The New Social Media And Crowdsourcing Campaigns To Stop Sexual Harassment
Women have recently turned to the Internet to organize and protect themselves against sexual harassment and assault, in light of the failures of the legal system. Such failures include too high burdens of proof in sexual harassment cases, short statutes of limitations, U.S. Supreme Court decisions creating broad defenses for employers, caps on damages, few laws protecting contract employees and unpaid interns, and ineffective internal Human Resources departments. Women who turn to the legal system also often find that it re-victimizes them. So, they are increasingly using cyber tools, including private social media groups and anonymous reporting websites, to create safe spaces for sharing their stories and identifying repeat perpetrators, without the fear of retaliation.
As the Washington Post put it in writing about a crowdsourced and widely-circulated Google Doc. called “Shitty Media Men,” which named perpetrators of sexual harassment in the media industry:
The [“Shitty Media Men”] list was the hallway, bathroom and barroom warnings passed between women for generations in written form. Those have long been the best hope of women seeking to shield themselves and their peers from sexual assault, because many feel that making a public accusation and allowing a man to respond rarely works, that using official channels rarely works, that even filing suit often doesn’t work.
The list named over 70 men, with anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct against them. It also contained the following instruction and disclaimer:
The document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see a man you’re friends with, don’t freak out. Men accused of physical sexual violence by multiple women are highlighted in red . . . Please never name an accuser, and please never share this document with a man.
Soon after creation of the list, on October 12, 2017, BuzzFeed News published an article entitled “What to do with ‘Shitty Media Men?'” The article unleashed a widespread debate in the industry. After it surfaced, employers forced out or terminated at least eight men on the list.
One female photography editor at National Geographic who received the list, which named her supervisor, Patrick Witty, had previously heard rumors about him through so-called “whisper networks.” The list pushed her to report these allegations to her company’s Human Resources. Soon after that, National Geographic launched an investigation, interviewed a number of women involved, and ultimately terminated Mr. Witty on December 15, 2017. In the words of the woman who reported him:
The list was the catalyst for an investigation at my company, and during that investigation, I felt comfortable presenting other mentions of the man’s name that I had seen in private Facebook groups. Social media has . . . allowed people to get information out from behind the curtain of the secrecy and complicity, and is holding people accountable . . . Social media outlets have provided a jumping off point for many investigations, and I think women are using it to amplify their voices when they don’t know who to turn to or if they think no one else will listen, they know the Internet will.
Following an article published by Vox on January 30, 2018, about Mr. Witty’s termination, National Geographic’s CEO issued the following statement to its employees:
Many of you may be aware that Vox published a story today on the termination of our Deputy Director of Photography, Patrick Witty. It’s a difficult story to read. I want you to know that our Human Resources team conducted a very thorough investigation as soon as issues were raised by women inside and outside of NGP regarding his behavior. I want to assure you the Executive Team is committed to a safe and appropriate working environment, particularly when it comes to issues of sexual harassment . . .
This use of Internet platforms to identify men alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct is not unique. In fact, a similar crowdsourced “Google Docs” list was created by a cultural anthropologist in December 2017 for students, faculty, and staff in higher education. This spreadsheet did not invite participants to name perpetrators, but rather provided a public forum through which victims of sexual harassment and abuse could post their stories anonymously. As of February 13, 2018, the spreadsheet had nearly 2,400 entries, and is continuing to grow. On her website, the list’s creator states:
Sexual harassment is rampant in the academy as it is in every other industry. The entrenched hierarchies of the academic world, the small size of most scholarly fields, the male dominance of virtually every field other than women’s studies, the culture of collegiality (read, evasiveness and pretense) that predominates, and junior scholars’ desperate dependency on good references for career advancement, make for conditions in which sexual abuse . . . can flourish with impunity . . . My hope is that this survey will allow victims to find a safe way to anonymously report their experience of sexual harassment.
Female comedians in L.A. have also banded together via social media, including on private Facebook groups and Instagram, to warn other women of male comedians who have committed sexual assault. Through their efforts, at least three men accused of sexual misconduct were banned from some of L.A.’s most popular theaters. And, in 2015, one theatre created new misconduct policies and hired new staff members to handle sexual harassment complaints.
In October 2017, following a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Knight Landesman, co-publisher of the popular arts journal Artforum, over 150 artists, curators, and museum directors jointly published a letter in which they spoke out against the prevalence of sexual harassment in their industry:
The resignation of one publisher from one high-profile magazine does not solve the larger, more insidious problem: an art world that upholds inherited power structures at the cost of ethical behaviour. Similar abuses occur frequently and internationally on a large scale within this industry. We have been silenced, ostracized, pathologized, dismissed as “overreacting”, and threatened when we have tried to expose sexually and emotionally abusive behavior.
