On Anonymous Accusations


When I woke up today, I discovered a new Tumblr. By that, I mean I was notified of it in at least six different ways (I lost count) by people of varying opinions on it. The Tumblr seems to be an attempt to quickly put my post from yesterday into effect, to see names named. To that end, it allows anonymous submissions, like this one.

This is causing some consternation. Rightly so, but I’m less up in arms about the possibility than a lot of people. This isn’t what I would have done, but I think it may have been inevitable, and I’m not screaming about it. Here’s why.

  • The people named are unlikely to be hurt by anonymous accusations. Right off the bat, I saw people I know and like saying, “Oh, I bet X is on there because of this innocuous thing.” They were corrected quite quickly by someone with more knowledge. But it goes to show where we–even people who takes these issues seriously–are on this topic. We collectively withhold judgment even when we don’t take that extra step to dismiss the idea.
  • This Tumblr can’t do much to make the situation for people who have been harassed or assaulted worse. Things are pretty ugly here at the moment. There are still people trying to suggest that Rebecca Watson couldn’t have been propositioned in an elevator. We’ve seen the reactions of organizations to formal harassment charges lodged with them. This isn’t pretty.
  • Targets of harassment stand to gain something from seeing that other people know and believe that their harassers harass and that they aren’t alone in what happened to them. For a lot of them, seeing that there is support out there will be a necessary step to speaking up. When they do, that is what will actually make a difference. Anonymous complaints can’t do it–shouldn’t do it. It takes people with faces and names, friends and reputations in our community to do that. At least it does when we don’t trust organizations to enforce their own policies.

So if you’re reading the Tumblr and that’s all the information you have, for fuck’s sake, don’t take any of it as the last word. It’s exactly the opposite.

If you want to stop the Tumblr, and you should whether you think it’s a good idea or not, give people better places to be heard about what’s happened to them.

Comments

  1. says

    I had similar concerns that trolls could go nuts on the place and start accusing everyone to shake things up, but it’s not like we don’t have plenty of more substantial allegations.

  2. carlie says

    And it’s not like “having your name listed in an anonymous comment on a tumblr” is a huge negative thing that we need to be oh so worried about someone having that falsely done to them. I doubt the HR department or the police are going to come knocking over that.

  3. jamessweet says

    Yeah, I kinda have a similar ambivalence towards the tumblr in question. It doesn’t really sit right with me… but on the other hand, it’s a forthright attempt to do something about a problem (the lack of named names) that nobody seems to quite have any better ideas for how to tackle it.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that such a thing was “probably inevitable.” Given the demonstrated weakness of many of the formal processes for recourse that people have tried, and the scary-huge backlash against people who make non-anonymous accusations (even when the allegations are both serious and later proven accurate), really the only avenue left was informal anonymous accusations — along with all of the attendant problems, unfortunately :(

  4. jamessweet says

    Eh, one thing I have to say, reading some of the comments though: Let’s not minimize how shitty it would be for someone who really hadn’t done anything, to have their name dragged through the mud as a result of this. It’s one thing to say, “Given the current climate in response to allegations of sexual harassment, this sort of thing was inevitable, and maybe it will eventually lead to some good to come out of it.” It’s quite another thing to say, “Oh, boo hoo for you if you get falsely accused. It’s not like you’ll lose your job… what, is it just going to make you a little sad? Feel a little uncomfortable?” I mean, sheesh, that’s verging on what the harassment apologists say. (Yes, I know it’s not the same because it’s not systemic, etcetera, but last time I checked, “less bad” is not the same as “not at all bad”)

    Even if you support this tumblr, the right response is not “Who fucking cares if somebody gets falsely accused”. You might argue that the risk of false accusations is outweighed by the benefits, but in the event that anybody does get falsely accused, my heart goes out to them. That ain’t fair.

  5. says

    For anyone complaining about having to address anonymous complaints, welcome to the fucking world and please keep crying me rivers because I could use the laughs.

    The people who such a Tumblr is meant for already have to deal with the same crap already so this creates a level playing field. I help moderate an imageboard and anonymous complaints are a normal part of that environment and I have no resources but my fellow moderators and our voices and arguments against the inevitable rumor mongering that develops from that.

