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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Scarred lands: visiting the villages Boko Haram left behind reveals the toxic legacy of terrorism

The progress and challenges of Nigerian communities rebuilding after Boko Haram’s insurgency begins to wane.

“Sometimes it’s when I go to bed that what happened comes back to me.” Two years ago, Boko Haram militants stormed into 23-year-old John Amida’s home late at night in a village in Gwoza, Borno State, northeast Nigeria. Shielding his eyes with his hands from the torchlight saved his life. He shows me the mark in the centre of his forearm where the bullet aimed for his head went instead.

“All my friends were either killed or abducted,” he says. “I don’t try to forget what happened because it’s not possible; it’s with you even when it is not in your mind. The best thing is just to keep on living every day.”

After a broadly effective 18-month military campaign, Boko Haram remains a deadly yet waning force. Many communities once occupied by Boko Haram are now liberated. In Adamawa, just south of Borno, over 630,000 people previously displaced by Boko Haram have returned home.

With them, over 170,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) now live in camps, or – like John and his family – in host communities. He and his family live in a home vacated and lent to them by a local. All over Adamawa, IDPs live in homes shared with residents or given to them temporarily in exchange for help, crops or token sums of rent.

Adamawa is a serene, largely rural, mountainous state. Even deep into the dry season, driving through the roads that cut between its vast countryside, its land is incredibly scenic. But within local communities, in more rural, isolated villages north of the state’s capital, Yola, the picture is more complicated.

Gombi, a small town a few hours’ drive from Yola, was recaptured from Boko Haram in late 2014. Much of what was destroyed in the insurgency – shops and small businesses – have been rebuilt or replaced. The local government buildings have been largely restored. The impact is still visible but, according to locals, decreasingly so.

But in less urban areas, like in Garaha, a village in Adamawa, rebuilt homes sit next to broken, abandoned houses, churches, mosques and buildings blackened by the fires that damaged them. Local government officials say the damage across Adamawa by the insurgency has set the state’s development back by a decade. Funding for rebuilding the state, which local governments complain is insufficient, is concentrated on urban areas.

According to Chief Suleimanu, a traditional ruler in Garaha, mental health issues are widespread but few are financially able to access support. While some people have been able to move on, others are still dealing with the consequences.

“Many couples and families have separated,” he tells me, detailing how in some couples one partner feels attached to their home while the other can’t face returning, or feel there is little to return to.

“The same with the children, some of the young people have gone to bigger cities like Kano or Abuja because of a lack of opportunities.”

Many returnees, who left camps in Cameroon to come back to Adamawa, are from families who have lived in their villages for generations. Their ancestral roots anchor them to their homes because their farmland is their main source of income. Non-agriculture-based industries provide few jobs. For many people, fleeing their homes meant abandoning their livelihoods.

As of 2015, 52 per cent of people in Nigeria lived in rural areas. Their relative isolation is a blessing and a curse. Larger rural spaces provide them with adequate land to cultivate their crops – but it also leaves them exposed.

During Boko Haram attacks on Garaha through to early 2015, there was minimal protection from security forces who often take hours to arrive.

For many people living in rural Adamawa, life is getting harder and easier at the same time. Armed herdsmen, mainly from the Fulani ethnicity have become a greater threat across Nigeria, partly due to tensions between land ownership and cattle grazing.

According to locals, killings by herdsmen have increased this year. But villages are addressing their vulnerability. Armed vigilantes, some of which formed due to the lack of military protection against Boko Haram, are increasing. The police services are often too far away or too under-resourced to protect them. But some vigilantes now have more weapons and vehicles due to help from state services and locals. It is not an ideal solution but it has made places like Garaha safer.

With this new-found relative safety, villagers have begun farming again. With cash grants and donated tools from charities like Tearfund, it has been easier for thousands of people to begin cultivating land. In many villages there are small, lively recreation centres where young people play snooker and watch sport. Many of their places of worship have been rebuilt.

But the situation is grimmer in communities where such charities are not present.  Without resources, state or non-government help, rebuilding is a real challenge.

Adamawa is a state maxing on its credit of hospitality, relative safety and appreciation of agriculture. A recession in Nigeria and a severe food crisis in the northeast have added pressures on returnees and IDPs. Liberated communities will need more help and attention before they truly feel free.

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.