Spotted on Facebook: a sexist and degrading form of cyber-bullying in disguise

A new trend of "Spotted" Facebook pages is allowing people space to post anonymous abuse at individuals who can easily identify themselves, and then scolding dissenters for lacking a sense of humour.

If you’ve spent any time on Facebook recently, you’ve probably seen ten shared photos about how much somebody loves their mum, nine ill-spelt statuses about being tired, eight likes about how funny a video of a cat meowing is and seven statuses from a Spotted page. Originally limited to universities, these pages have spread like wildfire across Facebook, and have now started to encompass whole towns and cities as the trend for anonymous posting takes over. The posts range from the well-meaning "just found a lost cat on the street!" to the obscenely sexually threatening “To the slag in Poundland who id'd me for rizlas, Next time my cock will be so far down your throat you'll be shitting jizz for a week.” Posts are overwhelmingly focused on the physical attractiveness of women, usually worded in a less than eloquent, if not just downright sexist way.

Spotted pages were initially a novel way to confront loudmouths in university libraries, or the social media equivalent of lonely hearts columns, as lonelyguy01 posted about the beautiful girl he’d seen in the coffee shop and vice versa. However, this isn’t print where posts are carefully chosen and moderated. Facebook offers uncharted anonymous territory where a post can have twenty comments in less than five minutes, accusing people of being the subject of the post, or indeed the author. This is social media where a tirade of abuse can be posted anonymously - aimed very specifically at individuals who can identify themselves - yet not know who has posted the threatening, sexist or degrading comment. It’s cyber-bullying in disguise; dissenters are scolded for lacking a sense of humour, for not deferring to the apparently irrefutable concept of "banter", or for ignoring the good that the site has done - while it may have helped find a cat, it’s also passed on the unwelcoming message to the younger generation that Big Brother is ever-present and he really really cares about attractive you are.

People are literally no longer able to leave their front door without facing the possibility of being spotted and mentioned in a wider public forum - any statistic is up for discussion - too fat? People can abuse you about that anonymously! ID’d someone as part of your job at Sainsbury’s? Yep, your personal attractiveness is up for debate because you refused to allow a sixteen year-old to buy cigarettes.

There are no legal repercussions for naming and shaming others on Facebook, and for the more salubrious comments, it is likely that proceedings at the High Court would be the only successful way to get Facebook to release computer IP addresses. Even these measures lack gravity, however, as a claimant could simply argue that they had left their profile logged in. Meanwhile, sexist and threatening behaviour carries on being posted anonymously, as the moderation of comments and posts is left to the people who created to the page. Facebook has faced criticism in the past for ignoring threatening behaviour - when I reported the status about Poundland, I was told it had been reviewed and deemed acceptable. I can’t help but think that if it had been said outside of social media, the person could have faced serious legal consequences.
I contacted Spotted: Stratford Upon Avon to see how they moderate the comments and they replied with “With regards to posts we try to look at them as if we were the recipient and how we would feel, we also have Facebook filters on to remove some comments on posts for us but we also check every status and remove any comments not suitable”, however they admitted that it is impossible to moderate 24/7. This is the crux of the problem - a site which isn’t constantly moderated is the breeding-ground for bullies to play their anonymous hand, protected from any repercussions, whilst a community is alerted to the indignity of somebody choosing to go outside without wearing makeup.  Anonymous posting dissipates the realtime consequences that the subject of the post end up feeling; the prickling discomfort of being constantly scrutinised, and then judged because you’re just not good looking enough for them

Meanwhile on "Spotted: Uncensored"…. "To the girl in McDonalds, you’re fit as fuck. Can’t wait until your old enough to not wear a uniform!"

This is not something you want to "like". Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.