In today’s digital world, we have become curiously tolerant of leading increasingly public lives. We “check in” to post our real-time locations, “friend” and communicate with people who are often only vaguely connected to us and publish photos and opinions for any inquiring mind to discover. We now embrace transparency in nearly every area of our lives.
But accompanying the shift is a new breed of problems. Those of us facing societal backlash for compromising or raunchy photographs that somehow went public can attest to this. Although the subjects of these photos generally never intend for them to get out, we still tend to blame them for their own exposure.
The focus is always on the photo’s subject, not he who publicized explicit pictures only meant for one person’s eyes. We convince ourselves that the hapless victim in the situation deserves our judgment because she dared to engage with her sexuality — too commonly deemed improper behavior for females. We do so to comfort ourselves by forcing a distance between us and the photo subject to somehow distance ourselves so that we could never be subject to such misfortune.
Websites like The Dirty, Is Anyone Up and countless spinoffs are breeding grounds for these “slut-shaming” practices. They allow users to post defamatory photos, videos and statements about others. Even worse, these posts are typically sent along with identifying information like a Facebook profile link. With worldwide circulation and a frightening permanence, these websites are a “Burn Book” 2.0 with consequences that go well beyond what we saw in Mean Girls. Lost jobs, decimated reputations, mental health issues and unrelenting harassment are considered common outcomes. A young teenager haunted by blackmailing and bullying that resulted from the exposure of a photo captured without her knowledge took her own life this fall.
The vital issue here is not that women need to make so-called “good choices” and simply avoid taking a sexy photo. The root of the problem is that these “revenge porn” websites grant perpetrators the ability to wreak complete havoc on someone’s life for an indefinite time period with absolutely no requirement of cause or consequences.
Protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, operators of these websites cannot be held liable for content posted by their users, even though material often appears to violate defamation, libel and privacy laws. With no obligation to take anything down, the men behind these websites notoriously ignore the pleading of the people who ask to be removed from the sites, getting money from the anguish of others.
The CDA was meant to protect a safe internet, but the federal statute has inadvertently served to shackle each of us to a digital identity that may be entirely dictated and manipulated by others. A culture that permits the unmitigated pursuance of arbitrary “revenge” and “punishment” through public shaming epitomizes the way in which an “eye for an eye” leaves us all blind. All we accomplish is fueling a society in which trusting anyone appears risky — as well as assuring that pretty much no one in our generation will ever be able to run for public office. The era of screenshots and sophisticated search tools leaves a steady trail of ruined lives.
A class action lawsuit filed against a prominent revenge porn website and its hosting company this week offers an important opportunity for Section 230 to be amended. In the meantime, we must focus on developing our own new-age method of forgiving and forgetting.