CORK youth activist Alicia O’Sullivan has told an Oireachtas Committee of the distress she felt after a fake Instagram account was set up in her name showing naked photos and videos of a girl.
She was speaking to the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media as part of its pre-legislative scrutiny of the General Scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.
The 19-year-old UCC law student became aware of the account in April. She says the account shared some of her photos from her legitimate Instagram account, but also showed naked videos and photographs of a girl, without showing her face.
She says the account also tried to sell porn through a link to a pornographic website and had asked legitimate contacts of Alicia to follow the account.
Following the incident, Alicia set up the Safety Over Stigma campaign, to seek an end to victim blaming of victims of online abuse and harassment.
She told the committee: “A huge factor in my experience was the lack of public awareness to the relevant law, given the fact I was told that someone posting illicit photographs purporting to be me was not illegal when in fact it was and is. A solution to this would be the development of a specific helpline or support network for online abuse and cybercrime in which the law and procedures to take can be explained and support can be offered. This would go a long way in creating greater public awareness and improving legal and media literacy. Thankfully the fake page was taken down in less than 24 hours but many women privately told me that the same had happened to them and the account was not taken down for about a week. I imagine that these victims did not have the same amount of people reporting it as I did and suffered further because of that.” She added: “Someone pretending to be you online is both frightening and damaging. An obvious protective step would be the requirement for some form of identification or identity to be provided when setting up an account which can be traced and is verified. This could be done by requiring unique Identifiers for users signing up to accounts.” She concluded: “I started this campaign for one simple reason. I remember feeling such distress, discomfort and dismissal. I want to play a role in not only putting an end to image based sexual abuse but for there to be repercussions and accountability for the perpetrators and most importantly that victims are treated with the respect and empathy they deserve at every point, and I am simply asking each of you to do the same.” Chairwoman of the committee, Deputy Niamh Smyth, said the committee was interested in the views and experiences of Safety Over Stigma, “which acts on behalf of people who suffered harm due to intimate or explicit images being shared online – one of the most appalling abuses of the internet and social media. Protecting young and vulnerable people from this and other harmful content is at the heart of this legislation and is a key priority for this Committee.”