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
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt