Long-awaited emergency intervention

Baroness Joyce Gould discusses the impact the long-awaited emergency intervention funding will have

Yesterday the government announced long-awaited emergency intervention in the crisis of the Rape Crisis sector. It is a relief that the Government has responded before the end of this current financial year to the appeal. Most Rape Crisis Centres are in critical situations in terms of their funding and this announcement will allow groups to remain open so they will no longer have to reduce or freeze their service provision to the victims of sexual violence.

I am also delighted that the emergency funding has been agreed by a range of government departments including the Department for Communities and Local Government, Government Equalities Office, Department for Health, Home Office, Ministry of Justice, and the Cabinet Office. It is essential that these departments continue to work together to take responsibility for the support and well-being of victims of sexual violence, as well as violence against women more broadly.

On 6 March 2008 -- International Women’s Day -- I opened the annual debate in the House of Lords, in which I referred to the cost to society of violence against women. Putting together the health costs, loss of employment costs and costs to the criminal justice system, domestic violence alone costs £23 billion per year and the health-related cost of a rape is now calculated at £73,487 per case. Every 34 minutes a rape is reported.

My involvement in raising awareness of and preventing sexual violence also extends to my role as Patron of FORWARD (The Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development) which is committed to eliminating Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and other harmful gender-based discriminatory practices that violate the rights of women.

There are complex interrelations between all elements of violence, be they domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse, FGM, forced marriage, trafficking or honour killings. Each require a long term, integrated strategy that includes prevention work, with clear targeted funding and evaluation. The FGM Act of 2003 attempts to prevent girls from being taken out of the country for FGM, but policies such as these are often disconnected and as a consequence good policy does not always have an impact on the ground. The Government has yet to fund a comprehensive prevalence study on FGM, without which a robust argument for funding cannot be made. There is no strategy to implement or monitor the law, and no prosecutions have been made since the law was passed in 1958, despite estimates that about 7,000 girls are at risk.

I am also Chair of the Women’s National Commission (WNC), an umbrella organisation set up in 1969 to advise Government on the views of women in the UK. The WNC now have almost 500 partners reflecting the views of some 8 million women across the UK. Year after year, these women tell us that violence against women is a top priority for them, which is why the WNC Violence Against Women Group is one of the biggest and longest running of our working groups. We also run a Sexual Violence Group which monitors policy on all forms of sexual violence including prostitution, FGM, rape, and sexual assault. The Group is made up of service providers, academics, and liaises with Home Office officials on all aspects of sexual violence including trafficking and FGM. The Group is chaired by one of our WNC Commissioners and a leading expert in the field, Professor Liz Kelly. As WNC Chair, I have also been working closely with services providers and other experts from the sexual violence field who are campaigning for increased, secured funding especially for the rape crisis sector.

The Women’s National Commission also advocates on behalf of sexual violence support services in other ways. The four-yearly production of the Shadow Report for the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) outlines current progress by the Government on all issues relevant to women including sexual violence, detailing areas such as trafficking of women and girls, child trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, women in prostitution, women in adult entertainment, sexual offences, marital rape and FGM. The Report can be found on our website.

An integral part of awareness-raising on sexual violence is sex education in schools. Compulsory relationship and sex education which, if taken seriously by Government and senior staff in schools alike, will be a step towards ending sexual violence. It is imperative that young men are taught from an early age about consent and that violence against women forms a core module of this. Without this, we cannot hope to change attitudes that condone violence against women and hold women responsible for the violence that is committed against them.

Yesterday, Dr Nicole Westmarland, Chair of Rape Crisis England and Wales, welcomed the Government’s commitment to work towards the development of a ‘sustainable business model’ for the longer term. It is vital that we now work very closely across government departments and that this is led by the Minister for Women and Equalities.’ I would add that it is also vital we understand violence against women as a root cause and consequence of inequality.

Baroness Joyce Gould is the Chair of the Women's National Commission.

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.