The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How BuzzFeed helped turn a secret list of potential abusers in media into a burn book

(Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

To female journalists, it was just “the list.” More specifically, the spreadsheet circulating from woman to woman on Wednesday was titled “SH–TY MEDIA MEN.”

The crowdsourced collection of allegations of misconduct from inappropriate flirting to rape made the rounds first among the people it was created to protect. Then it made its way to some of the men they named. And finally, it became the basis for an eminently clickable BuzzFeed article exposing its existence to the public. By the night’s end, the link to the list was dead.

“What To Do With ‘Sh–ty Media Men’?” the BuzzFeed story had asked in its headline.

“You mean now that this piece killed like any possibility for the list to continue to exist?” one female writer shot back.

The timeline is fuzzy. Some believe the spreadsheet went down only after BuzzFeed posted its story. Others say they lost access beforehand. But the article implied that it was irresponsible to compile a list of accusations without giving men a chance to respond. And, in the interest of interrogating that irresponsibility (or snagging some good Web traffic), BuzzFeed was prepared to blow up a tool that women were using for solidarity and safety.

The irresponsibility critique betrays a misunderstanding of what the list was about. It was meant to be private, not public. It wasn’t supposed to be distributed to employers so they could summarily fire anyone who appeared on it. No such thing would ever happen anyway. Sure, a news organization could have chosen to use the information in the spreadsheet as a springboard for a real story, rather than to churn out a quick think piece that deprived other journalists of that chance. But the point was community: You have my back, and I have yours.

The list was the hallway, bathroom and barroom warnings passed between women for generations in written form. Those have long been the best hope of women seeking to shield themselves and their peers from sexual assault, because many feel that making a public accusation and allowing a man to respond rarely works, that using official channels rarely works, that even filing suit often doesn’t work. That’s why Harvey Weinstein got away with hurting so many for so long, and it’s the same pattern we saw just yesterday when Twitter suspended Rose McGowan (ostensibly for tweeting out a personal phone number) after she accused Ben Affleck of lying about his complicity in the media mogul’s crimes. It’s also why a man who brags about grabbing women “by the p—-y” could still end up in the Oval Office.

Maybe what happened on Wednesday will warn men that harassing women will become harder to get away with. Without the Internet, women never could have made a list so extensive and so widely shared in the first place. Yet it should also teach women that the same power of social media can work in the opposite direction.

By the time BuzzFeed weighed in, the list had already been infiltrated by men scanning it for their own names. Some contributions were getting deleted. The spreadsheet wasn’t password-protected, and it was anonymous, so organizers had no way of knowing whether its viewers were the people it was intended for.

That wouldn’t have been a problem without bad actors on the scene, but the story of systematic sexual harassment is all about bad actors – from those who assault people to those who enable it. Women will have to balance between safeguarding projects like the list and making them available to those who might need them.

Finally, the list and its downfall should be an invitation to the rest of the media to write about publications’ own problem with the same behavior they’re outing in other industries. The list belongs to the women who created it, not to BuzzFeed. But the corrosive culture that made it necessary is ripe for reporting.