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‘No one is consenting’: How social media is re-traumatizing victims of domestic abuse

WATCH ABOVE: Former crisis counsellor and survivor of domestic abuse Ambreen Akbar talked about a video circulating online about a domestic assault and how it could re-victimize the woman involved.

As Peel Regional Police make a strong plea with the public to not share a video of an alleged domestic violence assault in Brampton, it brings into focus an ethical debate about how such videos can re-victimize people and potentially have legal implications.

“Video surveillance and social media are powerful tools that allow for the sharing of information and assist in investigations. However, sharing sensitive and graphic content can cause more harm to the victim and jeopardize court proceedings,” said Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah in a recent written statement.

Global News decided not to share the video. But despite the pleas from investigators, the video is still being circulated on social media.

READ MORE: Broken: A Global News series on Canada’s ongoing failure to end violence against women

Experts told Global News they believe police made the right decision in issuing the release.

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All agreed that the issue brings to the forefront the problem of sharing videos of this nature on social media and the impact it can have on the victim, the suspect, the court proceedings, and society in general.

Re-victimizing

Police said on Saturday officers responded to a call about an assault taking place between a man and woman in front of a home in Brampton.

Officers arrived and arrested the 37-year-old man who appeared in court on Sunday.

However, that same day police said video of the incident began circulating on social media, which prompted them to issue the release asking for people to stop sharing and posting it out of respect for the court proceedings and to not risk the re-victimization of the woman.

In most cases, the sharing of a video like the Brampton one is often done without the permission of those involved, which could result in re-victimization. It could also trigger others.

READ MORE: Shelters on the front lines help women flee violence — but they’re also in crisis

“You have to remember going through abuse, no one is consenting for it,” said former crisis counsellor and domestic abuse survivor Ambreen Akbar.

For Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a Ph.D student in social work at the University of Ottawa, it means a loss of privacy and control — especially when a woman doesn’t choose to have the story go public.

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“She might go to the grocery store or mall and someone could recognize her,” she said.

“So people can then label her as a victim and not be able to see her outside of that and what happened to her.

“It’s re-victimizing to be reduced to a status of a victim when you’re more than a victim.”

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In the end, all three women agree that it comes down to permission from the victim involved, even if it’s law enforcement hoping to release a video or picture in order to further an investigation or arrest a suspect.

“Survivors are often re-traumatized by either interactions with the criminal justice system or just by having their story told without their consent,” said manager of advocacy at the YWCA Toronto Jasmine Ramze Rezaee, adding consent should also always be sought if a bystander captures something on video and wishes to post about it.

“Regardless of the circumstance, active efforts to obtain consent should always be sought.”

The implications of ‘mindless sharing’

So why do people share?

Souffrant said for the most part, people do not have bad intentions when they share videos of this nature. She said it comes down to how it is done, highlighting the #MeToo movement and how women and men sharing their stories brought awareness to an almost never talked about subject.

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“It depends if it’s done with context, with resources and if the victim has control over the message that’s being shared,” she said.

“Is it because people just want to see a video for entertainment or is it because they really want to raise awareness and tackle this issue?”

Souffrant touched upon the idea of vigilantism where someone believes they might be helping a victim by sharing a video to shame the suspect.

“It goes back to this idea that it’s only bad people who do stuff like this, [but] I think we need to realize it’s something that’s all around us,” she said.

“We need to get away from this idea that it’s only a thing that bad people do.

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“It’s something that surrounds us and people who are well respected who could have good jobs and who seem like good people could do these things to women, as well,” Souffrant continued.

Ramze Rezaee brought up the topic of “mindless sharing” which could relate to the possible desensitization society has to violence.

“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe what I’m seeing’ or ‘It’s so wrong.’ It’s a very visceral emotional reaction without any consideration of whose life is being captured,” she said.

READ MORE: Are you experiencing abuse? Here’s how to get help

“The point is when we dehumanize a subject, when we become desensitized to violence, that feeds into a larger climate of gender-based violence, it normalizes it and therein lies the danger.”

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Akbar urged those who find themselves in a situation where they can share a video of this nature to reconsider.

“I would say don’t share it, think about your mother, sister and daughter,” Akbar said.

“Would you like them to be out there in front of that person?”

Lack of control

While social media can be a great tool to raise awareness and make people more educated on issues such as domestic violence in society, Souffrant said it all depends on how the message is conveyed.

“Once it [the video] is out there, there’s a lack of control on the outcome and what’s going to happen with the video,” said Souffrant.

“I think there needs to be some kind of collaboration with social media and the police because I don’t know otherwise how they can control others sharing or watching it.”

Ramze Rezaee emphasized the need for social media platforms to be “responsible for some of the activities that are engaged by their users.”

“Once it’s out there, there’s no turning back,” she said.

“The reality is that social media is not a neutral or inherently benevolent tool, it can very much be a weapon when it’s in the wrong hands.”

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“I think we should be very cautious about these tools and their implications for society and have clear protocols around the dissemination of certain content.”

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For Ramze Rezaee, she said it comes down to “consent, confidentiality, and understanding trauma and how it plays out should inform our protocols around these things because without that kind of guidance or compass, it’s the wild, wild west.”

Meanwhile, with respect to the video of the incident in Brampton, Ramze Rezaee re-emphasized the importance of police making the call to attempt to stop the video from being shared online because she said she believes both social media platforms and its users need to be more informed about the impact videos of this nature can have on survivors.

“These platforms profit off the activities of users but don’t do enough to protect the safety of women online,” she said, adding the YWCA Toronto, along with other movement partners, have advocated for a national action plan to end gender-based violence in the country.