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.