Thursday 29 September 2016

How online justice can backfire for abuse victims

Emma Murphy's Facebook video has put the domestic violence issue top of the agenda. But Sarah Carey argues that trial-by-internet is not justice

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

'In one way, Emma Murphy is better off than some victims. She has a black eye. Something to show'
'In one way, Emma Murphy is better off than some victims. She has a black eye. Something to show'

In one way, Emma Murphy is better off than some victims. She has a black eye. Something to show.

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There are many people - men and women - who aren't so lucky. They are controlled, monitored, undermined, threatened, called nasty names and made to feel that they're utterly worthless. But no one has a clue, because there's nothing to see.

If Murphy's partner - Francis Usanga - had stuck to getting another woman pregnant (as Murphy claims), there'd be nothing particularly special about her story.

But whether he punched her (which she says) or he pushed her and she fell and hit her head (his story), that black eye condemned him in a way that a lifetime of emotional abuse never could.

Physical scars win sympathy much quicker than psychological ones. You can break someone without ever laying a finger on them. But there's no arguing with a broken arm.

But despite her success in raising awareness about the problem of domestic violence, Murphy's actions left me feeling a bit uncomfortable.

When she posted her video on Facebook, Francis Usanga was put on trial and condemned globally. They are both in their 20s and perhaps turning to Facebook to make a point might seem natural; but this is not how justice is done.

It would be entirely different if she had complained to the gardai and there were criminal proceedings, after which he was convicted.

Then, she'd be well within her rights to waive the anonymity often afforded to victims in certain kinds of assault cases so she could tell us her story.

The criminal justice system moves slowly and sometimes fails victims, so the temptation to bypass it and go straight for Facebook justice would be strong. But to put a video online and conduct television interviews before any official proceedings have taken place is unwise.

At the outset, Murphy may have jeopardised a criminal trial because it might be difficult to select a jury that hasn't seen the video and are therefore prejudiced against Usanga.

If an attempt at a prosecution was pursued, there's plenty of room for a defence to argue that he couldn't get a fair trial.

Even putting that to one side, we should hesitate before endorsing this public method of obtaining justice. It's one of those cases which seems very straightforward, but you can see how the internet could be abused in other cases.

We already know that when relationships break down, social media can be used in a sinister way. Women have found themselves the victims of revenge porn or stalking.

There's something quite empowering about turning the tables and using social media as a positive force to blow open an issue that's barely discussed, but we don't know where this might go or what influence it might have in the longer term.

Murphy has been celebrated for her actions and has appeared on TV3's Midday and ITV's Loose Women.

It's quite possible this public attention might encourage others with cases not quite so straightforward or motives not quite so pure, to start posting similar videos.

Viral videos of victims could become another social media meme in which someone gets their 15 minutes of self-promotion.

But today's supposed victim-hero could turn out to be something different when the facts are revealed.

In the meantime, reputations are destroyed and never recovered. In other words, naming and shaming ex-partners on Facebook is not something to be encouraged. The innocent can just as easily get caught, as well as the guilty.

The justification for Murphy's actions is that it will encourage other women to report their abuse.

That's a compelling point because experts suspect that there is considerable under-reporting. Anything that encourages victims to tell someone what's happening is important.

The fact that we're talking about the issue is exactly what the various advocacy groups such as Women's Aid and Safe Ireland would probably welcome and so is a victory of sorts.

But something I learned a few years ago gave me pause for thought. My Newstalk show did a special on sex offenders. Eileen Finnegan, who runs the Phoenix programme at One in Four, made an impressive argument against public headlines condemning sex offenders named after trial.

In those cases, headlines featuring terms like 'monster' are actually counter-productive, because they are used by abusers to reinforce secrecy.

They show the papers to their victim saying: "If you ever tell, that's what they'll say about me. It'll break up our whole family and ruin us."

Obviously in the case of domestic violence against a spouse or partner, there are key differences, but I imagine that there might a similar dynamic at play.

Some victims might be encouraged to see that Murphy is being lauded for her bravery, but others might see that Usanga has been publicly destroyed.

In the complicated relationships at stake here, a beaten wife or husband might still love their spouse and not wish ostracisation upon them. In that case, fear of publicly shaming the abuser might intensify and actually discourage the victim from confiding in anyone.

What worries me most is that Murphy and Usanga have two children. Irrespective of what actions Usanga may take to compensate for his alleged behaviour and what healing might be achieved in the future, conducting a healthy relationship with his children has just been made considerably more difficult. Their father will forever be defined on the internet as the man who punched their mother.

That's not an easy legacy to bear and I wonder if Murphy, who is after all just 26, fully realises that.

She's a blogger and accustomed to sharing details of her life publicly. But they're little children and have no choice about it.

Maybe they'll all move on, but the power of Google makes it much harder.

For me, the most encouraging message from Murphy's story is the support she has from her family and friends. When anyone is going through hell, to have that kind of unconditional support is key and I would argue far more important than public backing.

When you're in trouble of any kind, you need someone to rely on and somewhere to run. For anyone who has been brought low by abuse, emotional or physical, remember, you don't need six million people on Facebook for that. It just takes one.

Sunday Independent

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