    The ones this Tumblr are meant to deal with have power and resources and a system working for them that will be able to discover false accusations quickly. If I can deal with false accusations from the same part of the internet that /b/tards come from then anyone crying has seriously let their skeptical and logical skills turn to utter shit and don’t deserve the authority they have. That is frankly highly disturbing.

    Being anonymous is not an evil in and or itself. What matters is what is done with it and how it is used and understood by society. I smell lazy people.

  6. says

    I thought it was going to be a compilation of links to the posts and stories by people in the community, like it was when I saw it when there was only two posts on it — not a place where you could, anonymously, submit any name without any corroboration or even a story. Seriously, you can’t just go “him, him, and him: creepers.”

    I realize there’s a lot of reasons why people might be afraid to come forward under their real names, but yeah, this anonymous stuff isn’t helping. Especially not when the pro-harassment folks could easily point to any of us just for teh lulz. And to throw up chaff to protect the real harassers.

  7. jamessweet says

    For anyone complaining…welcome to the fucking world and please keep crying me rivers because I could use the laughs.

    And yeah, exactly, such a thing could plausibly come right out of the mouth of a slymepitter.

    “It will do more good than harm” is an argument. “Boo hoo for the fucking harm” is not an argument.

  8. MrFancyPants says

    I wouldn’t want to be the person running that Tumblr, it’s begging for a libel suit.

    Brony@6:

    The ones this Tumblr are meant to deal with have power and resources and a system working for them that will be able to discover false accusations quickly.

    Just because people have the resources to combat accusations doesn’t mean that they enjoy doing so. Ophelia and Stephanie “have the resources” to push back against their harassers given that they have prominent blogs and the time to post on them, but I doubt they like being put in the position to have to do so. I “had the resources” to aggressively pursue a lawsuit against someone without insurance who cost me many thousands of dollars in car repairs, but I hated doing that.

    I think Jason is right. There is just too many ways this could go wrong. The right way to name names is exactly the way the Radford story unfolded, I think.

  9. says

    @jamessweet
    Well James it’s a good thing you ignored my arguments and seized on what was entirely an emotional statement for my own amusement. Good job.

    @MrFancyPants
    Just because people have the resources to combat accusations doesn’t mean that they enjoy doing so. Ophelia and Stephanie “have the resources” to push back against their harassers given that they have prominent blogs and the time to post on them, but I doubt they like being put in the position to have to do so. I “had the resources” to aggressively pursue a lawsuit against someone without insurance who cost me many thousands of dollars in car repairs, but I hated doing that.
    The status quo sucks and the “anonymous comment system” is already an approach being used at multiple levels of society. Give me a better and functional alternative. Ophelia and Stephanie can speak for themselves and I am sure will do so if they have an opinion on what I said. You can speak for yourself and should not try to claim that for someone else. Also your car lawsuit is comically unrelated.

    >I think Jason is right. There is just too many ways this could go wrong. The right way to name names is exactly the way the Radford story unfolded, I think.
    I repeat, we already do anonymous commenting at multiple levels of society. As skeptics we want to encourage the ability of everyone to be able to investigate claims. This is no worse than many Facebook pages where people already make whatever random claim that pops in their head. If you don’t like it give me a functional alternative.

  10. MrFancyPants says

    If you don’t like it give me a functional alternative.

    I think we’re seeing one happening right now: the continuing public unraveling of Radford’s abuses has led to Carrie Poppy coming forward and revealing more of the underlying rot. None of this has been done anonymously, and I think that — as PZ put it — the cork has popped. This will gain momentum now.

  11. jamessweet says

    Well James it’s a good thing you ignored my arguments and seized on what was entirely an emotional statement for my own amusement. Good job.

    I can see how you got that impression and I apologize. My response to you probably came off as an out-and-out attack, when I really mean it as sort of a word of caution.

    As you can probably see from my comment at #4, I am not at all unsympathetic to your arguments. I am especially sympathetic to what you say in the later comment about a “functional alternative”. Since I’d already given my thoughts on that previously, I didn’t feel the need to comment on it further.