We will be silenced no longer.
An additional 2,000 people later signed this letter. Sarah McCrory, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art at Goldsmiths, University of London, told The Guardian that this letter was published after women in her industry began discussing sexual harassment via the international messaging App, “WhatsApp.”
Anonymous chat apps, such as “Blind,” are also popular tools for employees to report harassment. Blind advertises itself as “the most exclusive, anonymous community app for tech professionals,” allowing users to “read and participate in trending discussions in [their] office and [their] industry.” In February 2017, Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, wrote a widely-publicized blog post, which described sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Uber. She detailed her repeated reports to Uber’s Human Resources, and how Uber refused to take action, but instead retaliated against her. The post went viral, and Uber employees quickly turned to the Blind App to discuss it, more than doubling the App’s Uber user-base. Several days after Fowler’s post, Uber’s Board launched multiple investigations, and adopted corporate governance reforms. It also set up a hotline for employees to lodge harassment complaints, which resulted in the termination of over twenty employees. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, resigned following the scandal.
Colleges and universities have also promoted a variety of Apps to report sexual misconduct. In April 2017, Stanford announced a pilot program with Callisto, a sexual assault reporting App. Callisto offers students three options for reporting sexual assault: (1) electronically reporting the assault to their school’s Title IX coordinator; (2) contemporaneously reporting the assault on Callisto’s encrypted database for possible submission at a later date; or (3) reporting the assault to their school’s administrators only if it “matches” another report in Callisto’s database, i.e., if other users have reported the alleged perpetrator. Callisto’s website states: “Knowing that you’re not alone tends to change a lot . . . by safely connecting victims of the same perpetrator together to validate each other’s experience and take action.” The website also states Callisto’s goal to “expand[ ] to address sexual assault and harassment in professional institutions and industries.”
These “safety in numbers” solutions have been encouraged by the #MeToo campaign, and its corollary, the “Time’s Up” movement, through which women are using social media to unite against sexual predators. Activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2006, to support survivors of sexual violence. Eleven years later, on October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” #MeToo immediately went viral, spreading rapidly across social media in 85 countries, and inspiring women of all professions and ethnicities to share their stories online. TIME Magazine later named the #MeToo Movement and “The Silence Breakers,” including Burke, Milano, and Fowler, as ” Person of the Year” for 2017, and the Financial Times named Fowler as its “Person of the Year.”
Critics of women who turn to the Internet to raise allegations of sexual assault and harassment repeatedly draw upon the same argument: false and defamatory accusations can ruin the lives and careers of innocent men. But the fact is that false sexual assault reports are estimated to occur at a frequency as low as 2%. In practicality, women put themselves at great risk when reporting assault and harassment, and there is very little incentive for a woman to make a false report. Moreover, the risk of false reporting will exist through any channel of communication, whether in-person or online. And, if an allegation is false, then a properly-conducted investigation (all too rare) should reveal the truth.
On January 10, 2018, Moira Donegan publicly revealed herself as the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list. In a powerful article, Donegan explains its significance:
Anonymous, [the list] would protect its users from retaliation: No one could be fired, harassed, or publicly smeared for telling her story when that story was not attached to her name. Open-sourced, it would theoretically be accessible to women who didn’t have the professional or social cachet required for admittance into whisper networks. The spreadsheet did not ask how women responded to men’s inappropriate behavior; it did not ask what you were wearing or whether you’d had anything to drink. Instead, the spreadsheet made a presumption that is still seen as radical: That it is men, not women, who are responsible for men’s sexual misconduct . . .
Watching the cells populate, it rapidly became clear that many of us had weathered more than we had been willing to admit to one another. There was the sense that the capacity for honesty, long suppressed, had finally been unleashed. This solidarity was thrilling, but the stories were devastating. I realized that the behavior of a few men I had wanted women to be warned about was far more common that I had ever imagined. This is what shocked me about the spreadsheet: the realization of how badly it was needed, how much more common the experience of sexual harassment or assault is than the opportunity to speak about it.
This list will not be the last of its kind. Less than a year after most of the recent sexual harassment scandals, it is difficult to predict how courts and lawmakers will respond, or how social media will affect anti-discrimination laws and policy. But, the tide seems to be turning, and women will continue to find new ways to mobilize against sexual assault and harassment outside the legal system.