A disturbing TikTok trend targeting women’s organisations has led to an essential service receiving 100 prank phone calls in one day, and call-takers being sexually harassed.
The Women's Center is a free Wisconsin-based service in the US available to those affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and trafficking.
Over the weekend, The Women’s Center hotline was inundated with prank calls.
“Last night we received over 100 prank calls to our 24-Hour hotline making it difficult for advocates to respond to real crisis calls, and we have been the target of other similar calls over the last month,” The Women’s Center wrote in a Facebook post.
“There has been a ‘trend’ going around on the app ‘TikTok’ where users record videos of themselves calling random ‘feminist numbers’ and asking for the man in charge.”
Help-line call takers being sexually harassed
The centre has a 24-hour hotline which is a critical lifeline, providing free and confidential support for both victims and survivors.
Speaking to US publication Patch, The Women's Center executive director Angela Mancuso says some of the calls have gone beyond pranks and become sexual harassment.
“People are now calling and describing rape in graphic detail and using misogynist and transphobic slurs. So this is literal harassment now," she said.
One advocate who was working the hotline when The Women’s Center received 100 prank calls, logging each one – the first was at 5.01pm and the last was recorded at 10.32pm, noting each caller was male.
The prank calls coincide with the global coronavirus pandemic, where rates of domestic violence have significantly increased and, as The Women’s Center points out, the lockdown has made it harder for victims to seek help, which is why hotlines like their’s are critical.
“In a time when victims are at high risk and any opportunity to reach out is essential, these ‘pranks’ are especially threatening to our work,” the post says.
It seems as though the coronavirus lockdown spawned the cruel prank, with many public Facebook posts encouraging people to engage in the harassment.
“Bored during the lockdown?” several posts say.
“Call a women's rights group and ask to speak to the man in charge!”
Several of these posts date back to May this year, around the time the coronavirus was rapidly spreading across the world resulting in lockdowns.
The Women’s Center caters to all genders, their website states.
‘Hoax calls block life-saving help’
While it does not appear the trend has had an impact in Australia, Domestic Violence NSW chief executive officer Delia Donovan worries about the potential for pranks to disrupt essential services for desperate women.
“24-hour helplines and other domestic and family violence telephone services provide a vital lifeline for victims and survivors,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
“They have never been more important than during the current COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Helpline services are already over stretched. Hoax calls blocking access to life-saving help is frankly dangerous and can put victims and survivors at further risk.
Ms Mancuso said the Women’s Center was still taking calls, but she did have concerns if the pranks continued.
"If someone can't get through right away, they may not call back," she said.
It doesn’t just seem to be The Women’s Center which has been targeted, a woman said the shelter she worked at in a different state was also getting prank calls.
TikTok responds and removes videos
According to FOX6 News, TikTok said the videos of people’s pranks asking for “the man in charge” had been removed from the platform, but also noted some videos were still viewable on August 2.
“We are committed to promoting a safe and positive app environment for our users,” a TikTok spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia in a statement.
“Our Community Guidelines outline behaviour that is not acceptable on the platform, and we take action against behaviour that violates those policies, including by removing content or accounts.
“We also offer a number of features to help users control their online experience, including options to report inappropriate content, limit and filter comments, and block users. For more, please visit our Safety Center.”
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