True to his word, Johnson promptly tweeted Jackie’s full name, photo and screenshots of her “rape-obsessed” Pinterest account. (We are not linking to these posts, as it is Washington Post policy not to name victims or alleged victims of rape.) He has also promised that more “scoops” are forthcoming — which has alarmed victims’ advocates and Jackie’s defenders. Several dozen users even claimed to report Johnson to Twitter under its new abuse-reporting policy, apparently hoping that the social network would take his account — and thus, Jackie’s full name and photo — offline.
The question, of course, is whether Twitter is responsible for protecting Jackie’s identity — and even if it were, whether the social network actually could. It’s long-standing journalistic policy to protect the names of rape victims; Kelly McBride, a journalism ethicist at the Poynter Institute, explains it as a means of protecting victims against “unwanted stigma and scrutiny.” That applies to victims, like Jackie, whose allegations have not been proven.
But that’s convention — it certainly isn’t the law, at least in the United States. And since the First Amendment grants very broad protections in the free speech arena, Johnson is able to name Jackie, if he wishes. He is — to quote an (in)famous Reddit statement that articulated the same laissez-faire policy — “responsible for his own soul.” (Johnson’s soul is pretty clear on the subject, too: Before outing Jackie, he tweeted that he consulted with his priest.)
This debate, then, has very little to do with Twitter or Twitter’s abuse-reporting policies, despite attempts to frame it that way. This is not Twitter’s fight.
It does, however, make a pretty good proxy battle for two forces that we’ve seen crop up in Internet dramas before. On one side: the “social justice warriors” — liberal crusaders for political correctness and victim protection. (Many would file the “mainstream media” under this category.) On the other side sits a loose, amorphous coalition of social conservatives, men’s rights activists, pick-up artists and 4chan trolls, united largely by the belief that feminists and liberals are boxing them in. Johnson regularly RTs these folks, and tends to talk in the same sweeping, thematic terms.
This sounds familiar, right? These issues of online power and victimization were the rallying cries of Gamergate. In fact, they’ve fueled almost every major Internet controversy of the past year, from Hunter Moore’s arrest in January to the theft of hundreds of celebrity nudes in the fall. In each case, the fight has always been framed in grandiose, overtly socio-political terms.
No one is ever just looking to report the name of an alleged rape victim; rather, they’re trying to “expose the truth” or fight “media bias” or “start a revolution.” Everyone is always pushing back against some larger, oppressive forces: Victims’ activists are reacting to U-Va., rape truthers react to activists, online progressives react to rape truthers — on and on like two parallel mirrors, reflecting the same image endlessly. There may be no more perfect metaphor for Internet culture as it stands right now.
The fact that that culture has become so reactionary, and so polarized, isn’t surprising; as a medium, the Internet favors the brief, the inflammatory and the outrage-inducing over the nuanced or the thoughtfully considered. It’s why partisan news outlets tend to do so astoundingly well on Facebook, and why the phrase “what are we angry about today?” has lived so long on Twitter. Anger is the most viral emotion, a group of researchers found in 2013. And given the very personal, existential nature of debates over cultural power, it makes sense that this, of all things, has become the Internet’s war.
Like any war, however, this one has casualties. Johnson, apropos of nothing, posted the names of Jackie’s brothers and called her parents’ house. It’s also worth repeating that, whatever the errors in the Rolling Stone story, there’s no knowing whether or not Jackie’s account is a “hoax,” as Johnson says; just yesterday, one of Jackie’s former roommates wrote a letter to U-Va.’s student paper, insisting that “Jackie’s story is not a hoax … I believe wholeheartedly that she went through a traumatizing sexual assault.”
Unfortunately for Jackie, some keyboard “revolutionaries” have already decided she’s not the victim. Against all probability, they are.