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
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war