TikTok hand sign: Is social media the following frontier to battle home violence? | World | Breaking information and views from across the globe | DW

When countries around the world first went into lockdown in early 2020, women’s organizations had to find new ways to help people who may be trapped at home with their perpetrators.

A group, the Canadian Women’s Foundation, came up with a show of hands to show that you were in need: stick your thumb in the palm of your hand and wrap your other fingers around it.

The idea was to create a signal that could be silently shared on a video call without leaving a digital trace, said Suzanne Duncan, the foundation’s vice president of philanthropy.

Over the past year, the gesture has taken on a life of its own in TikTok viral videos, in which users draw attention to the signal and play out scenarios in which women could use it to show they are in danger. Some of these clips have garnered millions of views.

Last week, in the most prominent incident, a 16-year-old girl in the US state of Kentucky was rescued after repeatedly flashing the hand signal from a car. Another driver on the highway recognized it and called 911, which resulted in the arrest of her suspected kidnapper, a 61-year-old man.

“We didn’t even know what [the signal] meant. We do that now, “said Assistant Gilbert Acciardo of the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office.

Calls for help on social media around the world

However, the gesture popularized on TikTok isn’t the only example of people using social media to combat domestic and gender-based violence.

Polish teenager Krystyna Paszko worked with an NGO to set up the fake online cosmetics store “Chamomile and Pansy”, where victims could secretly ask for help by pretending to buy a product. If the user gives her address to order the product, it actually means that she is asking someone to call the police.

“People who are affected by domestic violence have no alternative. They cannot leave their home, go to work, shop, meet friends or even go for a walk, and often spend their days in close quarters with their perpetrators,” says Paszko the DW.

Krystyna Paszko has opened a fake cosmetics store where victims of domestic violence can secretly call for help

There is also a chamomile and pansy Facebook page where users can secretly contact psychologists and the police under the guise of buying products and offer encrypted messages about abuse.

Elsewhere, in Brazil, a woman was saved from her perpetrator after sharing an Instagram story showing her hand with a red cross on it. This signal was part of a national campaign.

Duncan said that one of the reasons such types of resources are useful on social media is because they reach the most vulnerable there.

“We know that younger women and younger people of different sexes are most at risk of gender-based violence,” she said. A majority of the people on social media are young people. “So it really makes sense that people on social media platforms saw our signal.”

What if the perpetrators know too?

Many social media users have wondered if secret signals are still in effect once they go viral on social media, where abusers may become familiar with them as well.

In the case of the hand sign developed by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, some TikTok accounts indicate that victims can still make the gesture without their perpetrator noticing, precisely because it is silent and leaves no trace.

Duncan also stressed that fighting domestic violence is about diversifying the ways people can ask for help. In other cases, it may be more appropriate to call a helpline or contact an animal shelter.

“The signal is just a tool,” she concluded. “We need a whole toolbox of tools to let people know we need help.”

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