There are some mechanisms in place to cut down on the problems associated with online dating.
Tinder, for example, has implemented machine learning to recognize abusive remarks and language and prompt the sender to reconsider before sending the message. Bumble introduced artificial intelligence (AI) in 2020 to blur select photographs and demand user consent to view them. Person verification has also been used on some platforms, in which the site compares images supplied to a profile with a selfie provided by the user (wherein the user is photographed doing a highly specific action, so the platform can verify the authenticity of the image). Because users can’t hide behind bogus identities, the feature is supposed to help prevent catfishing and abuse.
The effort is commendable, and it’s “better than nothing,” according to Silver, “but I believe we still have a long way to go.” Many users concur. “The only option we have is to press the block button. And while it’s there and you can block somebody, we don’t realize that in order to block someone, you have to first face the negative consequences of that action,” she says.
One of the most common user concerns is the possibility of sexual violence when users meet up in person. Despite an increase in female dating-app users adopting safeguards like charging their phones and telling family and friends of their plans, daters are still vulnerable to sexual abuse.
The Match Group, which owns about 45 dating apps, only screens for sex offenders on its paid-for applications, not free platforms like Tinder, OKCupid, and Hinge, according to the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City and news site ProPublica in 2019. These findings prompted US senators to launch an investigation in May 2021, following which they submitted a bill requiring dating platforms to enforce their fraud and abuse prevention standards.
However, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the United States stipulates that websites cannot be held liable for injury caused by their platforms to third parties. That means that most of the time, this multibillion-dollar industry isn’t held accountable for abusive interactions, and it’s up to the platforms to install precautions like the ones Tinder and Bumble have. (BBC reached out to six different online dating apps, but none of them agreed to be interviewed for the piece.)
Section 230 is divisive, and many people are calling for it to be updated or repealed entirely. Many say that the guideline, which dates back to the 1990s, is no longer relevant because platforms and how people use them have changed dramatically.
“It’s like the Wild West right now,” Sales says.
Can things get better?
Users are currently mostly unprotected outside of the screening processes that each site decides to deploy. Of course, many people are making wonderful connections – and even forming long-term relationships. However, daters continue to use the sites at their own risk, particularly in nations where clear protections are lacking.
Aside from legal advances and business safety initiatives, there are cultural shifts that can assist protect women and other daters on these platforms, both online and offline. Men must be aware of how their behaviors affect the people with whom they interact: they vastly underestimate the impact of their abuse. For broader progress to be made, ingrained gender roles and a frequently misogynistic social attitude must be dismantled – which also means women must cease accepting these types of interactions as the price of doing business, so to speak.
Silver had had enough of the torture. She abruptly stopped using the sites roughly two years ago. She hasn’t returned the stare.
“They had never done me any favors. So, why did I continue to grant them access to my life, my time, and my money?” she wonders. “And that really put things in perspective for me when I asked myself that question. That was the first time I was able to erase them and never felt the need to re-download.”
“It seems dramatic,” she continues, “but it’s as though I’ve reclaimed my life.”