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Impact 0146: Solace and solution for online abuse

Catherine Chang · 2 September 2021
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Catherine Chang works as a researcher at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in Singapore. There, she has been working primarily on a study to understand people’s experiences of online abuse in Singapore.

She is one of the co-founders of the website, Solid Ground, which was launched just recently in Jul 2021. Solid Ground aims to provide a resource for people who have faced online harassment or abuse in Singapore and provide a means to get help. 

Question: Could you tell us more about Solid Ground?

Solid Ground is a one-stop resource site for people facing online harassment or abuse in Singapore. It was developed in partnership with the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) Singapore and also receives funding from the National Youth Council’s Young Changemakers Grant.

Online abuse and harassment can be overwhelming, and it’s not easy for people to know what remedial actions they can take. On the Solid Ground website, users can find step-by-step guides that outline what they can do if they are facing online harassment or abuse. Our guides cover nine common experiences, ranging from being repeatedly contacted online or being pressured for intimate images, to being stalked or having your intimate images shared.

Besides these guides, users can also find instructions for specific actions, such as preserving evidence, adjusting privacy settings, or applying for legal remedy under the Protection from Harassment Act. If someone is looking for further resources or wishes to get professional help, they can browse our “Find Support” directory, where we have organised relevant resources according to profile, need, and issue.

Question: What sparked the creation of Solid Ground?

In late 2019, I started working with my colleague and now co-founder, Holly Apsley, on a research study to understand people’s experiences of online abuse in Singapore. We quickly realised that it was very difficult for people experiencing online abuse or harassment in Singapore to understand what they can do. 

For instance, if you Googled a question like “What do I do if someone has shared my nudes online?”, you will likely find information that is too general to be useful, or guides that were written for people in other countries such as the US, UK or Australia, which are not always applicable for people in Singapore.

We thought that this was a critical gap in Singapore, especially given the headline cases in the news, like Telegram groups that share sexual, non-consensual images of women and girls. So Holly and I set out to create a one-stop resource site that would have clear, simple, actionable and practical information for people facing online abuse or harassment in Singapore.

We also sought to make our guides survivor-centred by empowering our users to choose what actions they want to take and how they want to move forward. This was a response to some guides we came across which contained impractical advice like “go offline” or “stay off the Internet or social media”. This made little sense to us. 

The Internet and social media are an integral and necessary part of our personal and professional lives, and going offline will entail huge sacrifices. People should not be penalised for experiences they didn’t ask for.

So rather than saying things like “go offline”, Solid Ground reminds users that they can choose how public or private they want to be online, and we have various guides to help them consider what information people should be able to find about them online, and what they can do to adjust their privacy settings or limit unwanted contact.

Question: What were some challenges faced in developing Solid Ground?

The biggest challenge was with the site’s content. I naively thought that all we had to do was compile the relevant information and then have them written up properly. This seemed like a relatively straightforward task since we were already gathering information for our research. But this turned out to be a lot more challenging than I anticipated.

First, it was difficult to figure out what people in each situation could do. Some experiences are more straightforward; for example, most mainstream platforms ban what they call “non-consensual pornography” and in Singapore, the Penal Code now criminalises the act of sharing someone’s intimate images. Simple steps, such as making a police report or filing online takedown requests, are captured in our digital guide, “Someone is sharing my intimate images”.

However, most experiences are very context-dependent, and context shapes the amount of risks a person might face, as well as the actions they can take. For example, we have a guide titled, “Someone is pressuring me to share intimate images”. This can mean very different things if the affected individual is a young teenager, as compared to a grown adult. A young teenager is more vulnerable and there’s a risk that they might be experiencing predatory grooming, so our priority is to encourage them to speak to a trusted adult about what’s happening, so that the adult can help them.

In comparison, we want to respect the autonomy of an adult to make their own decisions, so instead, we emphasise consent and remind them that it is their choice whether to share intimate images and they do not have to do so if they are not comfortable. We spent a lot of time thinking through these different scenarios and working through the nuances to ensure that our guides contain only the information that is critical and useful for people in each situation.

We also wanted our readers to understand what each possible action entails, and what outcome they can expect. This is to help them make an informed decision about the actions they can take, and to minimise the chances of them doing something that cannot give them the outcome they want. But it took us a surprisingly long time to figure all these out. Usually, this was because there was very little public or easily digestible information available about a particular action.

Other times, the action was only available to people experiencing a specific form of online abuse, or were of a particular profile. We had to take all these caveats and requirements into consideration while also ensuring that our guides were as concise and simple as possible.

Question: Amid all these challenges, what would you say keeps you motivated and going?

Actually, it was these challenges that kept me going. They were incredibly frustrating (I was especially annoyed when I came across badly written or badly organised information). But because of them, I grew even more certain that Solid Ground needed to exist. If it was this difficult for two researchers working on these topics and who were not facing a particular crisis that needed us to understand this information, you can imagine what it must be like for someone caught in one of these situations.

Holly and I were also able to keep going because we weren’t doing this alone. Staff from AWARE and their Sexual Assault Care Centre provided us with further information and advised us on tone and language. AWARE also connected us with their volunteer lawyers, who made sure that legal information was accurately presented.

Our research interviewees informed us how we wrote the guides and designed the site. Practitioners from support services overseas provided us with detailed responses when we reached out to them with clarifying questions. And these are just a few – there are many others who helped and motivated us in bringing this project to life.

Question: Is there anything you want others to know about the cause you support?

So much of our lives are mediated by technology today, so it is not surprising that negative experiences online have become very common. But these don’t become “okay” or acceptable just because they are common. And just because something happens online doesn’t make it any less real.

Abuse and harm both thrive in secrecy and silence. It’s important that people facing any form of abuse (online or not) feel safe enough to talk to someone about what has happened. So, if someone comes to you and confides that something has happened online and it made them feel uncomfortable, try to put aside your own thoughts about why this happened, how serious it is, or what this person should do.

Instead, just sit with that person. Be patient, listen to them, affirm their experience, and let them know that you are there to support them. And if they want to know what they can do, you can refer them to the guides that we have on Solid Ground.

Question: What are your plans for the future? Any new initiatives coming up?

Since launching Solid Ground, we’re very happy to have received quite a lot of positive feedback from people who found it useful. Our immediate plans are to publicise the site further, so we are currently working on collaborations with other groups or organisations.

We are also looking for partnership or other collaboration opportunities with individuals or organisations who want to improve the landscape of support for people facing online abuse or harassment in Singapore. We have heard from a few people that Solid Ground has inspired them to do something to tackle these issues, and we are very encouraged by this.

If you are someone with information that can help improve our guides or improve access to support for people facing online harassment or abuse, we’d love to hear from you! Please reach out to us via the form on our Contact Us page or by emailing heysolidground@gmail.com.

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