How Abuse Survivors Can Protect Themselves On Facebook

Just as Twitter has been working to amend its privacy features in light of violent and threatening attacks on some prominent female users, Facebook recently partnered with the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) to roll out a new guide to online privacy to help victims of abuse bolster their online safety. While the new guide mainly highlights relatively well-known elements of the site's current privacy features without providing much new information, the initiative is a step in the right direction.

The NNEDV has highlighted just how crucial online safety can be for victims of domestic abuse. "Privacy and safety go hand in hand for survivors," they explained as the initiative was announced, saying, "The most dangerous time for a victim of abuse is when they are preparing to leave or have left an abusive partner." They added that calls for victims to stay away from online media altogether is an unsustainable solution, saying "We sometimes hear that survivors should just 'get offline' if they are concerned about an abuser finding them or contacting them. This is not a solution."

Facebook has responded with a candid account of some of the risks the social network can pose. "Abuses, stalkers and perpetrators misuse a variety of online spaces to harass victims," the guide acknowledges, and goes on to outline four basic steps users can follow to help bolster their online safety: managing friends, reviewing privacy settings, engaging security and notifications systems, and exercising caution.

The document underlines some of the basic privacy features on the site that are relatively well-known (such as telling users how to control who can see the content they post and how to block people from finding them in a search), but also highlights some of the lesser-known elements of online safety (such as how to flag abusive content and the information about the legal options individuals available to users who are being harassed).

"Be cautious when accepting new friends," Facebook writes, saying it is also important to "know your mutual friends" with your connections, while being careful when sharing and teaching children about the benefits of safe networking from an early age. The guide underlines the point that, with certain functions, the default will be for items to be shared publicly, and reminds users to visit the "Privacy Settings/ Who can see my stuff" feature to manage how personal information is shared. "Although you can’t control what others say about you on their own timeline and elsewhere on Facebook," they acknowledge, "you can control what is said about you on your own timeline."

The guide also underlines the company's commitment to supporting and protecting victims of abuse and harassment, explaining that Facebook will "work with law enforcement" to help provide "any details" it holds regarding abuse that may be necessary for a restraining order in cases of harassment.

Although these recent pushes from Facebook and Twitter to address the negative sides of social networking are welcome efforts, a range of compelling criticisms still stand that indicate that these efforts to "address" privacy issues are mainly cosmetic, and barely scratch the surface of the risks the media giants pose. Concern remains that Facebook has resisted calls for more sweeping privacy changes, and continues to follow an "opt-out" model for changing features that can be difficult for users to understand and manage.

An important step in the right direction, Facebook's new guide to address the issues victims of domestic violence face is just one tool users should use to protect themselves, and is no panacea for the risks online users encounter. Lifehacker and Mashable regularly catalogue their own guides to Facebook's privacy settings, and the best way for users — particularly those who are most vulnerable — to protect themselves is to stay informed about the evolving tools available to use the platforms safely. But Facebook's new initiative and partnership with a prominent organization protecting victims of domestic violence is an important new development, and one all users should take note of.