Payton Iheme’s extensive career has taken her from intelligence gathering in the military to advising the White House on science and technology. Working for a dating app wasn’t the most obvious next step.
But as Bumble’s public policy manager for the Americas, Ms. Iheme, 43, found a cause that synthesized her past experiences, however varied. She’s leading an effort in several states to pass legislation that criminalizes “cyberflashing.”
The term refers to the act of sending unwanted sexual images to another person through digital means – on a dating app or social media platform, but also via text message or other file-sharing service, such as AirDrop. (Apple, the maker of AirDrop, did not respond to requests for comment.) For many older people, especially women, cyberflash has become another cost of internet existence.
While browsing a Smithsonian speculative exhibit this winter called ‘Futures’, Ms Iheme said the purpose of her work was to challenge the norms of online interaction.
“How do we want people to interact on the Internet? ” she says. “Should you have a segment of the population that has experienced this kind of despicable harassment? About a third of women under 35 in the United States have experienced sexual harassment online, according to a Pew Research Center investigation. This legislative work, Ms. Iheme said, “we draw a line in the sand and are able to stand up and push away all the negativity and harassment..”
Viktorya Vilk, program director for digital safety and free speech at PEN America, said cyberflashing and other online abuse tactics “are part of a deliberate effort to alienate women and voices marginalized from the internet and so people don’t feel safe in public, at home, on their phones, on their laptops.
A YouGov poll in Britain found that 40% of millennial women have received an unsolicited photo of male genitalia. For girls aged 12 to 18, this proportion is even higher, according to an academic report funded by several universities and organizations in Britain. Three-quarters of the girls surveyed said they had received lewd photos from men, and the majority described them as unwanted.
“Everyone understands how inappropriate it would be if I was in public and someone pulled their pants down in front of me,” said Carrie Coyner, Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates. “But for some reason we failed to recognize that the same behavior is no different if sent to you on your device.” Working with Bumble, Virginia recently pass a law which entitles the recipient of an unwanted obscene image to $500 in damages.
Ms Iheme said that in terms of privacy and security, digital spaces are similar to public spaces in the physical world, especially for people who have been using the internet since childhood.
“The harm that happens online is just as real as offline,” Ms Iheme said. “Older people go online for a few things. For the younger generation, the Internet is “things”.
In Wisconsin, State Senator Melissa Agard, a Democrat, worked with Bumble to introduce an anti-cyberflashing bill in January. It didn’t pass this session, but she said she would push the bill again in January. Bills like these aren’t just about punishing perpetrators, she said. “They give people an opportunity to talk about consent,” she said.
Ms. Vilk of PEN America said anti-cyberflash legislation is important, but shouldn’t be used as an excuse by tech companies to deflect responsibility for user safety. She noted that Bumble has combined its political work with other efforts, including installing artificial intelligence software that detects and blurs obscene photos. (Those who share such photos without consent may be blocked from app.)
Bumble, a dating app where women must make the first move, began pushing for anti-cyberflashing legislation in 2019 in Texas, where the company’s efforts helped pass a bill which made sending obscene photos without the recipient’s consent a class C misdemeanor.
“The lesson that’s been learned is that it’s not easy to get this stuff across,” said Ms. Iheme, who joined Bumble in 2021. Since then, Bumble has partnered with politicians in California , New York and Pennsylvania, which are drafting their own bills that are at different stages of the legislative process.
Winning support for anti-cyberflashing legislation has been an uphill battle. With every state Bumble enters, Ms. Iheme and her team must reintroduce the concept of cyberflashing, explain what it means, find stakeholders to partner with, and figure out how to frame the legislation for local voters.
Nima Elmi, who oversees public policy for Bumble in Europe, said the United States poses particular problems for passing laws. “The personalities of the policy makers, the political affiliations, all of that means they might as well be separate countries unto themselves,” she said of the different states. Negotiating those differences, she said, requires someone sensitive to nuance, tenacious and nimble.
Over lunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill, one of her favorite restaurants in Washington and a watering hole for the city’s power brokers, Ms. Iheme explained how working for the military had helped her hone these skills.
“Military personnel have certain clues and signs of how senior someone is, what their placement is in the environment, whether they are friend or foe,” she said. “If you walk into a room or drive into a place, you better be able to immediately assess what that situation is. Now it’s people in blazers and suits, but it’s the same exercise.
Ms. Iheme — whose first name is Nkechi; Payton is his middle name – enlisted in the military at 17 and stayed there for two years before enrolling at the University of Texas at Arlington. Shortly before his expected graduation, the United States invaded Iraq.
“They were getting my boot size and my uniform size while I was still in college,” she said. “It was something that nobody could really help you with. Only certain generations have gone to war. It wasn’t something we could look to our parents and other people in the community to really have answers for us.
As an intelligence officer, Ms. Iheme was put in charge of dozens of people and managed millions of dollars in equipment and budgets. She had completed two combat tours by the age of 29.
She remained with the Ministry of Defense for 21 years, then worked in humanitarian aid in Guyana and participated in the relief effort in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Eventually, she joined the halls of power American as a member of Congress.
For two years, she worked on Capitol Hill while earning her master’s degree in legislative affairs from George Washington University. She later joined the Pentagon, then moved to President Barack Obama’s White House, where she served as a senior policy adviser on science and technology. A highlight of his time there was meeting Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who inspired the movie “Hidden Figures,” and escorting her around the White House. Ms Iheme’s last job before Bumble was in public policy at Facebook.
Throughout her career, she was often the only black woman in the room. “I have to be in many, many organizations where people don’t look like me,” she said. “A lot of the time, you can internalize it and challenge yourself.” Being in these spaces, she would “change form at times,” she said.
“Where I am now as a leader, I’m not changing shape anymore,” she said.
And she does all she can to stand up for others who may not feel able to speak up.
“The internet I want to see in the future is the same as the kind of world I want to see in the future,” Ms. Iheme said. “And it’s one where people will have the freedom and be able to exercise their own rights in a way that doesn’t harm the rights of others.”
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