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Social Media Reveals Conflicting Attitudes Towards Abuse Survivors, Finds New Study

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A recent systematic review has revealed significant insights into how survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) and sexual violence (SV) are portrayed on social media. The study underscores the dual nature of social media’s influence on public perceptions of these issues. While platforms can promote supportive narratives and empower survivors, they can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and stigmatise victims.

The study identified two distinct portrayals of women with experiences of IPV and SV on social media: stigmatising representations and empowering depictions as survivors. This duality reflects broader societal attitudes towards gender-based violence, highlighting both progress and persistent challenges in addressing these issues. The findings were published in the Journal of Media Psychology

The review found that stigmatising portrayals are prevalent across various social media platforms. For example, a 2021 study observed that memes on sites like 9gag, Reddit, and Imgur often discredit SV experiences based on the victims’ adherence to normative beauty standards. Women deemed “unrapeable” were less likely to be believed or supported. Similarly, the hashtag #HimToo, initially intended to highlight male victims of SV, devolved into a platform for misogynistic narratives and victim-blaming.

Comments on mainstream news outlets’ social media pages also revealed troubling trends. Responses to Amber Heard’s accusations against Johnny Depp included significant victim-blaming and efforts to discredit her allegations. This stigmatising discourse underscores the persistent challenge of overcoming entrenched biases against survivors of IPV and SV.

Contrary to these negative portrayals, social media also serves as a powerful tool for empowerment and support for survivors. Hashtags like #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport have fostered global conversations about SV, enabling survivors to share their stories and find solidarity. The majority of tweets under these hashtags were supportive, with users advocating for social change and providing emotional support to survivors.

Moreover, feminist websites such as Jezebel and xoJane have created safe spaces for survivors to express their experiences and build supportive communities. These platforms can counteract isolation and promote healing by validating survivors’ experiences and fostering empathy.

The review draws on social identity theory to explain these divergent portrayals. According to this theory, social media users form in-groups based on shared identities and interests, which can either reinforce stigmatising attitudes or foster supportive environments for survivors. This dynamic is evident in the supportive responses found on feminist platforms and the hostile reactions often seen on mainstream sites.

Social identity theory posits that individuals favour their in-group members while stigmatising out-group members. This bias is evident in how survivors are treated on different platforms. On feminist sites, survivors are part of the in-group, receiving validation and support. Conversely, on broader social media platforms, they often face stigmatisation from out-group members who perpetuate harmful stereotypes and victim-blaming narratives.

Despite the valuable insights provided by this review, the authors highlight significant gaps in the current research. Only seven articles met the inclusion criteria, pointing to a need for more comprehensive studies on this topic. Additionally, the narrow focus on male-perpetrated VAW excludes other forms of abuse, such as violence in LGBTQ+ relationships, which warrants further investigation.

To address these gaps, the authors recommend exploring the portrayal of survivors on other social media platforms like Instagram, which has different audience dynamics and engagement patterns. Longitudinal studies on hashtags related to VAW could also provide insights into how public discourse evolves over time. Furthermore, employing advanced data collection methods, such as social media analytics tools, could enhance our understanding of these complex dynamics.

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