The Zoom Signal Protecting Domestic Violence Survivors

A simple gesture allows survivors to seek help without leaving a digital trail

Photo: Bill Hinton/Moment Mobile/Getty Images

Just weeks into the Covid-19 lockdown, Elizabeth Barajas-Román was alarmed to learn that incidents of intimate partner violence were increasing in countries around the globe. Approaches that support organizations had previously relied on to reach people in abusive relationships, like running a hotline or providing safety planning in the workplace, were proving difficult to implement while people were stuck at home, often in close quarters with the person perpetrating violence.

Barajas-Román, who is the president and CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, a global philanthropic network dedicated to women and girls, wondered: How could survivors reach out and get the help they need in a safe way? The solution she landed on, with the help of a WFN partner group, was Signal for Help, a simple hand gesture that people experiencing abuse could silently use during video calls to tell friends or loved ones that they’re in trouble.

“It could be a real tool to help people that are sheltering in place.”

To make the signal, a person should place an open palm with a tucked thumb in front of a digital camera, then fold all their fingers over the thumb, forming a fist.

“If people can recognize it, if we’re able to get enough global adoption in understanding what the signal is, it could be a real tool to help people that are sheltering in place,” Barajas-Román tells OneZero. Signal for Help was launched in Canada and the United States in April, with the hope that it would eventually be used around the world. WFN created a dedicated website with multilingual explainers and promoted the initiative through their grantee partners, who work with people experiencing abuse in countries across the globe.

How to make the Signal for Help. Credit: Women’s Funding Network

The initiative is meant to address the complicated and fraught ways technology can impact the lives of people experiencing abuse. Digital technologies like Zoom or Google Hangouts can stem the isolation endured by victims and provide new means by which they can ask for help, yet they can also function as a mechanism of control. Using tech, abusers can surveil victims and track any steps they might take toward trying to leave.

This double-edged nature of technology has become ever more apparent since March, as all of us — including survivors — found ourselves even more reliant on digital technologies to communicate with friends, family, and coworkers. With incidents of domestic violence rising across the world, a result of stay-at-home orders and the emotional and financial stressors wrought by the pandemic, advocates are working to open the channels of communication with victims without putting them at risk.

“Any technology can be weaponized.”

Survivors are often closely monitored by their abusers, which is no small matter for those considering leaving. Research has shown that the risk of deadly violence is greatest during or just after the time a victim decides to leave a violent relationship. As a result, anytime a survivor creates a digital trail indicating that she’s seeking help, such as visiting domestic violence-related websites or sending related messages via text or social media, she’s potentially putting herself at risk.

Using a hand signal over video chat leaves no digital trace and doesn’t require any technology beyond video calling. It doesn’t require users to be literate or technologically savvy, and it can be understood across many languages. Signal for Help is “as close to universal as we can try to get,” said Barajas-Román. Importantly, because the hand signal is meant to be widely recognized rather than secret, it may be safest for survivors to use it in private or when the abuser is not present.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, digital abuse was growing increasingly and alarmingly common. In 2019, 30% of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline who were asked what was happening to them said they had experienced some form of digital abuse — a 101% increase compared to 2018. Digital abuse occurs in many forms, including when a perpetrator sends negative or threatening messages over email or social media, uses social media to keep tabs on a survivor, steals someone’s passwords or insist they be shared, uses spyware or GPS to monitor a survivor, or uses smart home technology to surveil, control, or frighten an individual.

“Any technology can be weaponized,” a Hotline representative told OneZero in an email.

Still, no technology is “all bad or all good,” said Toby Shulruff, the senior technology safety specialist at the Safety Net Project, a program of the National Network to End Domestic Violence that provides support to survivors of digital abuse. Abusers can take control of smart home technology, including digital lights, surveillance systems, thermostats, and locks, which can leave victims feeling as though they are going crazy. Yet these same devices can also give survivors a sense of security and control over their environment; for example, enabling them to monitor who enters and exits their home or whether they have to enter a darkened room after a long day at work. Shulruff says that bringing experts on digital abuse into the development process of smart home tools early on could help tech companies anticipate the dangers posed by new products rather than address those issues once somebody’s been harmed.

What’s also essential, say advocates and researchers, is that survivors have simple and straightforward ways to get support — like Signal for Help — if they believe they’re experiencing digital abuse. Unfortunately, doing so has only grown more difficult since Covid-19 emerged. Emily Tseng is a PhD student in information science at Cornell University and a volunteer with Cornell’s Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA), which provides assistance to New York City-based survivors. Before March, Tseng said, CETA volunteers would meet survivors in person to examine their devices and advise them on next steps. These days, she and others can only provide assistance over the phone.

“You have to think about how you actually support survivors remotely, if the actual devices they would use to reach out to you are the very ones they suspect are being surveilled,” she said.

What’s most essential is that survivors have a diversity of options by which they can seek help, said Shulruff. Some people might not have Wi-Fi at home or a reliable cell phone, and others might feel a video call is too risky. “There isn’t one thing that’s going to work for everybody,” she said.

Barajas-Román is excited about WFN’s success thus far in spreading the word about Signal for Help, including with grantee partners across North America and around the world. In Zimbabwe, one member told her, lay workers have been using the signal to communicate with survivors, then sometimes connecting them to shelter networks or extricating them from their homes. The organization’s clients generally have access to mobile phones but cannot rely on local police forces, and so are especially reliant on the nonprofit infrastructure when their lives are at risk. One simple symbol, used alongside technology across a variety of culturally and country-specific environments, “really makes a difference,” said Barajas-Román.

She hopes Signal for Help will be used as a starting point for survivors who feel they’re unsafe. If you see the sign on a call, she said, don’t make assumptions about what the survivor might need. Instead, try asking yes or no questions; for example, whether they want the police to be contacted, if they need information about nearby domestic violence shelters, or would like to be checked up on every now and again.

The aim, she said, is “really about putting the agency back into [the hands of] that person who’s experiencing violence” — in other words, to give some control back to a person who’s had so much taken from them.

a Brooklyn-based investigative journalist who writes about institutional failures to protect the most vulnerable

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store