A new form of online abuse known as ‘Zoombombing’ has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, while reports of image-based sexual abuse have surged.
When Elena Soper decided to shave her head for charity during the height of lockdown, she invited her friends to mark the occasion with her on Zoom. However, the 29-year-old had no idea strangers would crash the meeting, expose themselves and hurl abuse at her.
This form of online violence has been dubbed ‘Zoombombing’, and it first emerged when hundreds of millions of people downloaded the popular videoconferencing app last March.
Elena, who is a co-director of The Empower Project – a charity that campaigns to end online abuse against women, said: “About five minutes into the Zoom call, all of a sudden loads of people started joining.
“All we heard was someone yelling ‘you f*cking feminist c*nt’, and then it just went mental. There was loads of swearing, there were racial slurs being shouted, there were people masturbating in their webcam, and they just kept joining.
“Within the space of 20 seconds, 100 people joined the call. They were screaming down the camera, it was total chaos – I just shut the call down. It was horrific.”
The incident had a serious impact on Elena’s mental health, triggering the PTSD she has suffered from since she was raped by a stranger eight years ago.
According to a report carried out by campaign group MeTooEP, 16% of the 5,000 people they surveyed had endured Zoombombing, stalking or threats on the internet during the pandemic. Zoom have since installed various safe-guarding features and made it compulsory to set either a waiting room or password.
Elena believes the trolls gained access to her meeting from a link on Twitter, which she had sent in a tweet to the CEO of HIV Scotland – the charity she was raising money for.
She isn’t alone in her experience of online abuse. There has been a 22% surge in reports of image-based sexual abuse to the Revenge Porn Helpline since the beginning of the public health emergency. Image-based sexual abuse is an umbrella term used to describe the non-consensual sharing, threatening to share, or taking of sexual and intimate images.
Durham University Professor, Dr Kelly Johnson, whose research includes image-based sexual abuse, says online harassment has increased during the pandemic because people are spending significantly more time on the internet.
She said: “More and more people are communicating online and maybe if you are separated from your partner during lockdown, you are more likely to be exchanging intimate images, which is giving more opportunity to online violence against women to grow unfortunately.
“Image-based sexual abuse can be a life-changing experience for victim-survivors. It can make them feel isolated, ashamed, unsafe and really shatter their trust in other people.”
In Scotland, under the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016, it is an offence to share or threaten to share an intimate image or video. There are similar laws in England and Wales.
But Dr Kelly Johnson says the legislation is outdated and is failing victim-survivors.
In her recent report on image-based sexual abuse she calls on the UK government to adopt a comprehensive criminal law to cover all forms of image-based sexual abuse and eliminate loopholes. For example, it is only a criminal offence in England and Wales to take an upskirt image if the offender does so for sexual gratification or to cause distress.
‘Upskirting’ is where someone takes a picture under a person’s clothing without their permission. The law means that upskirt images taken for ‘a laugh’ or for financial gain are not covered. As a result, the intimate image can then be shared – onto a porn site for example – without any legal repercussions. Scots law is similarly limited to only some motivations, and there is no upskirting law in Northern Ireland.
Laura Tomson, co-director women’s charity Zero Tolerance, said: “Online abuse has the same cause as other forms of violence against women; gender inequality.
“During this pandemic, technology has been vital for many of us to connect with loved ones and to have our voices heard; abusers want to take this important lifeline away from women.
“Like any other form of violence against women, online abuse has a serious impact, and is unacceptable.”
Elena continues campaigning to end online and tech abuse against women with The Empower Project, who have recently launched a new two-year strategy outlining how they will work with local communities to help combat the issue.
This article is a part of the Write to End Violence Against Women campaign and awards organised by Zero Tolerance, which celebrate high-quality writing around the subject of violence against women. Poppy Watson was awarded a bursary by Zero Tolerance to write a series of articles to raise awareness on violence against women and promote gender equality. For more information and Media Guidelines visit Zero Tolerance at http://www.zerotolerance.org.uk
If you or anyone you know is at risk of image-based sexual abuse, please call the Revenge Porn Helpline on 0345 6000 459 for advice and support.