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Photography Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

Failed by police, survivors of abuse are forced to turn to social media

Earlier this week, Harriet Robson used Instagram to accuse footballer Mason Greenwood of abuse. It was a shocking but necessary tactic, writes Shahed Ezaydi

It’s been a harrowing week of news about misogyny and gendered violence. On January 31, in response to a question put to Parliament by Shadow Home Secretary, Emily Thornberry, the Ministry of Justice revealed that the median delay between offence and case completion in rape cases was over 1000 days, with the average delay being even longer. And not only are people waiting longer, but prosecution rates for rape cases have also dropped to a new low of 1.3 per cent.

It’s not just the legal system that is failing survivors, but also their first point of contact when reporting their experiences: the police. A culture of misogyny, harassment, and bullying in the police ranks was already known to so many of us, but on February 1, the sheer extent of this violent and damaging culture was exposed. A series of WhatsApp messages between officers in the Met Police sharing jokes and comments about rape and domestic violence were uncovered, as well as a number of intensely racist and homophobic slurs. This comes just a few months after an officer in the very same police force was charged and sentenced to a whole life order for the kidnap, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard: a case that reignited and reshaped conversations around misogyny, gendered violence, and police brutality.

It should come as a surprise to no one that survivors of violence, especially women, do not trust the police with their experiences. Instead, as we saw with Harriet Robson earlier this week, social media has become one of the more reliable ways to communicate and share their experiences with the world. In a series of Instagram stories, Robson shared the alleged abuse and violence that she experienced at the hands of boyfriend and Manchester United player, Mason Greenwood. This was quickly shared across social media platforms that then, eventually, attracted the attention of Manchester United and now Greater Manchester Police.

Greenwood was arrested on rape and assault charges on January 30 and went on to be further arrested on charges relating to sexual assault and making threats to kill. He’s also had a number of sponsors, including Nike, suspend their contracts with him while Manchester United have stated that Greenwood “will not train with, or play for, the club until further notice.” He’s now been released on bail.

For survivors, social media is often the only available avenue for sharing their stories and experiences. In 2019, Evan Rachel Wood tweeted about her experience of domestic abuse and encouraged other survivors to do the same using the hashtag #IAmNotOk. Later that year, Melissa Benoist shared her own story in an Instagram video. In 2021, Camaryn Swanson shared photos of abuse she suffered at the hands of Tyga. Many have also utilised the service provided by Australian blogger Natasha Toffa, who encourages survivors to message her about their experiences of abuse.

The power of social media was also made evident when Everard’s case hit the headlines, with thousands of women sharing their experiences of gendered harassment and violence online. When the police have misogyny festering at their core; when the prosecution service is taking increasingly less rape and sexual assault cases to trial; and when we see so many offenders continue to live their lives without consequence, survivors taking to social media platforms comes as no surprise at all. 

Survivors of violence risk being re-traumatised by the police when reporting their experience or being treated as a suspect in their own abuse. As a result, many women are no longer turning to the criminal justice system – because it just doesn’t work. Social media may have its drawbacks, but it’s effectively one of the only routes left for survivors who have been continuously failed by the institutions that supposedly exist to protect us all.

For women from marginalised communities, especially women of colour, reporting their experiences of violence to the police is an even more unlikely event. In March 2021, Sisters Uncut published a document that detailed all the women who had been killed by police officers, in prison, or in state custody – with many of them being women of colour. According to research by Sistah Space, 86 per cent of women of African and/or Caribbean heritage have either been a victim of domestic violence or know a family member who’s been abused. But only 57 per cent of survivors said they would report the abuse to the police, while just one per cent said that the current justice system supports Black women.

With every empty promise or inquiry, the Government and the criminal justice system continue to fail survivors of violence and abuse, and women like Robson will probably carry on turning to social media in an effort to share their voices and seek solace and community. With all its flaws, social media as a platform has given survivors the means to do this, on their own terms, when they’ve been failed so many times before by the system.