Seeing a photo from years ago pop up on your phone might be a positive reminder for some people, but for others, it can be problematic or even painful.
Research done at the University of Calgary — as part of a larger study on gender-based violence activism in Canada — took a deeper look at how Facebook Memories affected survivors of gender-based violence.
Dr. Nicolette Little, who is now a lecturer in the University of Alberta’s Media and Technology Studies program, conducted interviews with about a dozen people for a qualitative study, recently published in Feminist Media Studies.
“Because I’m an intersectional researcher, I also wanted to try to get people of different backgrounds, maybe class backgrounds, gender identity, just to speak to the experience from their perspective of having these social media ghosts come up,” Little told Global News.
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Facebook’s Memories launched in 2015, assuming most people would enjoy the lookback. But, for survivors of gender-based violence, seeing previously posted photos of an abusive former acquaintance, relative or intimate partner can be traumatic.
“It was the disruption that these social media ghosts — or images that came up from the past — was having on the participants,” Little said. “Some of them were experiencing outright panic attacks: their stomach would get sick, they’d get sweaty, they’d have heart palpitations when an image of someone who’d abused them in a past relationship came up on their social media.”
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“This was worsened when they’d blocked or deleted the individual as a friend because in those scenarios, they’d thought they’d had control and had taken care of the issue, but then these algorithms were still popping up the images of these past problematic partners.”
She explained the abuser could still show up in Memories even if the survivor has unfriended or blocked them.
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“A number of them spoke to having PTSD and a number of them were feeling quite triggered by the social media ghosts that were coming up,” Little added. “This triggering is no small matter. It can take days, it can take weeks once you’re triggered to come back down to baseline and feel anything resembling normal.
“Some of the participants were missing work, having to get these expensive therapies after being quite triggered and retraumatized by an image of an ex they’d hoped never to see again. I say ‘ex,’ but it could be an acquaintance, a family member.”
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That negative experience, Little said, also led to some survivors shutting down.
“One participant, Nyla, would run to her room and put her phone aside and not look at it — sometimes for days — to try to avoid the social media ghosts.
“Being social is actually quite good for healing if you’ve gone through abuse and you’re a survivor, but some of the participants were actually shutting down their social media, stepping away from their phones, refusing to look at it,” Little said.
“These devices, our smartphones, tie us, not only to these problematic images, but also our loved ones, potential employers, social connections.”
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And Little found that opting out of Memories was a lengthy, multi-step process that isn’t simple or accessible.
“A lot of the settings to do so were quite decentralized on the screen. There’s three little dots in the top upper right hand of the corner where you can navigate through and eventually find the settings needed to block certain date ranges, certain people.”
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The concept of “social media ghosts” is new but the idea of “design justice” is not.
“The people designing this software and platforms are often thinking about their own reality and not as aware of how demographics who are much more susceptible to gender-based violence experience the platform,” Little said.
“I think research like this is helpful because it’s part of an ongoing conversation about design justice, a term from Sasha Costanza-Chock, about how we can make tech platforms, algorithms more equitable, safer to use for everyone.
“It helps developers and platforms think with a hopefully trauma-informed lens for things. For example, adding a big ‘thumbs down’ button that could be immediately pressed to clear away an image. That would prevent someone having to get triggered through the steps of deleting photographs or navigating Memories, things like that to get rid of problematic memories would be super helpful.
“Maybe people could just opt in in the first place rather than having to see the memory, recognize that memories can be painful, and then opt out,” she said.
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Little hopes these ideas are considered by big tech developers like Facebook, Apple and Instagram.
“It’s definitely a conversation, especially with where we’re going with tech, the importance of algorithms, AI.
“This is a critical moment to have these conversations and to really give some thought into how we’re going to design tech in ways that don’t leave people out in the cold, actively hurt people, actively marginalize people.”
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