The campus rape panic that dominated western media for well over two years suffered a severe blow in late 2014 thanks to the credulous reporting of hoax allegations in Rolling Stone. Those who had long harboured doubts about the panic, such as Glenn Reynolds and Emily Yoffe began to lend aid to long-time sceptics like Christina Hoff Sommers and Cathy Young. Today, Bloomberg columnists casually refer to this chapter of history as a moral panic. Meanwhile, colleges that embraced the panic by abandoning due process are facing a wave of lawsuits from aggrieved students.
This is all good news. But the focus on college campuses is limiting. It blinds us to the bigger picture. In truth, the “rape culture” panic spread far beyond the walls of universities, injecting an atmosphere of vigilantism into almost every community where both genders happened to mix. In all of these arenas, opportunists seized on the opportunity to ruin the reputation of innocent people on little more than hearsay. One of the most egregious examples, in fact, did not occur on a college campus but in the community of professional librarians.
The librarian, Joe Murphy, was publicly accused of being a ‘sexual predator’ by two colleagues on social media. This was followed up by blog posts urging his professional community to ban him from conferences, despite the fact that none of the allegations had been proven true.
In a blog post entitled “Time to Talk about Community Accountability” (translation: time to talk about vigilantism), librarian Nina de Jesus made a series of public allegations against Murphy, a “ubiquitous presence” on the library conference circuit. This followed a tweet by fellow librarian Lisa M. Rabey, who alleged that Murphy was a “known sexual predator”. Rabey’s followers on Twitter then joked about ruining Murphy’s career.
The blog post itself is an extraordinary example of modern vigilantism. Just take this paragraph:
In case people have forgotten, we are neither the police nor the judicial system. We do not have to adhere to their evidentiary requirements. We do not have to assume innocence. We don’t have to build a ‘case’ against someone. We don’t, in actual fact, require ‘proof’ that would hold up in a court of law. We don’t need to gather evidence and conduct investigations.
The post then goes further, urging all conference attendees to dispense with any presumption of innocence:
- 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.
Finally, the post urges conferences to mete out punishments on the basis of accusation alone:
Did a woman just report getting sexually harassed?
Eject the man from the conference. Don’t ‘ask’ him to stop. Eject him and let him know that he can try again next year.
Did a presenter just make a racist joke?
Stop the presentation. Call it out. If this manages to derail the talk (eg, the presenter gets defensive and is unwilling to apologize), then the talk is over.
Does someone have a reputation for being a sexual predator?
STOP INVITING THEM TO SPEAK.
Essentially: hold people accountable for the harm that they cause.
The bloggers weren’t finished. After Murphy had the audacity to defend himself against these allegations, they took to Twitter, Tumblr, and their network of blogs to whip up a mob against Murphy. Gathering on the “#teamharpy” hashtag, they – and their public denouncement of Murphy – spread their message across social media. Astonishingly, Inside Higher Ed, a leading online publication on education matters, ran a story supporting the vigilantes. One of the vigilantes was then given a platform in the American Libraries magazine.
The result was exactly what the accusers desired – an almost permanent blot on Murphy’s reputation. A google search for “Joe Murphy librarian” shows the Inside Higher Ed article on the first page, along with several other results repeating the original allegations. If Murphy lacked the resources to mount a legal challenge, the campaign to ostracize him may have been successful.
Murphy did secure legal assistance, filing a defamation suit against his accusers. And after a lengthy process of legal wrangling, Lisa Rabey and Nina de Jesus opted to make an unreserved apology and retraction to Murphy. Admitting that the allegations were false, both librarians apologised for the damage caused to Murphy’s reputation and called on their followers to stop the campaign against him.
And of course, they paid no attention.
— Arthur Chu (@arthur_affect) March 25, 2015
Absolutely heartbroken over #teamharpy. I support women. I believe women. Even when the legal system fails to do so.
— Kimberly (@KimReadsThings) March 25, 2015
Legal expert Ken White (aka Popehat) was in a less flippant about due process.
“It’s evil to question the guilt of people accused of [x]” remains contemptible whether x = harassers or Gitmo detainees or cops or anyone.
— Popehat (@Popehat) March 25, 2015
Murphy is not alone. Carbon-copies of his experience can be found in other communities. Take Stardock CEO Brad Wardell, whose story we have covered before. Years after bogus harassment charges were dropped, he still faced a widespread whispering campaign against him on social media – egged on by the gaming press. It was only under the intense pressure of gamergate that some figures came forward to admit their mistake.
Max Temkin, the creator of cult card game Cards Against Humanity, also had to deal with a similar situation when he was faced with an allegation of rape. He denied the allegations. Kotaku and Jezebel immediately ran stories in support of the accuser. Valleywag’s Sam Biddle then ran an article praising a gaming convention for removing him from attendance. Gawker continues to bring it up months later. No charges have been filed.
Then there was Michael Shermer, one of the founders of the sceptic movement. A social media frenzy erupted after PZ Myers, a rival sceptic blogger and supporter of #teamharpy, posted an anonymous allegation against Shermer on his blog. This was later picked up by Buzzfeed, which ran a longform article taking the accuser’s side. No charges have been filed.
There is a clear pattern here. Allegations of sexual assault, often made on blogs or social media accounts, are being treated as fact. Targets of these allegations are immediately treated as pariahs, with no opportunities given to prove their innocence. Complainants are turning away from the criminal justice system and towards social media.
Social media, of course, cannot always be turned to your purposes. For example, the #teamharpy hashtag on Twitter is currently being co-opted by gamergate supporters. It’s certainly possible that a ‘countermob’ of civil liberties defenders can push back against the new culture of vigilantism.
But mobs and countermobs are no alternative to a criminal court. The fact remains that there a small but influential minority on the left have become obsessed with eroding due process in rape and sexual assault allegations. As we see in this story, they openly boast about destroying reputations using nothing more than hearsay. Even when complainants admit their allegations were false, their supporters will continue to attack the reputation of their victims. Treating the legal system as an inconvenient distraction, they press on to their desired goal: community-led ostracization.
Organizations like FIRE and the American Enterprise Institute have done excellent work challenging the assaults on the due process rights of students. What needs to be understood, however, is that contempt for due process has spread far beyond campuses. Even the most obscure communities are not immune from the new vigilantism. Those who care about civil liberties and due process should be vigilant. Rolling Stone may have unwittingly destroyed the media narrative, but the true believers have not gone away.