Like so many Americans working from home, Rachel Gibson checks the popular AITA subreddit “religiously” every morning, she said. Redditors use the forum to ask users to weigh in on personal disputes in which they are unsure if they’ve acted in the wrong.
For a certain cadre of the Internet, AITA has become a necessary stop in their day, especially throughout the pandemic. The subreddit acts as a virtual water cooler for people to share their moral dilemmas anonymously as readers observe and weigh in — all behind a user name.
With stay-at-home orders and remote work, AITA activity jumped 53.7 percent over last year, according to a report released by Reddit on Tuesday.
But for Gibson, there’s a growing number of posts that also dovetail into her work as a technology safety specialist expert with the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
“There’s Rachel, the person who just loves social media and is petty, and Rachel, the person who is an advocate,” she said.
The subreddit often includes posts describing domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and other harmful behavior. The writers don’t always use those terms, but they describe situations that experts recognize as harmful.
“With more people staying home and with tensions higher than usual. People are having the same interpersonal conflicts they always have,” the report said.
“One of the best things this subreddit can do is provide perspective, and that perspective can be especially valuable to someone in an unhealthy or abusive relationship,” the report continued.
One user, who goes by the handle Ebbie45, saw descriptions of scenes that sounded problematic and wanted to provide support to fellow Redditors.
“I began noticing a large number of posts about domestic violence. As a survivor of intimate partner rape, I felt very connected to some of the posters seeking help, and given my personal and professional experience, I thought maybe I could make a difference by commenting and providing support and resources,” said Ebbie, who works with domestic violence survivors.
The subreddit’s moderators eventually partnered with Ebbie to create a wiki page with resources for those in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.
“I think Reddit, particularly the relationship support forums and the domestic violence and abusive relationships forums, can be safe places for victims/survivors to ask whether certain behaviors in their relationships are ‘normal,’ to find safety resources and sometimes simply to ‘vent’ because they are unable to safely tell anyone else in their lives,” said Ebbie, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of the nature of her work.
“Anonymous online forums are sometimes much safer for victims to seek support through than to ask family members or friends, who may be close to the victim’s abuser and hence may pose a safety risk. In addition, online spaces are often places where victims are able to find judgment-free support without the embarrassment and fear that may come with disclosing to a loved one,” she wrote.
Gibson thought the resources provided on the subreddit were useful, especially as more people spend an unprecedented amount of time confined to their homes.
“I always think about ways in which these spaces have opened up for survivors like never before. I think that kind of space really has given folks the ability to connect and to get a third-party opinion, someone who isn’t really connected to the situation. So I think it can be a really great place for survivors,” she said.
Ebbie also warns about taking advice from strangers, even if it is well-meaning.
“Sometimes commenters may inadvertently offer dangerous advice, such as suggesting that victims attend couples counseling with their abusers, advising victims to ‘confront’ their abusers, and even suggesting communication and discussion as a solution to violence. This misguided advice, while generally well-intended, can be dangerous,” she said.
She also noted that men, as well as transgender and nonbinary people, face abuse and may feel more comfortable talking about it on an anonymous platform because of social stigmas.
Ebbie says she avoids terms like “abuse,” “domestic violence” and “sexual violence” when people reach out to her for advice.
“I simply tell them that what is happening isn’t their fault, they don’t deserve it, I believe them and it isn’t healthy. I never pressure them into leaving the relationship because it isn’t my place to do so, and sometimes they don’t want to,” Ebbie said, noting that there are often financial, familial or legal factors that can deter someone from leaving a dangerous situation.
Instead, she sends a safety plan that includes strategies to stay as safe as possible either in the relationship or while preparing to leave. She makes a connection to a domestic violence hotline if the person is interested.
Ebbie works with domestic violence survivors full time and does her “Reddit advocacy” in her spare time. Despite being a professional, the conversations she has on Reddit can haunt her.
Last year, she says a woman reached out to discuss her emotionally abusive husband: He only allowed her to have extremely limited personal space or time and would even monitor the time she spent in the bathroom.
“She was cut off from friends, family and support,” Ebbie said.
“She mentioned having a doctor’s appointment coming up and asked if she should mention the abuse to her provider then. I said that was a good idea, but only if she was able to talk with the provider privately. … Then never heard from her again,” she said. “I still have no idea what happened to her, but I hope she’s okay.”