Original article by Elle Hunt for theguardian.
Thousands of women have had intrusive photographs, taken of themselves without their knowledge, circulated on Twitter for years.
Covert photos taken of women on beaches, public transport and elsewhere have been shared to two hashtags for several years with apparent impunity.
The images predominately focus on the women’s breasts and buttocks, but in many, their faces are visible. Some appear to be underage.
Guardian Australia has chosen not to name the hashtags so as not to compound the violation of the women’s privacy.
Yevgeniya Ivanyutenko, a Twitter user based in Montreal, Canada, came across the hashtags by accident in early June. She referred them to Twitter’s @Support account and called on her followers to do the same.
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Not only did she not receive a response, attempts to formally report the accounts that had tweeted the hashtags were met with error messages. Twitter’s policy team has been contacted for comment.
Ivanyutenko told Guardian Australia that “literally zero accounts” seem to have been suspended. “I’m really concerned because Twitter is allowing photos of non-consenting women and minors to be posted to these hashtags.”
Research conducted by Max Kelsen, a social media analytics company, shows that close to 35,000 posts and retweets have been posted to the two hashtags in the past six years, but there was an explosion of activity in April this year.
Users posting and retweeting on these hashtags are almost exclusively male, and the majority are aged 17 and under. The majority – nearly 57% – are in the United States, with 14.3% from the UK and 11.7% from Mexico.
Ivanyutenko’s investigation of the hashtags revealed “a whole underground community for trading these pics”, hiding in plain sight, she said.
Some of the accounts are restricted to images taken in specific neighbourhoods or public places, such as Walmart. One of the hashtags “will make you never want to go to the beach again”.
“I got a response from one of the guys posting – before he blocked me, of course – saying that what he’s doing is under ‘free speech’.”
One account makes an active appeal to its more than 112,000 followers for “creepshots” that are “good enough to tweet or post” on its external website.
Another user, who has posted nearly 1,350 to the two hashtags, describes himself as an “old school creeper, enjoying the next generation creepers”.
Laws vary from state to state and country to country but generally people are allowed to take photos of people in public without their consent.
Last year an Oregon judge ruled that a 61-year-old man did nothing illegal when he crouched in the aisle of a Target store and snapped photos up a 13-year-old’s skirt.
Clandestine photography is banned in bathrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and tanning booths – but the man’s defence lawyer argued that the Target aisle was plainly public.
Twitter’s terms of service say it is not liable for content posted to the platform and that users “may be exposed” to that which is “offensive, harmful, inaccurate or otherwise inappropriate”.
But its rules around abusive behaviour and private information specify that users “may not post intimate photos or videos that were taken or distributed without the subject’s consent”.
Earlier this week Twitter admitted it could do more to address abuse on its platform when it handed a “permanent suspension” – effectively a ban – to Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative journalist.
But questions surrounding the efficacy of the ban have been raised given that Yiannopoulos seemed to have cultivated a following that would follow his lead. #FreeMilo was trending for several hours after his suspension was reported, fuelled by many messages of support.
Campaigners working with victims of harassment have said that in many casesTwitter does not seem to take their complaints seriously, or simply fails to respond.
Blocking, its main tool for combating harassment, can easily be circumvented with the creation of a new account – but “many trolls will have tens or hundreds”anyway.
A Twitter spokesman said in the wake of the Milo Yiannopoulos ban the company was in the process of reviewing its “hateful-conduct policy” to ban more types of abusive behaviour and allow more types of reporting “with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted”. Details of those changes were expected in the coming weeks.