Special Report: Victims of online image abuse ‘angry’ and ‘violated’

Special Report: Victims of online image abuse ‘angry’ and ‘violated’
Dramatic portrait of sad scared young woman on smart mobile phone suffering cyber bullying and harassment. feeling lonely, depressed and in fear being abused by online stalker. In dangers of internet.

“Afraid”, “violated” and “angry” were the words multiple teenagers from Cork and Dublin used when describing the experience of finding their images stolen and abused online.

One teenager, now 17, said that “disgusting” comments were made about photos posted of her when she was just 14.

Other girls she knows were as young as 12 in the photos.

“When I scrolled down the site I found a post that had been up about me for a month and I never knew about it. That was quite upsetting.

“It made me aware that I could be on other accounts and I don’t know how I’d find out about them."

Ciara - not her real name - said there were hundreds of posts of Irish teenagers on that one site, with as many as 20 posts, each containing multiple photos, made in one day.

At least 30 teenagers she knows from the north Dublin area were pictured on the same site which was permanently suspended last week by Twitter after multiple complaints.

Ciara, whose Facebook account was already set to private, blocking people she does not know from seeing her page, said the photos were taken from her Facebook profile pictures, going back years, which were the only images viewable by a stranger.

It’s so wrong to use photos of people without asking them and the comments were really, really disgusting, they were horrible to read. And the fact that they had retweets makes me feel even more gross.

Accounts on Twitter can be made anonymously, so there is no way of telling who is really behind the account's profile picture. 

But Ciara said those commenting on her account “were mostly 50-year-old men and had pictures of their families in their profiles. It’s so blatant and open.” 

Last month, the Irish Examiner uncovered three similarly disturbing Twitter accounts, posting stolen images of more than 60 teenage girls from Cork captioned with highly sexualised language..

The accounts were removed after the young women, many of whom were completing first year exams in UCC when the accounts were discovered, complained both to the account holder and to Twitter.

Two of these accounts impersonated teenage girls, using their photos and real first names while encouraging men to ejaculate on their pictures.

The stolen images were of the girls dressed in sports clothes, going to birthday parties, and black-tie events or occasionally in bikinis — normal pictures of teenagers and young adults enjoying life.

But the comments that accompanied them, or the semen-soaked photos of them posted on the accounts, were far from what these teenagers consider normal and have been highly distressing to them.

The third account featured multiple images of about 60 teenage girls, many named by their first names and from Cork.

The Irish Examiner spoke to two of the students featured on these accounts. Both have just completed first year in UCC and want to remain anonymous.

Caoimhe and April (not their real names) were "disgusted" and "horrified" by the accounts.

“I felt completely sick to my stomach when I saw these accounts,” Caoimhe said.

“It’s terrifying to think that I can’t even share a picture of my face without being objectified and completely dehumanised. I haven’t felt comfortable explaining what happened to my parents just because I don’t want them to be scared about it.” 

Some of the pictures shared by the explicit Twitter account. Anonymized to protect victims.
Some of the pictures shared by the explicit Twitter account. Anonymized to protect victims.

Caoimhe, 19, said that this is not the first time that she has had to cope with online abuse. When she was 14 or 15, “horrible” accounts were made “rating” girls her age.

But the more recent Twitter accounts were "a lot more vulgar” and “really made me feel afraid and vulnerable".

She does not know where the photos used on the accounts were from. They are not on her Instagram and three of them were taken when she was as young as 16.

“Either the person has had these photos a while or has really gone looking for them on the internet through perhaps Facebook, although there is definitely a photo that I have no idea how they got a hold of.

“I 100% think it reflects a general misogyny in Irish society. I know one of my friends who had a fake account made of her deleted all her social media and started again out of fear of being exploited again, there were some horrible videos of men reacting to her photos.

“My friends who know it happened are completely disturbed for me and for themselves, they feel sick at the idea that there’s people preying on young girls like that without any monitoring on the internet,” she said.

Her friend April said: “When I first saw the accounts my heart dropped I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. I felt so violated as if someone had taken over my identity and just sexualised me. In this generation you see things like this happen every so often because of the culture we live in and it’s absolutely disgusting.

It’s horrible to think that someone would actually get enjoyment out of doing something like that. The night after I saw it I became really sad just down in myself. People actually don’t realise how heartbreaking it is for girls when a man does something like that.

 

"You start to think, ‘Are they all like that? Do they just care about my body?’” 

She said the accounts took the photos “completely out of context”.