    The “emotional statement for [your] own amusement”, however, I felt was a prime example of the concerns I expressed in comment #5. Even if this tumblr is the least bad alternative for moving forward, being dismissive of the potential harm is Not A Good Thing. And hence I found the “emotional statement” counterproductive, and wanted to point that out.

    Overall though? Yeah, your arguments make some sense. Sorry to have come across as purely attacking.

  12. says

    Thank you for the apology James. I’m more than welcome to hear the criticism and I’m not kidding about the experiences with getting this exact sort of anonymous treatment. There is something to your side too as I have had to help some of the staff where I volunteer who were for all intents and purposes on the edge of breakdowns. I’m sort of the only skeptic in the group and have done what I can. There is a power difference in anonymity, but it’s meant to specifically deal with another power difference.

    It’s a crappy situation all around and after my run I’ll come back with more reasoned responses. I’ll think twice about how I do lead-ins.

  13. says

    Let me apologize for for how I came into this discussion. I normally spend my time in a community that is a little crazier rhetorically speaking and I have a little trouble shifting gears sometimes (I am the !!Twilight Mod at Ponychan). But it’s a useful conversation and maybe I can answer questions about the potential for abuse because I live the worst case scenario. Think about it, we run an image board for mostly male fans of the new My Little Pony cartoon. Abuse from anons is an every day experience* and if I can shed some light on that I would be happy to answer some questions (and no I’m not even remotely arguing that this is somehow “the same” as the treatment that outspoken women get online. There may be category similarities but that would be it.)

    In general there is a proud history of anonymous and pseudonymous means of getting messages for social change out but I’ll drop that larger point because I think the most important distinctions involve specific social arenas, relative differences in power, and preexisting power structures and social expectations/relationships.

    I agree that anonymous commenting as a means of bringing attention to problems with authority figures has it’s problems. The worry here would be lot’s of fake complaints, and our systems general respect for the accused to be able to confront the victim. But similar to families trying to challenge religion in local governments, sometimes anonymity is warranted but that does not mean there should not be ethics. For example the person running the Tumblr could talk about minimum standards of evidence. A community that regularly discusses the posts on the Tumblr could make an effort collect evidence and other stories about the named individuals. I’m sure there are many more things we could do as skeptics. It might be annoying to these individuals in positions of more social power, but that just might have to be a cost to hold that power in a community trying to change society.

    My own community is the example where anonymous comments and criticism do cause problems to the level that the rest of you would fear. We don’t have any power beyond being the moderators of a small internet community. People we ban for bad behavior will tend to collect in places and try to either justify that bad behavior, yell-and scream about “Nazi-mods” and unreasonable treatment, or rumor monger to do what they can to our reputation out of pure spite (this is all separate from legitimate cases of mod over-reach which we do talk about as a group). It can get really intense at times dealing with troll-floods, friends going on about the worst rumors and more. To say nothing about pure tribalistic BS from the other MLP boards that fuel similar activity. When I joined some of the other mods were starting to get really paranoid and oversensitive to each others criticism and trying to defuse that damage has taken me months.

    So yeah, I know about the risks with anonymous criticism. This situation is different due to the entrenched social problems we are trying to change as Skeptics/Feminists/Atheists, the behavior of powerful people and entrenched social relationships (a big social problem beyond feminism at the moment), and psychological features of general human nature that makes this toxic mess work. You can’t change a social structure without pushing on something that will bother someone. At the minimum that someone will be an abuser.

    *Actually it’s sort of funny because we get regular abuse from other MLP imago boards (especially 4chan’s) because our community is not anonymous enough. We get people trolling about how we all use identities too much and they don’t feel comfortable commenting in an environment with identities. I have actually had to try to work to model welcoming and showing people how to comment with identities and get through awkward periods.

  14. says

    I like it. Obviously, it could be abused, but hopefully this will enable more victims to speak out non-anonymously if they see similar experiences from other anonymous victims.

