When is a false accusation okay? A reflection on “Shitty Media Men.”

Image: The Cut

When is it acceptable to publish a false accusation?

It’s the right time to consider this question. In the rush of the #MeToo movement, a woman named Moira Donegan created a Google Sheet intended to collect accusations of sexual misconduct against men in the media business. At the time of its creation, her identity was hidden; all the accusations in the spreadsheet were anonymous, but the spreadsheet was visible to anyone who looked at it. It spread widely, creating a sort of internet-driven whisper campaign against male wrongdoers.

As an article was about to reveal Donegan’s identity, she published a first-person account of what she had done in New York Magazine’s “The Cut.” It’s a fascinating case study in how media spreads and the challenges of revealing hidden misconduct — the “open secrets” of the behavior of dozens of men like Harvey Weinstein — through a public, anonymous mechanism.

The challenge of anonymous accusations

For years, men have harassed, assaulted, raped, or damaged the careers of the women they worked with. This is tragic and awful.

I hear over and over that these women have no reason to lie, so we should believe everything they say. That seems credible, in the case of women who come forward. If you have the guts to come out and publicly accuse someone of misconduct, it’s seems likely to that you’re not making it up. If you’re famous, journalists should investigate your claim. Even if you’re not, your employer should investigate and mete out appropriate punishment, including possibly firing the offender or turning his case over to law enforcement.

(A quick note: I originally wrote the last few sentences in passive voice, then rewrote with “journalists” and “employer” as the subjects. I changed them because “the person you accused should be investigated and appropriately punished” is a perfect example of the lack of responsibility inherent in the passive voice.)

The Media Men list, though presents a troubling challenge. Let’s do a little thought experiment here.

There are stories about 70 men in the list. It’s possible, even likely, that all 70 stories are true. But it’s at least possible that one of the stories is false. Let’s say this is a story about George, an editor. George gets falling-down drunk at a party and starts saying terrible things about his wife. His wife becomes angry and puts her story about he raped his secretary in Shitty Media Men list. She, like all the contributors to the list, is anonymous.

Moira Donegan says she was worried about the possibility of false accusations in the list:

There were pitfalls. The document was indeed vulnerable to false accusations, a concern I took seriously. I added a disclaimer to the top of the spreadsheet: “This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt.” I sympathize with the desire to be careful, even as all available information suggests that false allegations are rare. The spreadsheet only had the power to inform women of allegations that were being made and to trust them to judge the quality of that information for themselves and to make their own choices accordingly. This, too, is still seen as radical: the idea that women are skeptical, that we can think and judge and choose for ourselves what to believe and what not to.

So we must balance the good that comes from outing dozens of terrible people against the potential harm from a false accusation. Is it worth it?

Suppose George was your son and you knew his wife to be vindictive. Would you still support the list?

Suppose George had never gotten drunk, never done anything wrong, and was a total boy scout at work. Would you still support the list?

Suppose George was a man known for promoting women at work and had made the careers of 12 prominent women who went on to champion women’s causes?

Suppose George was in the midst of running for the Senate and the accusations caused media to launch an investigation that ultimately came to nothing, but destroyed his reputation, and he lost?

If you feel one anonymous false accusation is the price we pay for women defending themselves, then where do you draw the line? Two? 20? Or should we just trust all anonymous accusations?

Donegan says it’s ok because women have the power to judge what is true. I’m not so sure.

The problem with publishing anonymous accusations

If you want to accuse someone of wrongdoing and use your name, good for you. You are very brave. If you would lie about this, which is unlikely, then you’ll bear the consequences.

I also sympathize with the accuser who wishes to remain anonymous. Such accusers typically contact someone who can do something about it. They may contact a journalist, who will then investigate the accusation. They may contact HR departments. While HR has historically been ineffective in many of these cases, I believe that they are much more likely to act in the wake of the high visibility of #MeToo over the last few months. The penalties to a company’s reputation for sweeping things under the rug — and then getting caught later — are much higher than they used to be.

President Trump says that the news media invents anonymous sources. I don’t buy it. I trust the reporters at reputable outlets to verify what they publish. They make errors, but they don’t invent things.

I’ve used anonymous accounts myself (although not of sexual misconduct). When I was an analyst, we’d occasionally write about people at companies who didn’t want to be identified. “The head of digital marketing at a large bank” might be a character in what we wrote. You could be sure that the person existed, even if we didn’t tell you who it was.

These examples of anonymous accusations and accounts are acceptable because you trust the journalist or the analyst to vet the account and publish things that are verifiably true.

But I can’t really get behind publishing accusations without any way to verify or check the accusation. Despite what Donegan wrote, I don’t really want unnamed people to have a vector to accuse anyone they want of wrongdoing.

If you disagree, then would you be ok with anonymously sourced spreadsheets like these?

  • People who were caught masturbating at work.
  • Salespeople who lied to close a deal.
  • Women who slept with their bosses and then got promoted.
  • Workers who are secretly gay.

If you think “Shitty Media Men” is ok, then please tell me where we can draw the line. There is clearly a problem with sexual harassment. It is unjust, unfair, and awful. But the end does not justify the means. And publishing (making publicly available) anonymous accusations is not a means I can get behind.

