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.