Ayesha’s (pseudonym) life was turned upside down when she discovered that sexually explicit videos of her had been posted to Reddit, a popular social media platform.
Ayesha had never recorded these videos; she suspected they must have been filmed without her knowledge or consent by an ex-partner.
As if this betrayal by her partner wasn’t bad enough, Ayesha was also subjected to vicious harassment by Reddit users who watched the non-consensually recorded videos. Someone had posted her personally identifiable information on Reddit alongside the videos, and soon Ayesha’s social media accounts were flooded with terrifying threats and blackmail messages.
“If you don’t have sex with me,” one message read, “I’ll send [the video] to your parents. I will come and find you… If you don’t agree to having sex with me, I will rape you.”
Ayesha stopped leaving the house. She stopped socializing. And eventually, she tried to take her own life.
While Ayesha survived the suicide attempt, the trauma and continued ramifications of her victimization on Reddit are far from over.
Ayesha contacted Reddit several times to get the videos taken down. While the company promptly deleted one of the videos, another was left up for four months.
That delay had devastating consequences.
During the time that Reddit tarried in taking Ayesha’s abuse video down, it was being viewed, downloaded, and re-shared on other social media platforms. The dreadful reality is that Ayesha will likely never succeed in permanently removing all copies of the videos from the Internet. Reddit’s failure to act swiftly has condemned her to a life of perpetual re-victimization, as people continue to view and re-share her abuse.
What is Reddit?
Reddit bills itself as the “front page of the Internet” and has made a business of allowing basically anyone to make largely unregulated posts. There are more than three million user-created communities, or “subreddits,” that foster discussion on countless topics. A behemoth in the social media space, Reddit boasts 52 million daily active users, making it one of the most powerful modern social media platforms. User-created communities are moderated by volunteers, not professionals, and members of Reddit can remain anonymous. Given its popularity and concerns about anonymization, Reddit allowing pornography on its platform is highly problematic.
It should be no surprise then, given the ecosystem of Reddit, that the platform has become a hotbed for sharing sexually explicit content without the consent of the person or persons depicted: a growing phenomenon recently termed “image-based sexual abuse” (IBSA). Victims are almost powerless in holding perpetrators accountable and are deeply retraumatized when attempting (often with little to no success) to remove abusive content from Reddit and other platforms. Sadly, mounting evidence shows that Reddit often fails to block or remove IBSA, leaving victims like Ayesha to fend for themselves.
What is Image-Based Sexual Abuse (IBSA)?
Image-based sexual abuse (IBSA) is the creation, theft, extortion, threatened or actual distribution, or any use of sexualized or sexually explicit materials without the meaningful consent of the person depicted. This umbrella term encompasses several iterations of sexual exploitation, including but not limited to recorded rape or sex trafficking, non-consensually shared/recorded sexually explicit content (sometimes called “revenge porn”), the creation of photoshopped/artificial pornography (including nonconsensual “deepfake” porn), and more. Read more about image-based sexual abuse here.
How Reddit Facilitates Image-Based Sexual Abuse (IBSA)
Reddit sees itself as a facilitator of “free-conversation,” thus taking a very hands-off approach to monitoring and stopping IBSA on its platform. In March of 2022, Reddit updated its policy on “Non-Consensual Intimate Media Sharing,” prohibiting the posting of sexually explicit content created or posted without the subject’s permission. Reddit’s post about this policy links to a page where users can report “non-consensual intimate media,” better known as IBSA. However, this small step in the right direction remains ineffective at curbing IBSA on Reddit. Reporting IBSA does not guarantee one’s report will be thoroughly evaluated and appropriate measures will be taken. After Reddit updated this policy, users asked if any improvements would be made to address the fact that reports of image-based sexual abuse are “basically ignored” by Reddit moderators. A Reddit admin responded by saying that no changes would be made to the report flow.
In August 2022, the BBC released an exposé that told the story of how image-based sexual abuse festers on Reddit, in spite of Reddit’s policies prohibiting it. The investigative journalist behind the piece writes, “I could see that Reddit’s ban wasn’t working. We found dozens of subreddits dedicated to sharing intimate images of women from all over the UK.”
The journalist spoke to survivors about their experience of trying to get image-based sexual abuse removed from Reddit. She reported: “Seven women who’ve tried to get their images removed from Reddit told me they didn’t feel the company was doing enough to help. Four said the material was never removed by Reddit and some had to wait eight months before content was deleted.”
In Ayesha’s case, even when Reddit did delete the abusive content, it was simply re-posted to the subreddit later.
What Should Reddit Do?
Reddit has been on the NCOSE Dirty Dozen List two years in a row for facilitating, enabling, and likely profiting from sexual abuse and exploitation, including IBSA.
NCOSE has recommended several changes Reddit can make to become a safer place for its millions of users:
- Adopt strong policies against hardcore pornography and sexually explicit content, due to the inability for Reddit to ever sufficiently verify the age or consent of people depicted in such content,
- Institute proactive moderation and filtering solutions to enforce such a policy,
- Consult with survivors and organizations like NCOSE to implement survivor-centered practices specific to image-based sexual abuse (for example, immediate removal across the platform when content is reported and a means to block reposting of reported images),
- Ban users who upload material depicting child sexual abuse material or image-based sexual, and prevent them from creating another account.
- Prohibit posting pornography or any other sexually explicit content until sufficient mechanisms to verify age and consent of everyone depicted are fully functional.
The Internet is an inextricable part of modern life and something that, with purposeful change, can be a force for good. We urge Reddit to implement the above improvements, so that it can be part of a safer, more positive Internet for all users.
TAKE ACTION: Demand Reddit Stop Hosting Abuse and Exploitation!
Take 30 seconds to fill out this quick action form, calling on Reddit to stop hosting image-based sexual abuse and other exploitative content:
The Harms of Image-Based Sexual Abuse (IBSA)
The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative conducted an online survey regarding non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit photos in 2017. The survey found that, compared to people without IBSA victimization, victims had “significantly worse mental health outcomes and higher levels of physiological problems.” A previous analysis noted that such distress can include high levels of anxiety, PTSD, depression, feelings of shame and humiliation, as well as loss of trust and sexual agency. The risk of suicide is also a very real issue for victims and there are many tragic stories of young people taking their own lives as a result of this type of online abuse. An informal survey showed that 51% of responding victims reported having contemplated suicide as a result of their IBSA experience.
A study that interviewed 75 survivors of various forms of IBSA from the UK, Australia and New Zealand reported survivor statements about the broader impact on their lives, including:
- Participants described feeling “completely, completely broken” and described their experiences as “life-ruining,” “hell on earth,” and “a nightmare . . . which destroyed everything.”
- One survivor stated, “‘[it] transcends [everything], it impacts you emotionally, physiologically, professionally, in dating and relationships, in bloody every single factor of your life.”
- Another survivor stated: “. . . there’s such a level of permanence which affects everything. . . especially if it’s impossible now to take photos down, especially if it’s impossible to stop the dissemination of the images . . . . there will never be a day in my entire lifetime that all of the images of me could ever be deleted.”
- A survivor shared: “There is no end to it, there is no stop, there is no finale. . . . It’s like, I’m quite aware that if I was to go on the internet or the porn websites now, I would . . . find the videos of me. . . . It’s a crime that doesn’t just happen and then that’s done. It’s something that is continual, and this could continue for I don’t know how long. It could go on for bloody ever.”
The devastating harm that IBSA causes to survivors is clear. It’s past time for Reddit and other Internet platforms to take this problem seriously. Reddit must listen to IBSA survivors and prioritize their safety.
Thank you for joining us in calling on Reddit to change!