Social Media, Emerging Tech, and #MeToo

We’ve discussed in class the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media, the pros and cons of our tech-dependent lives, and the balance of our digital and physical lives. The interaction of social media and emerging tech with the #MeToo era encapsulates all of the above. Social media and emerging tech can be some of our greatest assets in fighting sexual misconduct, but they can also be a major liability. The keyboard-courage of social media birthed a powerful movement using only a hashtag, has encouraged investigations that have put criminals behind bars, and has given survivors a platform to advocate and connect. At the same time, the keyboard-courage of social media has allowed people to seriously jump to conclusions, and escape responsibility for spreading dangerous rumors and allegations.

Just last month, a screenshot circulated the greater Boston community, mostly to women and girls, claiming to have reliable information from the Boston Police regarding a sex trafficking ring involving Uber drivers in Cambridge. It claimed the sex trafficking ring was connected to an active missing person case, and urged women not to Uber alone. A few days later, the Cambridge Police department invalidated the information in the viral text, and the missing person case was solved, with no reference to the Uber sex trafficking ring. While it’s not the worst thing in the world to remind people to be safe while Ubering, this rumor had the potential to reduce demand for honest Uber drivers and, more importantly, divert police attention from an ongoing investigation. Not long after this incident, another screenshot went around the Boston College community in particular. It stated that multiple freshmen and sophomore girls had been drugged by residents of a certain mod, and that the mod was still being allowed to register parties despite reports to the school administration, meaning that the school was not doing anything to stop the druggings. It eventually came to light that this screenshot, again, did not tell the full story. The school did conduct an investigation, with the full cooperation of the mod’s residents, and did not find any evidence, but is apparently still working to determine what actually happened. Regardless, residents of this mod have been marked with this allegation for good, especially since the original story got much more traction than any later updates about the investigation.

It’s a tough issue because intentions are normally good when people go to share a “warning” screenshot. Not to mention it’s so quick and easy to view, react, and share on social media that before you know it, a screenshot might end up on your own Instagram story without you even really stopping to think about it. Yet, after too many “warnings” that end up not being legitimate, some of us find ourselves feeling like it’s the boy who cried wolf. How are we supposed to know when we should take these things seriously? And we may wonder why this happening what feels like so often…are intentions always pure? It’s all the problems of false news, at the most intimate level.

Where social media is part of the problem, emerging technology can be part of the solution. One of the major issues surrounding sexual misconduct is confusion about what it is, what it looks like, and what it feels like. Of course, there are some things that are obviously, 100%, never okay. However in some situations, it may not be always be perfectly crystal-clear when you are committing or experiencing sexual misconduct, especially as our societal definition evolves. Men and women alike need to be taught what actions cross the line, how to identify a dangerous situation, and other things that are hard to explain with a video, PowerPoint, or seminar. Schools, companies, and other organizations are beginning to understand this necessity, but often struggle to find ways to communicate this information in a way that is taken seriously, gets the point across, and encompasses the whole range of sexual misconduct scenarios. A possible response this problem is virtual reality.

The use of virtual reality to combat sexual misconduct first made its big screen debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, where filmmakers used the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to tell the live-action story of a sexual assault at a frat party from both a man’s and a woman’s points of view. Now, a small virtual reality company called Vantage Point, founded by a two-time survivor of sexual violence, is working to create, and get organizations to adopt, a virtual reality training platform that places participants directly into “scenes that illustrate the subtleties of grooming, harassment and discrimination in a visceral and interactive way.” The program so far encompasses three “vantage points” — bystander intervention, identification of sexual harassment, and learning to respond to harassment when it happens to you. Recent research indicates that virtual training is a promising new innovation compared to traditional forms, but Vantage Point and other similar companies still have a long way to go to get organizations to see sexual misconduct training as more than just checking a box to avoid liability (Vantage Point has gotten a lot of publicity – read more about it on The Guardian, CLOMedia, and Wired).

I personally believe this is just the beginning for virtual reality’s application to this problem. I think another great application would be to use to the technology to simulate the experience of being drugged with rohypnol (the date-rape drug), to help people identify the difference between being very drunk and being drugged, in case it ever happens to them. There are also tons of new gadgets aimed at helping women avoid sexual harassment and assault, like nail polish and jewelry that detects rohypnol in drinks, apps that keep track of where you are, and wearable tech that stealthily calls 911 for you. The proliferation of these has been met with some resistance, with critics saying, among other things, that they actually disempower women and act as band-aid for the issues that necessitate them. While I think a lot critics have very legitimate complaints, I still view these products as a positive use of our technological abilities. No, tech can’t stop sexual misconduct. But careful and conscious employment of social media and tech might be able to help.

10 comments

  1. Social Media and Emerging technology have given us leverage to discuss critical matters that tug at our heart strings. With the #metoo movement and viral text messages that warn us about the dangers of sexual misconduct, it is no wonder that people are afraid today and are inclined to believe everything they hear. Based on your finding with new virtual reality technology, this could be a way to combat these horrific acts. Everyone is going to have an opinion. We have to learn to trust that these emerging tech platforms will be solutions that benefit and empower people to actually act instead of sit back. Good points made!

