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WhatsApp changes: What DA survivors need to know

Recent WhatsApp updates have sparked fears that new features will be utilised by perpetrators of domestic violence to further abuse victim-survivors.

Here, family lawyer Harriet Donovan outlines the changes, their potential impact, and what you can do if you receive abusive WhatsApp messages.

WhatsApp changes: What victim-survivors need to know

For many people, WhatsApp is the preferred method of messaging. The well-known app cleverly makes communication easier and faster, allowing people to chat, share information and connect with others around the world, immediately.

And whilst this brings so many benefits, unfortunately, as with all communication apps and social media, it can be exploited by perpetrators of domestic abuse and used as a tool to inflict harm.

Important changes to WhatsApp

On 23 May 2023, WhatsApp changed their platform to introduce a new feature that allows users to edit messages within 15 minutes after being sent; a feature already offered by other major tech giants, such as Facebook and Instagram.

This new change to WhatsApp has sparked concern among domestic abuse professionals, who believe that it will allow perpetrators to send their victim and survivors a barrage of abuse, and then edit the messages, removing the abusive language.

This will mean the survivor will potentially see the messages, triggering them and causing emotional distress before it is quickly edited and either removed or deleted entirely. This then makes it extremely difficult to show a trail of evidence of abuse through messages alone.

How the WhatsApp changes impact victim-survivors

Messages from texting platforms such as iMessage, WhatsApp and social media platforms are regularly used as evidence in domestic abuse cases heard in the family law court. Messages can be a key part of the evidence in abuse cases, as they often show the intention of the perpetrator, along with patterns of behaviour. For this evidence to be considered, the Court needs to be satisfied that the evidence being considered has not been tampered with and can therefore be relied on.

This new change by WhatsApp and other tech giants will cast doubt over the reliability of messages as evidence, and in some cases remove it completely, especially when the abusive language can no longer be seen. There is also the concern that a survivor will have to prove that the original messages were received when the perpetrator’s messages will likely differ.

What can someone receiving abusive messages do?

Screenshot

Of course, there is the ability to screenshot the message before it is edited or deleted, however, this can be difficult for survivors who are understandably triggered by the message and may not think to take a screenshot of the messages as soon as they are received.

In addition to this a victim may be used to this pattern of behaviour and therefore not react immediately, at which point they may lose the opportunity to capture the evidence at the time it is sent.

There is also those who may not wish to have the messages or photographs on their phone as this will mean that they re-live the abuse each time they have sight of the messages.

To block or not to block

Another option, if it is safe to do so, is for the survivor to block their perpetrator and their friends and family from all social media and messaging platforms.

If there must be a line of communication due to having children together, using an app such as my Family Wizard could be a better and safer alternative. However, it is important to get advice from a lawyer or a domestic abuse charity before blocking all communications, as this can cause other behaviours to escalate.

Forward planning

Keeping a log detailing the date and time of all messages is important. Where taking a screenshot and storing the original message is inappropriate, consider forwarding the messages immediately to your lawyer, friend, or family member, so they can store on your behalf allowing you to delete the message.

WhatsApp Privacy Checkup

It is also advisable, again when safe to do so, to disable ‘Read Receipts’ on WhatsApp, giving survivors the chance to forward the message before the perpetrator realises the message has been received, and deletes them.

You can also change the status of the ‘last seen’ feature, which tells contacts when you were last online, so that nobody can see this information.

Other useful tools to stay safe on WhatsApp include limiting who can add you to groups, who can see your ‘About’ information, ‘Status’, and ‘Profile Photo’. Check that you’re not sharing your ‘Live Location’ with any groups or contacts.

These features can be found in Settings > Privacy. WhatsApp have also introduced a useful Privacy Checkup, to help you to tailor the settings to your exact needs.

Report abusive communication to the Police

If survivors receive abusive communications via social media, a call, a message, a letter or anything else, it should be reported to the police with information regarding the abuse, their knowledge of who has sent the abusive communications along with providing any evidence that supports the allegations. This will then create a record on the police database, which could then be used as evidence within family law proceedings. Typically, it carries more weight when a person reports an incident to the police at the time that the incident/event takes place as it further supports the allegations made.

It is vital that family lawyers, the courts, judges, and other professionals understand these changes, so they understand gaps in message trails, and why communications can look different and be inconsistent. 

Technology assisted abuse is on the rise, and figures from Refuge report an increase of 97% since the COVID-19 pandemic. The technology created to make our lives better, easier, and more efficient can sadly all too easily become a way for perpetrators to abuse, stalk, isolate and control their victims and their children.

For further information on technology facilitated abuse, please visit the Refuge Tech Safety website

More useful links

What is Tech Abuse?

Stowe talks podcast – Understanding and dealing with Tech Abuse

Refuge – Guide to securing your WhatsApp account

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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