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  1. I suspect a certain French actress (and her co-signers) would consider Shitty Media Men part of the “witch-hunt” which has followed the Weinstein horror show. Of course, the use of the term “witch-hunt” in this context is spectacularly unfortunate.

    As for the idea that women never make false accusations of sexual harassment, it is of a piece with the idea that women never make false claims of rape, despite every female police officer who has ever worked on a rape squad being able to recount instances of investigations which proved the accusation completely contradicted by the evidence, often leading to the false accuser admitting she was just seeking revenge for some minor slight.

    Every woman who cries wolf is making it that little bit more difficult for the genuine victims to get justice – that same female police officer will be able to recount a vastly greater number of instances where she herself has been the subject of inappropriate behaviour from her male colleagues, but has chosen to laugh it off as the only realistic option she had.

    1. I would really like to see the statistics for “every female police officer…” The numbers on this that I have seen actually say that false accusations of rape are rare.
      Having said that, I do not like the idea of having a place to anonimously accuse people of stuff, taking into account that a lot of bullying online would not exist if it was not for the possibility of anonymity, and that I do not like people being accused without having the opportunity to respond to the accusation (be it men or women).

      1. I don’t have the statistics to hand, even for Australia, but I have spoken to three female police officers in three different state/territory police forces with lengthy experience in this area, and all three said they were yet to meet a detective of either sex working in this vexed area who did not have an anecdote about a false accusation.

        I also had a female friend in my teenage years who notoriously levelled a false accusation of rape against a schoolboy she fancied but who fancied someone else.

        I know the plural of anecdote is not data, and more importantly I know that sexual assault is grossly underreported everywhere in the world. Those three female police officers were also able to tell me tales of rapists whose guilt was incontrovertible and yet somehow they walked free from court.

  2. This seems like a moral question but it’s really about whom society protects. These are “what about the men” arguments, and they’re weak. Most consequences you listed against nice guy “George” are trivial compared the trauma of being raped. The “one good guy” question also tries to frame a grey issue in black and white by ignoring thousands of women who may have experienced similar consequences of real assaults.

    As for your inappropriate list ideas at the end, you’re comparing apples to oranges. It’s problematic for you to name more trivial behaviours that people could make lists for and say that makes listing dangerous men wrong. None of those four acts cause trauma. Including non-crimes is especially cheap. Of course it would be inappropriate to out secretly gay people! But homosexuality is victimless and not a crime. Comparing homosexuality to assault is not only unfair, it’s also harmful rhetoric against homosexuality.

    Lying to make a sale is wrong, but effectively stealing people’s money is not comparable to stealing someone’s body.

    Sleeping with the boss for a promotion is unfair, but it’s still not comparable to assault. For this reason, by the way, the possibility of women giving sexual favours for promotions doesn’t make the sexual assault issue go both ways. And you also imply that both issues are equally pervasive.

    I think these weak comparisons come from not understanding how important it is to own one’s own body, and how traumatic it is when other people try to claim your body. The brain learns what it lives, no matter what you do to try to stop it. You may tell yourself that the assaults that people do to you are wrong and that you own your own body, but the brain doesn’t care, it just takes on the trauma it’s living through.

    Creating Shitty Media Men is immoral on a higher plane that humans don’t live on. If you want women to stop warning each other about dangerous men, then culture and rule of law have to step up and provide adequate recourse so that assaults happen less in the first place.

    1. As awful as what has happened to these women is, does that justify people’s ability to make public, unsupported accusations?

      I read your last sentence, specifically, ” If you want women to stop warning each other about dangerous men, then culture and rule of law have to step up and provide adequate recourse so that assaults happen less in the first place.”

      There are laws against what is happening to these women. It hasn’t stopped the problem. There are also laws against libel. It hasn’t stopped women from creating unsubstantiated claims against men. Are we really at a point where we say one wrong justifies the other?

      1. We Australians are thought to be reasonably advanced in reforming both our culture and our rule of law around the vexed issue of sexual assault – exhibit one, having female police officers handle these cases.

        Nonetheless, we still have an obvious and shocking level of injustice in this area. Almost all rapes go unreported, but of those which are reported to police less than one in five results in a criminal prosecution of the rapist, and less than one in 20 results in a conviction.

        And that is just for the crime of rape. Add Weinstein-type crimes, and the chances of a woman getting justice from our system are reduced to a rounding error.

        Most things in life are a choice between available evils, and perhaps a world for women with sites like Shitty Media Men in it is the least of the currently-available evils.

    2. A few issues here. If women wish to go on Internet boards and post anonymous accusations for the sake of womankind and world peace, then should they not post information that is incontrovertibly true, or AT LEAST, able to be checked for authenticity? The point is to finger the right bastard, not to be vague or hurt the movement with yet one more suspiciously phony accusation.

      Posting anon when nothing is verifiable, makes little sense, contradicts itself, or can be refuted with fact checking, is not something that is the product of a brave woman looking to make the world a better place, it is the mark of a cowardly, lying sociopath looking for a little payback.

      What is hurting the movement are the packs of deranged-acting sisters who are clamoring for ALL, yes, ALL accusations to be accepted as absolutes, no matter how vague or absurd or suspicious.