There is no good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet.

Let me say that again, because this is important.

There is no good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet.

The Internet industry is in a unique position to effect arguably the most sweeping resistance to systemic sexual violence in history. Moreover, it wouldn’t even be technologically complex, or expensive. And we’ve already proved it’s possible.

Getting information about sexual violence that occurs in your community is of utmost importance to keeping oneself safe and to stopping the cycle of abuse. According to the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN), up to 85% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the survivor already knows. And according to a recent PEW Research study, 70% of American adults use Facebook.

This means it’s likely that a survivor of sexual violence is Facebook friends, or friends-of-friends, with the person who attacked them.

I’m going to say that one more time, too, because I want to make sure it sinks in: most survivors of sexual violence are only one or two degrees away from their attacker, often for the rest of their lives. Ever try to avoid hearing a TV spoiler when all your friends are talking about the TV show? It’s hard to do, and it’s frustrating when you can’t get away from it. Imagine for a moment how painful it is for people for whom it’s not a “Game of Thrones” spoiler that appears on their screen, but the picture and words of the person who raped them.

Despite this commonplace experience, almost nobody talks about it. Discussions about this are rare. And that’s not an accident. Deafening silence around this topic is by design.

Just the other day, a student raped by another student at Emerson College was told by school administrators that she “shouldn’t be making a big deal with it.” Such stories are typical in schools, workplaces, governments, houses of worship, militaries (including the US military), and families across the world. This is and has long been the norm, not the exception.

Such silencing, which is part of isolating a survivor from support structures and preventing vitally important information about sexual violence from being shared, is also the norm online. Some online dating websites like FetLife.com go so far as to admit to actively censoring postings by survivors, despite being publicly shamed for the practice. And when some people do push back against this culture of abuse online, such as in the case of the inspirational “Predditors” project, it is often they, not the people who abused and bully them, who face violence and censorship anew.

One reason for this is because the infrastructures of commercial Internet social networking and dating websites are designed to maximize corporate profits at the expense of human decency. OkCupid, which has a treasure trove of highly personal information about its users, turns a blind eye to stories its users share about being assaulted and raped while on dates facilitated by the service. When their parent company, Match.com, was sued for facilitating just such an experience, they chose to pursue an obviously ineffective and privacy-degrading settlement. Instead, OkCupid could have empowered its users with information-sharing tools that do much more good with much less effort. But to do so, they’d have to admit they weren’t even doing literally the least they could do before.

In the United States alone, one in five women say they’ve been sexually assaulted. Internationally, one in three women say they’ve been physically abused by a boyfriend, husband, or partner, sexually or otherwise. At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, this rape epidemic is a gushing wound. The patient is bleeding out, and it seems nobody knows how to stop it.

Earlier, I said we’ve already proved building tools to help prevent sexual violence wouldn’t be technologically complex or expensive. The Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid is one such tool that helps fill the gaping, bleeding, festering rape culture wound left untended by the company. Its premise is simple: ask everyone on OkCupid whether they’ve committed rape. If they answer yes, warn anyone looking at their profile that this is so.

Screenshot of Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid sexual assault question.
Screenshot of Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid installation guide.

It sounds too simple to work, but it does. And according to study after study after study, simply asking people (and, technically, the studies are only about “men”) to describe their behavior indicates that an alarming 25% of them will admit to committing the crime. That’s one in four respondents who are admitted rapists or attempted rapists.

If the person whose dating profile you’re looking at is an admitted rapist, maybe you want to think twice about going on a date with them. At the very least, maybe you want to bring a friend along or only go out on a double-date? There is nothing particularly magical or difficult to understand about how the Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid works. Yet it appears that the people who build online social networking and dating websites simply haven’t given even the bare minimum of thought to the issue.

Then again, why would they? They’re often not, say, women of color. They’re almost exclusively white men. And it’s not currently in the business interests of the white, male, silicon valley C-level executives like Mark Zuckerberg to put any thought into how the ubiquitous communications infrastructure they’re profiting from could be used to support survivors of sexual assault and rape. After all, to do that, they’d first have to admit that up to a quarter of their male user base are admitted rapists.

The Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid represents literally the least they could do. But OkCupid has done its best to pretend that the tool doesn’t exist. Similarly, Facebook’s track record on the issue is horrific. The recent #FBrape campaign, which highlighted Facebook’s policy of allowing content depicting violence against women, is an encouraging example of an awareness-raising campaign that had some positive effect.

But “raising awareness” is not a solution, merely an articulation of the problem. Facebook can and should do a lot more to prevent sexual violence than just deleting pro-rape pages when someone complains. As one of the most important telecommunication technologies on the planet, it should help connect survivors to one another.

The Predator Alert Tool for Facebook is designed to do exactly that. It’s the newest in the suite of Predator Alert Tools to come out. Like its predecessors, the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook also proves how technologically simple and inexpensive a system of survivor support can be to implement.

Released to the public domain as free software, the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook is a free Facebook app you can add to your Facebook account. Doing so lets you read what people are saying about your Facebook friends’ behavior with regards to their consent practices, and facilitates an introduction to those people if they’re willing to talk with you about their experience. Built by survivors for survivors, the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook helps survivors connect, stay safe, and stay informed.

With each new Predator Alert Tool, it’s ever more obvious that every social network on the Internet can and should have some mechanism to support survivors of sexual violence that puts control in the hands of survivors themselves, not some faceless, employed administrator or computer algorithm that activates when you click the “report” button. Moreover, with each new Predator Alert Tool’s release, it’s ever more obvious that if building and maintaining such tools can be accomplished by a rag-tag crew of volunteers in mere months, it can certainly be accomplished by the world’s largest and most influential technology companies.

Unfortunately, as headlines the world over these past few months are making clear, rather than fund efforts to build technologically augmented support structures for survivors of sexual violence, tech firms, defense contractors, and government agencies are spending financial capital and taxpayer money on unconstitutional spying campaigns. There’s no good excuse for this. There’s no good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet.

There’s no good excuse for not building sexual violence prevention tools into every social network on the Internet.

Let’s continue raising awareness of the problem. But let’s also take action. I’ve been writing Predator Alert Tool computer code. What are you going to do?

Learn more about how you can help support the Predator Alert Tool suite.

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