Men have sexually assaulted and harassed women with impunity for millennia. Incredibly, ever since the allegations against Hollywood impresario Harvey Weinstein stopped being an “open secret,” a few famous men have finally faced repercussions for their actions. Where inept courts and HR departments have failed, a new tactic has succeeded: Women talking publicly about harassment on social media, fueling the public condemnation that’s forced men from their jobs and destroyed their reputations.
Amongst the celebrations from those who long believed any form of justice was impossible, there have also been predictable complaints. Woody Allen warned of “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere.” When two journalists lost their jobs shortly after women spoke up about their experiences, Giles Coren, a columnist for The Times of London, suggested that harassment should be handled only by the criminal justice system. He later wrote a column on the risks men now face: “Without any cross-examination of the stories, the man is finished. No trials or second chances.” In my own life, I have heard men complain that this “vigilantism” is comparable to doxing—the method online trolls use to harass and threaten people by publishing their addresses or personal information.
Nobody should suffer the consequences of being falsely accused, of course. But the idea that women (and it is overwhelmingly women who are victims, though men have been too) have somehow subverted the law by talking about their experiences online is wrong, and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how justice works.
The criminal justice system is not the only means of holding people accountable. It is by far the most stringent and delivers the harshest punishment, but it doesn’t work in isolation. There are also civil courts, where people bring libel and workplace discrimination suits; these have a lower standard of proof. (In the UK, civil proof is defined as “on the balance of probabilities,” or more than 50% likely, while criminal proof means “beyond reasonable doubt.”) Contrary to Coren’s suggestion that investigating and charging someone is the right way to handle all allegations, sexual harassment (unlike sexual assault) is not a crime and would never be handled by the criminal justice system. It is, however, a form of discrimination and so is heard in civil courts.
Then there are officially sanctioned but extra-judicial forms of justice, such as workplace tribunals and self-defense against an attacker. Self-defense not only protects you against (unjust) harm to yourself, but also serves as retribution and deterrence—all key tenets of justice.
Finally, living in a society necessitates that we hold each other to account without referring to law enforcement at all. When someone does something wrong, we yell at them, tell other people, stop talking to them, or refuse to do business with them. This kind of social sanction, too, is a form of justice, and it’s often the most immediate and effective: On my subway commute last week, some teenagers who refused to let anyone sit next to them were admonished by those around them until they eventually got off the train.
Occasionally, such complaints might cause someone to lose their job or be arrested. The only difference today is we can now do all of that online.
Sarah Roberts, an information studies professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who’s written on digital ethics, notes that public shaming is “not as novel as our short-term memory suggests.” She recalls, some 12 years ago, women in her community posting flyers in public venues and women’s restrooms about a man who had sexually assaulted them. “The difference now is one of scope, scale, immediacy of dissemination,” she says. “Whereas that activity was limited in terms of logistics and geography, there are fewer of those barriers” online.
Nor are women making online accusations simply because they can: Rather, Roberts suggests, it’s because other methods have failed them. So does Ann Olivarius, a lawyer who was plaintiff in the landmark 1977 lawsuit against Yale, which first determined that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination: “There’s very little cultural support for women who claim that they have been sexually assaulted,” she says. “When you see that Bill Cosby had 53 women who accused him before someone said, ‘This probably happened,’ there’s an impossibly high standard.”
Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy and the ethics of information at Oxford University, agrees. “It’s a last resort, it’s screaming in the street because you can’t take it anymore,” he says. “I wish there were other solutions before.”
Talking about someone online can spur formal bodies, such as HR departments or the police, to enact punishment. But it can also be a form of punishment in its own right. William Dutton, media and information professor at Michigan State University, notes that in cases where allegations go viral, it can have a “life-changing effect” on the guilty party. He points to a video of a woman putting a cat in the bin—clearly an act of cruelty. “It’s changed her life. Forever, she’ll be known as the cat woman who did this,” he says. “She probably rues the day she did this.”
The level of public shaming can potentially be disproportionate punishment for the crime. But crucially, unlike with doxing, punishment isn’t the primary motive in this case. Public reporting is also a warning to others and a statement of personal experience.
Yes, a small number of innocent people may be accused unfairly and suffer consequences, and that would be an injustice in itself (it’s also worth noting that plenty of women who speak out about sexism or harassment are trolled, doxed or even physically attacked for doing so). However, that risk needs to be weighed against the fact that formal justice systems so often and so badly fails victims of sexual harassment and assault. “Should you try to avoid bad consequences? Yes. Is that an argument for not doing the right thing? No,” says Floridi.
Here’s another reason not to panic about the risk of false accusations: Those I spoke to emphasized that the personal accounts of multiple women are unlikely to be false. “Usually something goes viral because once someone posts online, someone else says, ‘me too.’ If there were no ‘me too’s, I think most of these stories wouldn’t get a wide audience,” says Dutton.
Still, though false rape claims are no more common than false reports of other crimes, and there’s no reason to believe false harassment claims are less rare, we should clearly do everything possible to protect the innocent from being accused. How, then, to do it?
Olivarius suggests that online courts—which are at the early stages of development in the UK and will consider how existing systems, such as eBay’s dispute resolution procedure, work— could one day prove effective. They could help identify and punish both those who commit sexual harassment and those who falsely smear others online.
For this to work, she says, it needs to be made far easier to unearth anonymous identities once wrongdoing has been established. “There should be some way to get access to the identities of those who troll, dox, threaten, mock and try to hurt women online,” she says. “You should get that information right away, not weeks or years later.”
Questions such as what standard of proof online courts should use have yet to be resolved. But if the system is still imperfect, so too are older institutions, such as the courts and tribunals, in their responses to violence against women. Conversations about sexual harassment and assault online can only advance justice.
In 2012, student publication Unilad reveled in the impunity granted by the failures of the criminal justice system: “If the girl you’ve taken for a drink… won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds.”
Talking about harassment and assault online could, ever so slowly, shifts those odds. For too long, men have harassed and assaulted women and got away with it. The online mob is now demanding justice, and is starting to get it.