Women go online to anonymously share stories of abuse—but that anonymity is never guaranteed
A public spreadsheet entitled “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” circulated on Wednesday and Thursday, quickly becoming a place for women to share their experiences of abuse and harassment.
It’s a significant step in the wake of major sexual assault accusations against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein, who was able to avoid public scrutiny for years. The feeling of empowerment, however, is tempered by a stark realization: even just looking at such a document can have legal ramifications.
“Anyone on that list could sue for libel. And anyone contributing to the list would be a potential defendant,” said media law professor Chip Stewart via Twitter direct message. “Labeling someone a rapist or sexual harasser is making a statement of fact. It’s not enough to say ‘it’s only a rumor I heard.’ You’re going to be subject to lawsuits if you’re the person who spreads the rumor. Or the person who created the document in the first place. Or if you republish it.”
The spreadsheet includes a variety of names of men in the media industry alongside various allegations spanning a wide spectrum, from flirting and stalking to sexual assault and rape. Names of the accusers are not indicated in the document, but that does not mean they are protected from legal action.
The existence of a shared “shitty men” spreadsheet indicates that people are feeling empowered to speak out against wrongdoers, and technology is helping the allegations go viral. It’s no longer just whispers in the hallways. Instead, it’s words typed out, added to via other contributors, and shared via platforms like Google docs.
But just because technology is making it easier to share information doesn’t mean you’re suddenly more protected from a libel case.
“If you’re a lawyer for someone on that list, you’re looking for potential defendants — particularly ones who can actually pay damages. So you’d cast a wide net to de-anonymize contributors and republishers,” Stewart said.
In the case of the “shitty media men” spreadsheet, BuzzFeed reports that dozens of people viewed the file. A source, who requested anonymity with Mashable, received the spreadsheet via Slack. Someone dropped a link in a channel late last night; she opened it and viewed it. (Her access was revoked about thirty minutes later.)
So, at least at first, this spreadsheet was as a public file. Therefore anyone with an internet connection could have accessed it, and the creator of the document had no way of knowing who was viewing the information.
But were those users really anonymous, and are they safe from a lawsuit? Simple answer: no. Tech platforms will always have ways of identifying users — and they must cooperate when lawyers and police officials get involved. In this case, Google has a backend system that is inaccessible to all users.
If the user was logged into a Google account when they accessed the “shitty men” list, Google’s log would make note of it. If the user wasn’t logged into an account at the time, Google would still know the IP address of the device they used. And while it’s not as easy to identify users via IP, it’s still possible if the user were using a personal device.
Of course, Google isn’t the only platform that offers “anonymity” with a catch. The app Yik Yak grew popular across college campuses for providing a way to anonymously communicate with other users near your location. Unfortunately, it became a place for bomb threats and harassment.
And while Yik Yak users could not see who was behind any given post, the company certainly could if authorities came knocking.
The same goes for anonymous accounts on Twitter.
So where can someone speak safely anonymously? Nowhere, but some apps and platforms are better than others.
There are places to go if users want messages to stay private and therefore inaccessible to both the company and potentially to authorities. For example, chats on Snapchat disappear. Other apps such as Signal and WhatsApp offer end-to-end encryption, which means the company legitimately cannot access messages.
But these are just the messages themselves — your identity is still traceable. The companies know who is using their service. They rely on selling their user data, or using that data to sell ads. Snapchat, for example, is able to demonstrate their value to media partners and advertisers because they know the ages and locations of their users.
On Telegram, profiles are tied to a phone number. Chats are encrypted, but the person could be identified if it came to that (it hasn’t yet).
“Since Telegram’s launch in 2013 we’ve shared exactly zero bytes of data with third parties, including government agencies,” Markus Ra of Telegram said via Telegram.
WhatsApp also offers encrypted messaging and faced court orders to hand over user data in Brazil, for example. WhatsApp declined to provide the chat logs, citing they were unable to since they do not have the requested data.
If a user wants their identity to be completely masked, Blind, an app popular in Silicon Valley, offers a solution. All sign-ups are tied to each company’s official email and must be verified via that email address. But once that is completed, the specific email address disappears. Unlike Yik Yak, there’s no geo-location assigned to each post.
“Our users happen to be some of the best engineers in the world, so they often poke around and try to break/hack the app,” said Alex Shin, head of operations at Blind. “We’ve built it so there is basically no identifiable information for anyone to take.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean all the information on Blind can be trusted. Blind offers the closest thing to a perfect way to anonymously have these conversations, but most platforms leave people open to the risk of legal action.
Stewart, the media law expert, issued caution when it came to contributing to the Google doc on men in the media.
“My advice to any potential contributors would be to be very cautious. If one person on that list is wrongly accused, or feels that the only avenue he has to clear his name is through a defamation lawsuit, you’re likely a witness or a defendant at some point,” Stewart said.