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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution