“[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.
It’s barely 24 hours since the Cooks Source/Judith Griggs saga blew up, but so much has happened in that time that I thought it worth reflecting on how other publishers might handle a similar situation.
Although it’s an extreme example, the story has particular relevance to those publications that rely on Facebook or another web presence to publish material online and communicate with readers, and might at some point face a backlash on that platform.
In the case of Cooks Source, their Facebook page went from 100 ‘likes’ to over 3,000, as people ‘liked’ the page in order to post a critical comment (given the huge numbers of comments it’s fair to say there were many more people who un-‘liked’ the page as soon as their comment was posted). The first question that many publishers looking at this might ask is defensive:
Should you have a Facebook page at all?
It would be easy to take the Cooks Source case as an indication that you shouldn’t have a Facebook page at all – on the basis that it might become hijacked by your critics or enemies. Or that if you do create a page you should do so in a way that does not allow postings to the wall.
The problem with this approach is that it misunderstands the fundamental shift in power between publisher and reader. Just as Monica Gaudio was able to tell the world about Judith’s cavalier attitude to copyright, not having a Facebook page (or blog, etc.) for your publication doesn’t prevent one existing at all.
In fact, if you don’t set up a space where your readers can communicate with you and each other, it’s likely that they’ll set one up themselves – and that introduces further problems.
If you don’t have a presence online, someone else will create a fake one to attack you with
These were used in various ways: to make information available (the Twitter account biography featured Judith’s phone number and email); to satirise Judith’s actions through mock-updates; and to tease easily-annoyed Facebook posters into angry responses.
Some people’s responses on Facebook to the ‘fake’ Judith suggested they did not realise that she was not the real thing, which leads to the next point.
A passive presence isn’t enough – be active
Judith obviously did have a Facebook account, but it was her slowness to respond to the critics that allowed others to impersonate her.
Indeed, it was several hours before Judith Griggs made any response on the Facebook page, and when she did (assuming it is genuine – see comments below) it was through the page’s welcoming message – in other words, it was a broadcast.
This might be understandable given the unmanageable volume of comments that had been posted by this time – but her message was also therefore easily missed in the depths of the conversation, and it meant that the ‘fake’ Judith was able to continue to impersonate her in responses to those messages.
One way to focus her actions in a meaningful way might have been to do a ‘Find’ on “Griggs” and respond there to clarify that this person was an imposter.
Instead, by being passive Judith created a vacuum. The activity that filled that vacuum led in all directions, including investigating the magazine more broadly and contacting advertisers and stockists.
Climb down quickly and unreservedly
While being passive can create a vacuum, being active can – if not done in a considered way – also simply add fuel to the fire.
The message that Judith eventually posted did just that. “I did apologise to Monica via email, but aparently [sic] it wasnt enough for her,” she wrote, before saying “You did find a way to get your “pound of flesh…””.
This “blaming the victim”, as one wall poster described it, compounded the situation and merely confirmed Judith’s misunderstanding of the anger directed at her.
An apology clearly wasn’t what people wanted – or at least, not this sort of reserved apology.
A quicker, fuller response that demonstrated an understanding of her community would have made an enormous difference in channeling the energy that people poured into what became an increasingly aggressive campaign.
UPDATE (Nov 9): As of a few hours ago Cooks Source appear to have published an official statement which includes a more fullsome apology. The statement doesn’t help, however, partly because it doesn’t address the key issues raised by critics about where it gets content and images from, partly because its sense of priorities doesn’t match those of its audience (the apology comes quite late in the statement), and partly because it is internally inconsistent. Commenters on the Facebook page and blogs have already picked these apart.
Even if Judith had shut down the Facebook page (not a good idea – it would have merely added further fuel to the fire), the discussion – which had now become a campaign and investigation – was taking place elsewhere. Engaging in that in a positive way might have helped.
A magazine is not just content
One of the key principles demonstrated by the whole affair is that magazines are about much more than just the content inside, but about the community around it, and their values. This is what advertisers are buying into. When I asked one of Cooks Source’s advertisers why they decided to withdraw their support, this is what they said:
“I would estimate that between the emails, [Facebook] messages, calls, and people following us on Twitter, we’ve been contacted by more than 100 people since I first heard of this about 5 hours ago. That doesn’t include many many people who commented on fb to our posts stating that we had requested to pull our ads from the publication. We are just simply trying to run our small business, which by most standards is still in its infancy, and being associated with publications like this that don’t respect its readers (who are all our potential customers) is unacceptable to us in light of their practices. What angers me even more is the fact that it is being made light if by the Editor herself. It is disrupting our business and linking us to something we do not support.”
UPDATE 7: The official Cooks Source webpage now features a rather confusing statement on the saga, apologising to Monica Gaudio and saying they have made the donation asked for. The page claims that their Facebook page was “cancelled” and “since hacked”. It’s not clear what they mean by these terms as the original Facebook page is still up and, clearly, could not be hacked if it had been “cancelled”. They may be referring to the duplicate Facebook page which also claims (falsely) the original was “hacked”. In addition the statement says they have “cancelled” their website – but as the statement is published on their website it may be that by “cancelled” they mean all previous content has been removed. This discussion thread picks out further inconsistencies and omissions.
UPDATE 5: The magazine’s Facebook page has now been updated with a message from editor Judith saying she “did apologise” but “apparently it wasn’t enough for her”, shown below:
For much of today people have been tweeting and blogging about the magazine editor with 30 years’ experience demonstrating a by now familiar misunderstanding of copyright law and the ‘public domain’.
To the writer whose material they used without permission she apparently responded that “the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!”
What makes this of particular interest is how the affair has blown up not just across Twitter and Reddit but on the magazine’s own Facebook page, demonstrating how this sort of mistake can impact very directly on your own readers – and stockists and advertisers:
Meanwhile, others were suggesting investigating the magazine further:
It all adds up to a perfect lesson for magazine editors – not just in copyright, but in PR and community management.