  15. MrFancyPants says

    Brony@15:
    I agree with you and see the validity of the point that anonymous lines of communication like this Tumblr have an important place, given the repercussions against people who speak out. And you’re right, there are ways to do it that could protect innocent persons from baseless accusations.

    The speed at which it unfolded (the very day after Stephanie’s post) gives me pause, though, and I don’t see anything on the page about what the policy is for posting stories. Does everything get posted? It seems that way, at the moment. Is there recourse for addressing stories that might be false? There’s no information at all. It seems to be hastily cobbled into place, without any transparency at all as to how it’s being (or going to be) run.

    I’m sorry to hear that you get a lot of anonymous abuse on your forum. It seems like you have a lot of experience with this stuff, and could possibly be a good resource for whomever is running the Tumblr. Not that I’m telling you what to do, just that it seems like you could help them deal with the kinds of concerns that I mentioned.

    On a related note, the events of the day today with more and more people coming forward with stories about Radford, and then DJ, and now Lawrence Krauss are incredibly encouraging!

  16. Bad Moon Rising says

    Stefunny, that tumblr already went down. What gives? Is it that you guys are trying to put the brakes on the metastasis of the radfem cancer in the freethought movement so we can savor your downfall? If so, I understand. Keep your chin up!

  17. says

    Yeah, dude. I totally decided I couldn’t compete with rational thinking like that and threw my hands up in the air. Go, Skeptics!

    You know, you might want to see someone about that.

  18. MrFancyPants says

    @18
    The Tumblr page went down shortly after the post about Silverman went up. The always charming serial liar Rich Sandersen jumped on that immediately:

    So, Dave Silverman, the big mate and hero of Ophelia Benson, PZ, Zvan et al, turns out be one of the #WomenAbusers. #FTBullies— Richard Sanderson (@RichSandersen) August 8, 2013

    I suspect that post is the reason why Melody Hensley warned that the page was already being abused, and why the Tumbler is no longer active.

  19. says

    @MrFancyPants 17
    I understand about the speed being startling. All the sudden there does seem to be a lot of things happening.

    I’m sorry to hear that you get a lot of anonymous abuse on your forum. It seems like you have a lot of experience with this stuff, and could possibly be a good resource for whomever is running the Tumblr. Not that I’m telling you what to do, just that it seems like you could help them deal with the kinds of concerns that I mentioned.

    Honestly the problem is not as bad as it used to be. The funny thing is that we all went through what the Atheist community seems to be going through. We were one big image board about two years ago but at some point we could not stand each others company any more and there was this big huge dramatic “schism” and now there are three main image boards. The schism was just before my time as a moderator and I was a community member throwing punches metaphorically speaking on the discussion board that I now moderate.

    It involved a big combination of things including the fact that all the banned members and trolls only had one big clubhouse to sit outside of and tell scary stories about. Now that there are three boards it’s a lot harder to create a dishonest narrative against a community when there are two others to compare it to. I think it’s a natural part of human behavior on a lot of levels and being able to associate with who you want, and how you want is a part of it (our site won’t allow porn for example and that gets criticism). I guess if you are curious from a anthropological standpoint here is a sample of a recent thread with that argument (I’m Flutterguy(Penitent Parasprite)),
    http://www.ponychan.net/chan/meta/res/145197.html

    At the community level we mostly think the trolling anons are sort of sad because the abuse is getting a little boring and routine in nature, but we don’t actually judge “anon” in general terms because there are a lot of our own community members that also post as anon from time to time. In a weird general way I don’t mind it anymore because it lets me sharpen my own skills against an idea instead of a person. But I highly encourage the other users there to at least get used to trying to argue with an identity because I happen to think that getting used to reputation in a general sense is psychologically important. Sometimes I worry about how much these folks rant without an identity. I don’t know if that is a bad thing but it’s one of those weird modern issues that I think about.

    Do you know who is in charge of the Tumbler? I feel a little odd offering advice like that.

  20. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    @21 – Yeah, it only had a handful of names when I saw it initially. Of course it was abused. Because reasons!

    @19 – You have issues. Work them out somewhere else.

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