The coronavirus has altered countless aspects of our daily lives, including our relationships with screens. While many of us were already bombarded with constant news alerts, emails, and social media notifications pre-pandemic, that digital onslaught has only increased — to say nothing of the fact that many of us now have to navigate what it means to go to school and work and socialize remotely via Zoom and FaceTime.
For survivors of digital exploitation — crimes such as stalking, harassment, “revenge porn,” and sextortion — this always-online reality brings with it a new layer of anxiety and trauma. “When your abuser has used technology as a weapon, then your fear response is going to be triggered by technology,” Francesca Rossi, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with survivors of digital violence and who is one herself, told Refinery29. “And many of my clients were already grappling and struggling with this before coronavirus.”
This is what a survivor’s experience might look like: Your ex used to stalk you, gaining remote access to your laptop camera and then spreading around private photos of you, which still makes you feel uncomfortable with being on-camera. You used to be able to avoid it in the past. But now, you have to call into a 20-person Zoom meeting for work and your boss asks you why you haven’t turned on your camera. At the end of the meeting, your boss says she’s taking one of those Brady Bunch-style screenshots of everyone “just for fun.” You’re afraid to opt out. Your friends keep inviting you to Zoom happy hours and aren’t sure why you always turn down their requests. Even your yoga teacher says, “I see some people don’t have their cameras on!” during class — something that Rossi said actually happened to her. Now, every ping, every buzz, every time your screen lights up, feels like someone reaching out to harm you.
It doesn’t help that many of us seem eager to recreate real-life experiences online in order to simulate corporeal connection to others. Panels, discussion, concerts, parties, classes — people are grasping for a semblance of the previous way of life. But when the same screens on which we brief our bosses on our progress, show our loved ones the latest loaf of bread we baked, and play trivia games with our friends, have also been weaponized against us in the past, even the most innocuous online interactions become difficult to navigate for survivors.
“People use technology to abuse others,” Rossi said. “Technology is being framed as our savior in COVID, and that really gaslights people who have been abused.”
To keep survivors from being retraumatized, we as a society need to start practicing “affirmative camera consent,” Rossi said. This simply means asking people before any video meeting or event — even your best friend — if they’re truly comfortable being on-camera. Or better yet, asking what their preferred method of communication is right now. Zoom happy hours aren’t for everyone, and maybe your friend isn’t RSVPing yes because she just wants to text.
“People aren’t asking for consent, and so now that everyone’s realm is in digital — employment, self-care, exercise, family life — everyone’s assuming that people have access to a camera and feel okay with it,” Rossi said.
For survivors, Rossi offers a coping guide that reminds them they are not alone if they’re experiencing symptoms like PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, and hyper-vigilance. She advises to “listen to your body, not your device,” do physical activity to calm down your brain, sleep without your phone, stimulate your senses, and laugh. She also emphasizes that connection with those who understand what you’re going through is more important now than ever.
Rossi began working with survivors of digital violence because she had a horrifying experience with it. In her victim impact statement in 2017, Rossi said she was grateful to still be alive after her ex-boyfriend Juan Thompson had stalked, harassed, and threatened her so viciously and relentlessly that she feared for her life every day.
After Rossi said she asked for help from law enforcement over 20 times, Thompson was finally arrested for making phony bomb threats to several Jewish Community Centers while pretending to be Rossi.
Carrie Goldberg, founder of law firm C.A. Goldberg, which specializes in sexual assault and abuse, online crimes like “revenge porn,” and domestic violence, worked with Rossi on her case. (It was through Goldberg’s newsletter that we discovered Rossi’s story.) She said she has seen an increase in digital crimes during this pandemic.
“More people are reaching out for help with cases of sextortion, particularly minors,” Goldberg told Refinery29. “We have also seen an uptick in stalking and harassment cases. It’s often a struggle to get tech companies to acknowledge and do something when their platforms are used for vicious harassment and stalking, but there are things we can do to help when the internet is weaponized,” like help file a restraining order, she said.
Rossi said she has also seen an increase in online stalking and harassment during the pandemic. She urges law enforcement to take digital violence seriously.
“This is not an ‘internet crime’; technology may have facilitated it, but all of this occurred in real life,” she wrote in her victim impact statement. “The police diminished my abuse because my life-threatening attacks came from phones and computers. This is what domestic violence looks like now.”
The stories of survivors should teach us that we don’t all experience the digital world the same way. For many people, our world of group Zooms and unexpected FaceTime calls is a minefield full of reminders of past trauma, a path that they tread carefully and in fear. Setting and respecting boundaries, just as we are encouraged to do in “real” life, is key.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).