a way for women, POC, queer people, and other people who are not published in mainstream media, to break in and make their voices heard more, and has allowed independent feminist media to survive. The problem is not the Internet, but the misogynists’ use of the medium, and, moreover, social media sites’ and forums’ refusal to act to deal with threats, copyright issues, and protect their users from those who would and do abuse them. The police and other law enforcement also need to be trained about how to deal with these cases. Not just to make laws, but to actually enforce them.
    http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/07/_twitterpurge_is_revenge_porn_we_need_laws_to_stop_the_non_consensual_posting.html

    Liked by 4 people

    1. 🙂 Glad you mentioned the links in this comment so I could go get it out of the filter.

      I’m glad you posted the Slate article link—that’s actually where that Mary Adkins quote came from. I thought it was a really compelling piece with a real handle on why we need laws for revenge porn. And I remember reading that first article when it came out—it was one of the pieces that spawned an internet sexism piece I wrote.

      I don’t think the Internet is the enemy. You’re right—it has give us lots of ways to add voices to the mainstream, to the master narrative. I think though, that you’re right on with the fact that we need better policies and actual laws that deal with what happens. We can’t continue to think of the Internet as free-for-all non-space that, because it exists only in words, coding, and images, shouldn’t be policed. We’re reaping the consequences of that, and they’re ugly ones. At the same time, I think we should still have a general freedom to speak, create, and post. The lines are the thing—where to draw them and how to enforce them.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. We women perpetuate slut-shaming, and the best thing in the world we could do for each other would be to stop it. In a culture in which our “sexual capital” is so apparently highly valued, we deride each other if we perceive that we have more of it because it makes us feel better about ourselves (or that the other one might have more of it than we do soon, recognizing that age apparently reduces our sexual capital.) We also try to shame other women who do not obey the social conventions that we were “forced” to adopt as pre-teens or teenagers, just like the African grandmothers who force their granddaughters into female circumcision. A recent study has suggested that even though we associate perceived sexual behaviour with the word “slut,” the real motivator for throwing that word around at each other is social class: http://globalnews.ca/news/1373537/study-examines-why-girls-call-each-other-sluts-its-not-about-sex/. What’s interesting is that ironically, women who are less promiscuous are more often saddled with the label. We need to stop worrying about whether the women around us are being obedient to the social custom and spend more time worrying about our own self-image and self-respect. If we used the social engineering technique of shaming to deride those of us who deride other women on the basis of body type or perceived sexual behaviour, “slut-shaming” would stop within a generation.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I absolutely agree about the slut-shaming. I saw that a lot as I was going through the hashtag. It was both from men and women, but the insults from women were different. From men, the insults were usually about the woman whose photograph was posted or about a specific woman. From women, comments were generally made in a general way about all women who would/do send naked photographs. It’s a small difference, but I think it’s an important one.

      And I know exactly what you mean about the irony of the term being used for women who aren’t actually promiscuous. The times in my life that I was shamed the most were times when I wasn’t in the least promiscuous—in high school, as a virgin, and then as a married woman who was faithful. It’s all quite confusing, and none of it should matter, because what happens between consenting parties shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Slut shaming by anyone needs to stop. Women need to support and build up other women (and men for that matter, everyone) instead of tearing each other down. And your comment makes me wonder why we don’t call out the slut shamers/ fat shamers/ any kind of shamers more readily. I can think of a few instances where I maybe have softly and sometimes harshly come to a woman’s defense but I don’t think I have ever expressed clearly my disgust at the person doing the shaming (I mean I have when I’ve heard men do it, but I haven’t been nearly as vehement in my response when I’ve witnessed women doing it.) And sitting here now I can’t believe I didn’t come back on them as harshly as I have with men. Thank you for saying this…

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree. I’ve been guilty of doing the same, especially of not speaking up when this kind of shaming happens. When I was younger, I even engaged in it, despite knowing how badly it hurt when it happened to me.

        Have you guys heard about Slutwalks? Here’s the NOLA link: http://slutwalknola.org/. Essentially, it’s a protest movement bent on taking back the word, making the term less derogatory.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. What somebody does privately is absolutely nobody else’s business. The women who have sent these pictures deserve nothing more or less than for the rest of society to stand up and defend them. Not to receive the kind of abuse that the men who actually publicly shared these pictures, SHOULD be getting. I want to say, “I can’t believe something like this is happening.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Agreed on all counts. I’ve seen, in going through the hashtag, some remonstrances against those who are posting photos that they likely solicited, sent to them in confidence. As tends to happen, there was an outcry. Unfortunately, that always comes way after the damage is done, and it’s never in proportion to what happened—always too little, too late.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. I think social media is a really tricky apparatus, and I think we’re seeing that we cannot continue to think of these spaces as only virtual anymore. They reflect and affect what happens offline, and they have serious consequences sometimes. It also, I think, serves to highlight the ways that we haven’t even begun to see the ramifications of what we’ve created.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think you’re right. It’s only going to get worse as time goes on because of increasing mobile access and things like storage getting cheap. (I have half a TB of storage under lock and key in my home office. It has seven computers backed up on it. That device cost me less than $50.)

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    1. I agree, which is why I connected the story about Jada to this, as well. She’s a young girl who was raped and then bullied when that rape was posted in a video online. It’s so heartless.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Well, I probably should’ve tied it in more clearly, too. I just added a Pin with her story on it, but I think it’s absolutely linked to what we’re seeing with movements like #twitterpurge.

          Liked by 1 person

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