Thursday, April 9, 2015

Social (Media) Justice

Case 1: The Rolling Stone UVA Story
In case you are somehow unaware, Rolling Stone published a jaw-dropping account of a gang-rape on the UVA campus. Shortly after publication, the story came under question--and then unraveled: it turned out that Rolling Stone, in an attempt to protect the emotional fragility of the victim (given the pseudonym 'Jackie') had failed to do basic fact-checking.

Rolling Stone asked for a review of their procedures from the Columbia School of Journalism and published it once received. It details failures on every level of journalistic practice.

What is noteworthy is that (a) Rolling Stone, which is--or at least tries to be--a real old-school journalistic enterprise (i.e. not a blog) but (b) threw most of of the journalistic precepts out the window when faced with a fragile 'victim.' Whether or not this was done for ideological purposes is, probably, unproveable.

Case 2: #Team Harpy
In May of 2014 a librarian blogger, Nina De Jesus, basing her post off comments made by Lisa Rabey, wrote an article about combating sexism and sexual abuse in the librarian society. She name-checked a Mr. Joe Murphy, claiming that, as a staple of the library conference circuit, women had instituted a "buddy system" around him so as to never be alone and be harassed by him.

This message was signal-boosted and when Mr. Murphy sued them for slander (he lost his job over the allegations) the women defendants took on the name of #TeamHarpy--as they were called 'harpies' by an online detractor at some point.

In the end--recently--the #TeamHarpy issued a full retraction of their comments. It is unclear what, if any, evidence they had that Mr. Murphy was sexually harassing anyone (they claimed to have evidence--but none has been--or will be--published). The Omnivore is not familiar with the laws (the suit was filed in Canada) and is not sure who had the stronger case.

Regardless of the legal merits, it is notable that in the initial post Nina de Jesus made, referencing tweets from Rabey, she advised:
  • Don’t ask for ‘proof’.
  • Don’t treat ‘both sides of the story’ as if they hold equal weight.
  • Do not engage in any type of victim blaming behaviour.
  • Listen to the victim. Do it. And don’t judge.
To be clear, she was advising this as a standard of behavior for regular people in the librarian community, not for police or prosecutors (who must build a case). On the other hand, Mr. Murphy lost his job and, when it came time to go to court, judging from the retractions, the defaming remarks were simply made up to promote one of the defendant's political issues:
I made false and damaging comments about librarian Joe Murphy for which I would like to apologize. I ask you to please read the following statement for details from my perspective.
On May 3, 4 and 5, 2014, I posted tweets that referenced librarian Joe Murphy implying without a basis in fact that he was a sexual predator. These unsubstantiated statements gained wide attention and caused Mr. Murphy significant damage.

My intention in posting these tweets was to draw attention to the issue of sexual harassment of female librarians in the profession. My statements were made carelessly, and were not based on facts. I have never observed Mr. Murphy sexually harass or exhibit sexually predatory behavior. Ms. de Jesus relied on my tweets for writing her blog post. My statements should have never been repeated as they were based on gossip and innuendo, not fact.
What To Think?
While there may be room to assume that Murphy's lawyers litigated #TeamHarpy into submission even though they had evidence he was at fault, from what we can see, there's no real reason to think that. The Omnivore thinks that Occam's Razor suggests that, in a manner similar to the Rolling Stone story, Rabey heard stories (or made them up?) and, with the signal-boost of social media (or just plain 'media' in the Rolling Stone case) had them reach stratospheric levels of consumption within their respective communities (libraries for TeamHarpy, the whole USA for Rolling Stone).

While, to be certain, a lot of people did question both stories, a lot of people also followed the bullet points above and decided the stories were true.

To an extent--and for a person with the right mind-set, the stories were certainly 'truthy.' This is to say: The Omnivore finds that, they sort of feel like they could be true--they fit a certain world-view. They also, asserts The Omnivore, kinda fit the real world. We know that rapes happen at college campuses--both the 'traditional' form as well as the drunk/no-consent form . . . and that is to say nothing of serious sexual harassment or assault such as groping.

Apparently library conventions have known issues with this as well (and science-fiction/fantasy/gaming conventions too).

As another point of order: it's up to every individual to set their bar-for-belief wherever they want. If you are certain most accused males are innocent--or that sexual harassment just isn't happening in these places--, there is probably a statistical correlation that you believe Benghazi was a conspiracy or perhaps that Bush caused 9/11.

And, let's not forget, almost none of us take Bill Cosby at his word despite the fact that there doesn't seem to be any hard evidence of his string of serial rapes.

On The Other Hand: The World Isn't Like It Used To Be
In an age of social media, there is a power in the hands of the Internet Hate Machine to wreck someone's life--pretty badly. Whether this power is used 'for good' or ill often depends on where you stand ideologically (the 'for good' link has someone from the right-wing Taki's Magazine interviewing someone he deems a professional 'life saboteur,' a Gawker writer, who raised issues of someone's past dabbling in IQ-genetics and got him fired).

The problem here is this: modern, civilized jurisprudence requires standards of evidence and transparency to protect citizens from the far more powerful state. These standards do not, need not, and are explicitly excepted in one of the original #TeamHarpy posts, from applying to individuals and their rights of free speech, personal association, and so on. This is, on a person-by-person basis as it should be.

However: since about 2012* the world has changed. Social Media makes the Social-Media-Swarm of individuals a force considerably more powerful than individuals or even local sentiment. While the small world of librarians (The Omnivore assumes it's a pretty small community) could have, in the past, black-balled people for their behavior, today the weight of thousands and thousands of people--some with seriously malign intent--some with unusual skills--can be brought to bear on an 'offender' without any sort of burden of proof or, indeed, reasonable recourse.

We know, for example, that racism gets you fired. We know that jamming a small company's phone lines with harassment calls is illegal--but probably nearly impossible to prosecute. We know that if you exist online you can be driven off it. If your job requires it: you can be effectively 'e-exiled.' We know how this works--and we've seen enough patterns to kind of know how to harness it.

Today everything a human says online has the power to persist. Today public--but personal--data on individuals is far more easily and broadly accessible than ever before in human history. Today the system has methods to protect anonymity: Also a force for good and ill. When these combine with viral phenomena and society's collective adoration of outrage you get a damage machine with no off-switch and no governance. It can harass you, evict you--even get you killed (or, at least try).

Given that now there is an imbalance of power between individuals accused and the Internet Hate Machine--even if acting as the Internet Social Justice Machine--do we think there needs to be some mechanism in place to protect the sanctity of an individual--especially a falsely accused one?

This is an even harder question in the context of Social Justice. The theory, so understands The Omnivore, is that less privileged groups (women, in this case) should be granted more legitimacy in rape or sexual harassment claims because their socially under-privileged status makes it hard to advance legitimate grievances (and, additionally, in the case of harassment, groping, etc. there will just never be any proof beyond "It happened to me" or, more rarely, "I saw it!"). This is, thinks the Omnivore, measurably true.

But if this is so, what about the case of the individual against the Social Media Swarm? In this case no individual has an advantage over the group and no way to prove their innocence (well, you can launch a massive lawsuit--but The Omnivore doubts that's a happy outcome for anyone involved in general). What's the enlightened take on that imbalance of social(media) power?

The Omnivore doesn't have a good answer--but it seems that at this point we mostly aren't even asking the question.

* The Omnivore picks that date for the point where social media had a significant impact on national political campaigning.

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