  2. Nice post! As a middle-aged male, I’m always a bit reluctant to wade into this topic, as it’s not really my area of expertise. Of greater concern to me than the date rape drugs, however, is the degree to which digital media is making us less comfortable having face-to-face conversations/ communications, which is an essential component to making sure that both desires and limits are clearly communicated and understood.

  3. I remember one of my roommates telling me about the mod that drugged people, as well as my other roommate telling me about the Uber sex trafficking ring, and my first instinct was to believe both stories. I think that sometimes we accept these stories, even without reading into the details, because we want to be “better safe than sorry.” While taking precautions for our safety is extremely important, I agree that these stories can be extremely detrimental to those who are wrongfully accused. I also loved your discussion about virtual reality being used to simulate sexual assault. I had no idea that this application was being used and I think it can be incredibly powerful for people to look at a scenario and try to identify warning signals to either help a friend out or protect themselves. Very interesting post and I learned a lot!!

  4. I think we are often flooded with the assumption to believe these text chains and stories we hear about situations like these that go on. I know when I heard both of the stories you mentioned above, I’ll admit that I gave in to believing what had been going on out of fear and being a little too trusting of social media. It was after I found out about the invalidation that I took a more internal look, thinking about how the lives of the people thrown into the spotlight have now been tarnished on unfair grounds. Social media makes it so easy to throw a screenshot in a groupchat and spread the news like wildfire with little to no other information besides the ugly parts. As you said, tech is both part do the problem and the solution and it is up to us to navigate that line in order to create an avenue of truth. I had never heard of the virtual reality software but think its a great step into furthering the conversation about sexual misconduct that people are too scared to discuss. I will definitely be sharing your blog with one of my friends in Bystander here at BC, great post!

  5. I think it’s a wonderful, yet slippery slope, the way information can be transferred so quickly. I love that suddenly we can watch out for friends and family from a world away. I understand that the Uber story ended up being false, but it’s a powerful thing that is travelled so far. That if it had been true so many women were aware in such a short time. However, when information is incorrect, this speed makes things difficult to back track. I think education is vitally important to lowering incidents of sexual assault/misconduct. We live in a world were girls/women are taught how not to get raped/assaulted–what not to wear, say, drink, etc. to prevent this from happening. However, we should be teaching boys/men not to rape girls. And education, such as Vantage Point, is a great start. It’s something that can explain/clarify situations that may seem gray to people.

  6. Vantage Point seems like a really cool company, thanks for mentioning it! I think it’s interesting how the use of VR in situations such as sexual assault or drug use is actually helping people develop empathy, a character trait that is often said to be diminished by the use of technology and social media. Similarly to a different blog post this week about edtech, it would be really interesting to see how these VR developments can be implemented in classrooms to teach students how to better respond to situations involving drugs, assault, consent, and rumors.

    1. I love the use of VR for this type of education. It’s such an immersive experience and retention is SO much higher when you’re wearing the headset. So many people simply turn on whatever HR program their company or school makes them sit through and let it run until they need to answer some obvious multiple choice questions. VR really puts you into these situations and doesn’t let people “check out” by reading emails or checking their phone during the experiences. I had never heart of Vantage Point before but I’m so glad I did!

  7. This was a nice post on a very relevant cultural topic, and I like how you were able to tie a problem with social media into the ways emerging technology can be a part of the solution. I wasn’t aware of Vantage Point before reading this post, but their platform sounds like a promising and engaging way to educate people on such a serious topic. I’m not sure how (or if) colleges are offering training and education on these issues for students, but it seems like this type of platform could be useful if offered (or even required) as part of incoming students’ orientation, similar to how some schools require students to complete an online course on alcohol awareness (at least, mine did). It will be interesting to see how this technology continues to evolve and be applied. To me, it seems like another example of how we can use technology for good.

  8. I actually forwarded that message to girls that I knew frequently used Uber or Lyft and it wasn’t until it was mentioned in class that I knew it was fake. Emerging technology is definitely applicable to help with situations like this, especially those that may not have corporate training or a good understanding of what is accepted or not accepted behavior let’s say in the workplace. I can certainly see something like Vantage Point being used at companies as part of the training process. by telling these stories through technology, I think it will engage the audience and allow users to see first hand what a certain situation may feel like so if they do encounter them in real life, they are able to identify and act accordingly.

  9. matturally · ·

    I guess this is one of the less harmful versions of fake news. In my undergrad, I had to go to a meeting about sexual harassment and that sort of thing every semester. I think using a VR experience could have been a really useful way of educating us (wayyyy better than PowerPoint).

    I usually give social media a hard time, but the Me Too movement is definitely one of the aspects I’ll give it credit for. I have 2 sisters, both around my age, but the topic of harassment and sexual violence never really came up until the movement. I think that’s been the most important thing to me; having conversations about it and realizing how prevalent it really is.

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