Twitter, Rape, and Privacy on Social Media

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A late-night Twitter conversation among sexual assault survivors on Wednesday became Thursday morning’s “OMG” BuzzFeed listicle, which became Gawker’s Thursday afternoon dogma, in a sped-up version of a now familiar cycle. Feminist debate breaks out on social media, news outlets scramble to cover it, and pundits roll up to debate social-media etiquette, effectively burying the stuff about feminism.

Inspired by a guy in her timeline saying that women who dress provocatively invite rape, Christine Fox (@steenfox) linked to an article about a 60-year-old disabled victim (“Wonder what she had on to entice him”) and started a conversation in which sexual assault survivors shared what they were wearing when they were attacked. Fox retweeted the overwhelming response, which was then recapped by BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa, with permission of the tweeters she quoted

Many assumed Testa had not asked users if they wanted to be quoted, violating the media standard of not naming the victims of sexual assault. Some maintained that she did not get sufficient permission (at least one person asked to be removed from the article after finding out Testa and Fox hadn’t spoken), while others said it didn’t matter, that the whole post was voyeuristic and exploitative either way. A similar article on the Root was held up in contrast. Its author, Jenée Desmond Harris, had spoken to Christine Fox; Testa had reached out, but published the piece before receiving a response, so Fox’s face wound up plastered all over Facebook without her permission.

This debate seems symbolic of the growing tension between news media and social media within feminism. Some of the best conversations in recent memory have been instigated by non-professional commentators, many of whom are women of color, on Twitter. Each viral conversation — #solidarityisforwhitewomen, #fasttailedgirls, #notyourasiansidekick — ought to be a reminder to news outlets of the perspectives they miss when they are staffed almost entirely by white 20-somethings who all vaguely know one another from college, and an impetus to change mastheads that have remained stubbornly homogeneous.

Which is not to say that the bloggers who cover them have bad intentions. Jessica Testa reports on sexual assault issues aggressively and with nuance even though she could probably get more clicks (backlash traffic notwithstanding) by compiling "14 Ways Lost Explains the Missing Malaysian Airplane." She was under no obligation to reach out to the people who participated in Fox’s conversation under public Twitter handles, some of whom were righteously proud to have been handed the BuzzFeed microphone. Still, none of that inoculates Testa or BuzzFeed or other purveyors of listicles from the critiques at hand: Posts like this amount to selling a recording of other people’s group therapy while sending a fire hose of potentially unfriendly attention in the general direction of its participants.

No journalist wants to get self-righteous about a listicle, and most journalists are aware of the moral implications of any conversation about who gets to tell whose story. I think that’s why many are grasping at a black-and-white (but almost comically obsolete) distinction between “public” and “private” in BuzzFeed’s defense (backlash phase two). Being a “public figure” whose life was recorded and transmitted to others used to be the tax on having a certain amount of power. If having a public Twitter account now qualifies you, as they suggest, we’re counting a lot of people just trying to talk to their friends and maybe make some new ones. For journalists, these people require an ethical axis beyond public-private — one that acknowledges the high personal stakes these conversations involve for their participants and not, say, Hamilton Nolan, who wrote the Gawker post flippantly dismissing the entire debate. That Gawker would sooner make the vacuously provocative claim that these people are using Twitter wrong than listen to them explain how they’d like Twitter to be used is a sad echo of the argument that got us here in the first place: Those women were asking for it with their attention-seeking behavior.

All this feels a little like an internet growing pain. But if the attention thrust upon Fox’s conversation doesn’t scare future participants silent — or if journalists find a more empathetic way to point to them — Twitter will continue to flourish as a rival to blogs for sensitive debates. None of the @SteenFox recaps managed to replicate the experience of watching the conversation happen in real time--not the speed and volume of the response from sexual assault survivors or the poetic effect of organizing their shared experience around the single, vividly remembered data point of what they wore. “I was wearing jeans, a flower shirt, a green hair bow and my new Nikes. I was five.” You had to be there.