TechCrunch’s Paul Carr has a thoughtful piece on “cyber-vigilantism” where citizens witness or experience a crime and go online to chase it down, name the alleged perpetrators, or pressure the authorities out of complacency:
“[W]hen that naming happens, the case is over before it’s begun: no matter whether the accused is guilty or innocent, they are handed a life sentence. Until the day they die, whenever a potential employer or a new friend Googles their name – up will come the allegation. And, prison terms notwithstanding, that allegation carries the same punishment as guilt – a lifetime as an unemployable, unfriendable, outcast. There’s a reason why the Internet is a great way to ruin someone with false allegations – and it’s the same reason why falsely accused people are just as likely to harm themselves as guilty people.”
The post was written after TechCrunch decided to delete a story about an alleged sexual assault and is a useful read in provoking us as journalists in any medium to reflect on how we treat stories of this type.
There are no hard rules of course, and associated legal issues vary from country to country.
In the Judith Griggs case, for example, was I right to post on the story? My decision was based on a few factors: firstly, I was reporting on the actions of those on her magazine’s Facebook page, rather than the ‘crime’ itself (which was hardly the first time a publisher has lifted). Secondly, I waited to see if Griggs responded to the allegations before publishing. Thirdly, I evaluated the evidence myself to see the weight of the allegations. Still, I’d be interested in your thoughts.
One interesting thing that strikes me is that in this case you, and many other commentators on the Cooks Source debacle, did not originally experience or witness the crime in question. We’re into third-hand curation and analysis, by which time the name of the alleged perpetrator is well out of the bag.
Another is that I don’t think Paul Carr could have written that piece in response to Cooks Source, for several reasons – evidence (freely available proof v one person’s word), response of the alleged perpetrator (admittedly clumsy apology and admission of wrongdoing v silence, as far as I’m aware) and the very different dynamics that surround reporting and discussing sexual assault v plagiarism.
But in either case it’s hard – next to impossible sometimes – for victims to get justice; resources are scarce and perpetrators go unpunished. It might have been nice to see Techcrunch discussing the problems of sexual assault in the tech community as a wider issue than this single incident, which is clearly not isolated. Similarly, perhaps commentators could use Cooks Source as a start point for discussions of plagiarism online, protections for bloggers, legal and other resources, and the other, much bigger issues affecting online copyright at the moment.
Short version: you were right to post the story – I’d probably have done the same if I was consistently online at the moment – but I’d like to see the incident put in a wider context. (Which of course means it’s my responsibility to try to do it myself.)
Study Criminal Justice to solve crimes like these. Stop just reading the news and take action and be part of the solution http://bit.ly/ctecjq
A much larger news site Slashdot.org did a summary of the tale some hours before it appeared on this website.
For those wanting to read the resulting discussion: Click here.
An earlier piece on a website which hosts less stimulating comment – gawker.com – can be seen here: Click-clook!
Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.