“The statements I made and repeated online and elsewhere over the past six months accusing Conor Oberst of raping me are 100% false,” the statement reads. “I made up those lies about him to get attention while I was going through a difficult period in my life and trying to cope with my son’s illness.”
In many ways, the statement — which goes on to apologize to Oberst, his family and his fans — is an inadequate and unsatisfying end to a controversy that, for months, captivated a large swath of the blogosphere and wove together some of the broadest and most disturbing threads in modern Internet culture.
There was the initial accusation of rape in a comments thread on a women’s Web site, filled with frothy debate about rape culture and power dynamics. There was the breakneck virality of an anonymous, unconfirmed story, propelled from comments-section drivel to national news in the span of a couple days. And now, of course, we’re left with the empty shell of an Internet hoax — just one of countless fakeries the Web sees every week. Except this one, of course, has casualties: not just Oberst’s reputation, which the Internet will doubtlessly never “forget,” but potentially the fates of other rape victims who already face undue scrutiny when reporting crimes.
How, exactly, does that happen? How do a couple quickly deleted comments on a niche women’s site morph into a potentially career-ruining hoax? In that regard, at least, Joanie Faircloth’s story is less about Oberst, or about sexual violence, than it is about the Internet ecosystem. And when you break down how that story started and spread, what it says about the ecosystem isn’t necessarily good.
The saga begins, in all places, in the comments section of xoJane — a women’s lifestyle site preaching the gospel of the “unabashed self.”
On Dec. 17, xoJane ran a confessional, first-person essay in which the writer described her abusive relationship with an unnamed indie musician. The essay was equal parts grim, sensational and ripe for speculation — already a good contender for Internet-wide virality. But then, in the comments, a woman from Durham, North Carolina, began to describe an even more disturbing encounter over the course of three progressive comments.
“I was raped by a ‘rock star’ myself,” begins the first. “I was 16 years old, he was in his 20s. No one believed me (he wasn’t even that famous then) … My own mother didn’t believe me until recently and it’s 10 years later now.”
“My husband suggests I may feel some empowerment by outing my rapist,” Faircloth added later, after some prodding from other commenters. “It was Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes.”
The accusations were deleted not long after, perhaps because they ignited a comments-section war — or perhaps because xoJane’s commenting platform, Disqus, can link comments to the user’s Twitter, Facebook or Google+ identity. Faircloth, or at least someone claiming to be her, then opened up a Tumblr account to further explain why she commented.
“Call it dumb, naive, etc but when I hit that post button, I did not think my comment would be anything more than an exchange with one or two other commenters sharing their stories,” she wrote in a post which was also quickly deleted. “Was I stupid to think that making an accusation about Conor like this was just going to remain some blip in the comment section of a feminist website? Obviously. But I didn’t realize that Conor was still *that* popular, to be honest.”
Faircloth’s assumptions about the trajectory of her claims were indeed both dumb and naive. What she apparently failed to understand — or pretended to fail to understand, who knows — is that only a handful of very short, digital leaps exist between “the comment section of a feminist Web site” and the mainstream media. And on January 4, less than two weeks after the xoJane essay posted, her accusations made one such leap into the heart of the Tumblr fandom.
Oberst is very popular, and especially so in certain narrow alleys of the Internet, where his (primarily female) fans trade photos, paste song lyrics and obsess over questions like whether Oberst has or has not dated singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis. “Fandoms,” as these little communities are called, can be niche — even reclusive. But their leaders have access to a widely distributed and hyper-vigilant network, which virtually guarantees that any big news will blow up quickly. In network theory, these people are sometimes called “supernodes” — within their corners of the network, they have far more connections, and influence, than virtually anyone else.
Perhaps no one knows that better than Catherine Moore, then a University of Maryland senior, who on Jan. 4 compiled Faircloth’s xoJane accusations in a Tumblr post and put them on her now-defunct blog. (The blog was, for what it’s worth, called “Endless Entertainment” — so named for a Bright Eyes song.) Moore was a long-time fan girl and was something of a power player in the Oberst fan space. At one point she had even organized a meet-up of Oberst bloggers at a concert in upstate New York.
So when Moore posted her thoughts on the allegations — “Please read all of this before you make judgments,” she titled the post — it hit Tumblr like a bomb.
I know as Conor fans many people’s immediate reaction may be to defend him and call this woman a liar. But please, before you do that, keep in mind that only about 5% or less of rape accusations are false. Additionally, the kind of attention this will bring is something nobody would want. … I, unfortunately, believe this rape accusation to be true. I still love Conor’s music, but I am throughly (sic) disappointed and disgusted with this news and can no longer look up to him as a person. My heart goes out to this woman and any other victims there may be.
Within hours, the post had been reblogged almost 5,000 times, spreading outside the world of diehard fans and into the Tumblr masses. Moore deleted her blog.
But it was too late: Bigger fish had already picked up the story. On January 6, Jason Tate — the prolific, much-followed founder of alt-rock fan site Absolute Punk — noted the Tumblr chatter in a five-sentence brief on the site. (“I have to say, i really like the way you guys posted this news story, based on the shaky ground of the source(s),” one commenter wrote, in an astoundingly prescient post. “Tough situation for sites to cover accurately …”)
The next day the story appeared on widely-read music site Stereogum, presumably sourced from Absolute Punk. Then it went up on Pitchfork. Then it spread to Spin.
Oberst’s camp released a statement, first to Absolute Punk and then to several other outlets, denying the accusations as “spurious blog chatter.” But the fire had already been set: One Tumblr user who had merely reblogged the rape post, got more than 10,000 hits to the reblog the day the news broke. (Aggravated by the feedback from fans, she eventually changed her URL.) On January 7, tweets mentioning Oberst and the rape spiked to more than 700 in a 24-hour period.
What Oberst and his PR team clearly failed to understand is that, these days, spurious blog chatter is news.
And that is not, frankly, a flattering reflection of the Internet or the Internet media machine, which trawls through fandoms and blogs and social networks for any glimmering nugget of story or scandal. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not immune to this, either. And I’m not convinced the breathless pursuit of Internet “stories” can, or even should, be stopped. After all, had Faircloth been telling the truth, the momentum of the viral-industrial complex would have exposed both a terrible crime and its perpetrator.
Instead Faircloth just smeared the reputation of an innocent man and made reporting that much harder for actual victims. But Faircloth didn’t act alone: Everyone who “boosted her signal,” in the words of one outspoken Oberst blogger, is also complicit. That’s a point Oberst made, obliquely, when he filed a $1.2-million libel suit against her in February: “Although her false statements about Oberst have since been deleted from the locations where they were initially posted online,” a statement reads, “… her malicious lies spread across the Internet and are archived by multiple blogs.”
Unfortunately for Oberst, it’s infinitely easier to spread a story than to take it back. When you Google his name, stories about the alleged rape still dominate the first page. There’s nothing about his latest album, Upside Down Mountain, which came out in May to pretty rave reviews. Nothing about his current tour.
Presumably, of course, the Internet will correct itself: The newsy rape headlines will fade to the second or third page; the Oberst fandom will return to lyrics and romantic speculation; bloggers who cover the Internet — this one included! — will move on to other rumors, doomed to be hoodwinked again. It’s hard to say what any of this amounts to, really: just digital ash in a digital urn, to steal a phrase from Oberst’s 2005 album.
“Listening for patterns in the sound of an endless static sea,” he sings. “There is nothing as lucky, as easy, or free.”