“We posted those pictures for ourselves as a reflection of our lives and we thought we looked nice in them. Our purpose was not to entertain men in the way they portrayed our pictures. We sent those pictures because we felt confident at the time. We shouldn’t have to hide who we are because we’re afraid of men objectifying us.” 

April said her pictures were taken from her Instagram and VSCO, another image editing and sharing app. The pictures were taken when she was 17, 18 and 19. 

“Four of my friends who I would have known well were also in the pictures but I knew of nearly all the girls who were posted on that account.” 

April and two of her friends contacted the account directly and reported them to Twitter, but April believes that the account holder removed the accounts within minutes themselves.

She received a message from Twitter about one week later saying that the company would remove the account days after they had already been removed.

April believes that Twitter was “quite slow to react”, especially considering that a number of females complained to the company about the accounts.

A spokesperson for Twitter said that the company "has zero tolerance for any material that features or promotes child sexual exploitation".

"We aggressively fight online child sexual abuse and have heavily invested in technology and tools to enforce our policy.

"Our dedicated teams work to ensure we’re doing everything we can to remove content, facilitate investigations, and protect minors from harm — both on and offline.

“We also partner with organisations around the globe in this area, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. When we remove content, we immediately report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and NCMEC makes reports available to the appropriate law enforcement agencies around the world to facilitate investigations and prosecutions,” the spokesperson said. 

Family photos of women posted on explicit Twitter account

A sexually explicit Twitter account is posting family photos of Irish mums with their daughters without their knowledge or consent.

Polls are also set up so that the account’s 6,085 followers can ‘rate’ the images, voting for mum or daughter, sister over sister and friend over friend.

Teenage girls from Cork, whose images were stolen and abused on Twitter accounts suspended in May, have also reappeared on this site.

Thousands of Irish woman across may currently have their images used without their knowledge or consent on these sites which proliferate like mushrooms online.

As soon as one closes, another appears. And an online community of paedophiles and misogynists are ever ready to consume and comment on the ‘content’.

Women who have complained about these sites to Twitter say that the company has been slow to take action and sometimes has taken no action at all.

However, after the Irish Examiner reported two sites sexualising images of teenage girls in school uniform, or mixing innocent TikTok videos of young schoolgirls in uniform alongside hardcore pornography, Twitter quickly suspended these sites.

Twitter said the accounts breach the company’s child exploitation (CSE) policy which bans "sexualized commentaries about or directed at a known or unknown minor”.

Explicit videos of males ejaculating on photos of Irish females, from the age of about 14 - 60, are also posted to a number of sites.

Viewers are encouraged to retweet the images, sometimes hundreds of times, for the account holder to release photos of these same women and girls in bikinis or naked and sometimes performing sex acts.

Each time an image is retweeted, it exposes it to an even larger audience, amplifying the abuse and the psychological harm to the victim pictured.

Teenagers, dressed up for a birthday party or just hanging out with friends, are often described as “filthy sluts” and women over the age of 30, often pictured in regular workout or work clothes, are referred to as ‘MILFs”.

One account encourages Twitter users to send in photos of their own girlfriends or wives so that other men can rate them and abuse their image.

A particularly disturbing site posts images of Irish women, sometimes fully naked and performing sex acts - often using full names and where they live - including Cork and Galway.

One woman who is pictured naked on the site is described as an ‘Irish teacher.’ There is currently no legislation to criminalise sharing intimate images without a person’s consent online but a commitment has been made in the programme for government to progress a Bill which would make it a specific, jailable offence.

Many Irish women and girls appear repeatedly on the same social media accounts, sometimes with their names mentioned.

Posts that ask users to “rate” the girls get hundreds of comments and images of girls in school uniforms also get significant traction.

And this misogynistic culture is not limited to Twitter, with similar groups sharing similar content also available on Facebook.

One Twitter user who has previously reported these accounts to the company told the Irish Examiner that the account holders think they are “untouchable.” Asking to remain anonymous, they said: “They're getting more brazen by naming the girls.

“A few years ago there weren't that many, now I've lost track of them.

“The profiles that particularly drive me mad are the ones with pictures of girls in school uniform. They are the profiles that get the most traffic. Most likes, comments, etc. I always look at the profiles that comment on them and they usually have the same content. It's as if a network exists in plain sight but nothing can be done.

“I'm sometimes almost physically sick scrolling down through them and then going on to other profiles that have retweeted or commented.

“I've reported them numerous times but they're still up. I don't think schools or parents realise how much interest there is in girls in uniform.”

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