The Worrying Rise Of The Facebook Flasher – And What The Site Is Doing About It

Does the platform deal differently with sexual images when they're shared publicly versus privately?

The first time Natasha Harpley’s Facebook Messenger app pinged with a notification from the stranger was in November last year. She wasn’t friends with him on Facebook or in real life, but he kept trying to engage in sexual conversation, making a stream of comments about her appearance. The 39-year-old from Norwich ignored him but didn’t block him – three kids and a busy job meant she was reluctant to add another thing to her to-do list.

Two months later, in January 2019, the man became frustrated with her radio silence and turned aggressive – contacting her again via the privacy of Messenger with a demand in Romanian that she “suck dick”, along with a photograph of his erect penis.

That was when Harpley decided to act, contacting Facebook to report that she had been sent unsolicited sexual images, or cyberflashed (which also happens over other platforms like Apple’s AirDrop). In return, she received a generic automated reply, the type sent to anyone who files a report to the platform moderator. She waited for a more detailed response. She heard nothing.

While she was waiting, however, Harpley posted screenshots of the Messenger pictures and messages to her Facebook profile page – to warn her female friends about the man who’d sent them, she explains, as he appeared to live locally. Almost immediately her account was suspended for 24 hours: by sharing a nude image on Facebook, she had broken community standards.

Natasha Harpley.
Natasha Harpley.

In its community guidelines, Facebook states: “We restrict the display of nudity or sexual activity because some people in our community may be sensitive to this type of content. Additionally, we default to removing sexual imagery to prevent the sharing of non-consensual or underage content.”

Dalya Browne, international communications at Facebook Messenger, tells HuffPost UK, that when people report a violation of community standards to Messenger, this will be reviewed by teams working 24/7 around the world, who assess each case individually and decide what action to take. “There are some big no nos,” she explains over the phone from the tech giant’s New York office. “If you’re inciting violence or sending an image of someone being killed or something like that, that’s a very high offence.”

Harpley’s case suggests, however, that there is a higher bar of tolerance when it comes to the moderation of Messenger than Facebook’s main platform where complicated rules, including when it’s okay to show female nipples, determine whether a picture containing nudity will be immediately taken down.

Browne says context is taken into consideration on Messenger. The teams’ analysis of reported abuse includes assessing if it is a first-time offence or something that is happening repeatedly with one user. Facebook would not comment on the record about whether it operates a multiple-strike rule.

“There are a lot of nuances there. We don’t like to just sack people [deactivate their account] because they sent a dick pic. I mean, because we don’t know the context – was it solicited or not? That’s why we rely heavily on people reporting,” Browne says.

But to report a picture, you first have to open it. Cyberflashing via Apple’s AirDrop (which HuffPost UK has reported on) has the power to intimidate victims because of the anonymity and proximity of the perpetrator – AirDrop only works within a 30 foot radius. But the victim can decline the message before opening, which stops the images downloading.

Hadi Michel, safety product manager at Facebook Messenger, also notes that users of Messenger can protect themselves by blocking a contact if they’re sending inappropriate content. But in order to use blocking effectively, you need to be able to see into the future – to know before someone cyberflashes.

And when a stranger sends a message it goes to your ‘requests’ inbox away from messages from friends, Michel says. But you are still notified of its existence and once you click on it there is nothing to stop you seeing the full contents of the message.

Dahaba Ali Hussen.
HuffPost UK
Dahaba Ali Hussen.

Dahaba Ali Hussen, 25, was last sent a dick pic on Messenger just two days before she speaks to HuffPost UK. “They are sent from a total stranger who I don’t have as a friend,” she explains. “This has happened multiple times.”

Hussen never replies because she doesn’t want to encourage them, she says. “It mainly made me feel confused and I wondered what gratification, if any, these individuals gain from sending unsolicited dick pics... I think some men still see sex as a power tool and use unsolicited dick pics to shock or intimidate women.”

Facebook is a platform focused on building a closed network of friends, but Facebook Messenger – first developed as Facebook Chat in 2008 and launched as a standalone app for Apple and Android in 2011 – has totally different rules. An algorithm is meant to detect spam, but doesn’t necessarily pick up unsolicited sexual images, admits Hadi Michel.

According to a recent YouGov report, 53% of millennial woman (18 to 34-years-old) have received an unsolicited sexual image online – and some are receiving them through Messenger: women told me about experiences involving men they have met briefly, but who are not their Facebook friends, and also complete strangers.

******

Early one Sunday morning, a message popped up on Amy Sutton’s Messenger. There were no words, just a full-frontal photo of a man, completely naked in his mirror. Sutton recognised him. He’d interviewed her for a job at a call centre in Folkestone several days earlier. She was just 19.

The man, who Sutton says was easily 10 years her senior, had made no contact with her – about a job offer or otherwise – between their brief meeting and sending the unsolicited image. Sutton ignored him, deciding not to report the picture to Facebook or complain to his employer, but for a time, the messages continued.

“[It was] usually very late at night at the weekend, after nights out, with very explicit messages, all of which I ignored. I was so embarrassed, no one ever sent me anything like this before,” says Sutton, now 26.

Melanie Macleod, 29, was sent a dick pic on Messenger by an old family friend. “[He] is about 10 years older than I am and has known me since I was 13,” she says of the man, someone she saw regularly in her teenage years until she moved away to university.

Out of the blue, after six years of no contact, he sent her an obscene image with the caption: “What do you think of this?” Macleod blocked him and deleted the image from her desktop but was left feeling shaken.

Therapist and life coach Lynn Anderton, 57, who lives on the Wirral, has also received lots of unsolicited images on Facebook, the most recent in November after a fleeting conversation with a man over Messenger. “I’ve had enough dick pics on Facebook Messenger to host a Tate exhibition,” she says. “I think for some men it has become their calling card.”

Melanie Macleod.
Melanie Macleod.

None of the women, apart from Harpley, reported the images to Facebook as they weren’t sure how seriously their complaints would be handled. Facebook reiterates that it relies on people reporting in order to deal with the problem, but like Harpley, it doesn’t mean women will always get the response they want.

Wasn’t Harpley’s a case of sexual violence, I ask Browne. In these cases, things can be nuanced, she argues. “The case you just described [Harpley’s] in the UK that might be considered sexually violent, other folks think something else is,” she says. In the final quarter of 2018, Facebook “took action” on 30.8 million pieces of content, figures show, though these numbers are not broken down between Facebook and Facebook Messenger.

Frustrated by what Harpley perceives to be inaction from Facebook she has now launched a petition, calling for unsolicited dick pics to be made illegal and for online platforms to take a zero-tolerance approach. The petition has 824 signatures at time of writing.

The same call was made in November 2018 by politicians Maria Miller MP and Jess Phillips MP, who want the law to criminalise cyberflashing and who fear legislation is running to keep up with technology. Although the government is still stalling in introducing a blanket ban on cyberflashing, companies such as Facebook – who posted record-breaking profits of $4.3 billion in January – could act sooner.

Dahaba Ali Hussen believes “higher legislation may act as a deterrent” and in Amy Sutton’s view, responsibility for cracking down on this behaviour does lie with tech companies. She says: “I think there should be much tighter legislation around the issue and that big social media platforms should also put in place a way to block users from having accounts if their page has been reported for inappropriate sexual conduct.”

“We take safety and security very seriously,” explains Facebook’s Hadi Michel. ”We’re always open to feedback and ways we can give people more control. It’s always the kind of feedback we are open to.”