Can women experiencing sexual harassment safely take their whisper networks online?

For centuries, women have relied on each other for warnings about sexually abusive men. Is there a safe and secure way to spread these warnings online?

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In October 2017, a Google Doc went viral. The online document, entitled “Shitty Media Men”, emerged at a time of global uprising after over a dozen women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault. “Shitty Media Men” was exactly what it sounds like – a list of over 70 men in the media industry who are alleged to have abused women.

The nature of Google Docs means women could share the link with each other privately and contribute to the list anonymously, but the pace at which it was shared ensured it quickly became international news. With the list labelled everything from irresponsible to malicious in the press, its creator decided to retain her anonymity – until yesterday.

In an article for The Cut, writer Moira Donegan explains why she created the spreadsheet. “The anonymous, crowdsourced document was a first attempt at solving what has seemed like an intractable problem: how women can protect ourselves from sexual harassment and assault,” she states, explaining that for centuries women have been involved in “whisper networks” by which they can warn one another about dangerous men.

“Many of these networks have been invaluable in protecting their members,” she writes. “Still, whisper networks are social alliances, and as such, they’re unreliable. They can be elitist, or just insular.”

In an age where the internet is used for everything, it is tempting to try and digitise our whisper networks. The immediate downside of a whisper network – that it relies on people having connections that the most vulnerable to abuse simply do not have – is instantly eliminated, and women can freely and widely share warnings and experiences to protect each other from assault. Yet as Donegan writes in her piece, there are unforeseen dangers to taking the “intense sincerity of our most intimate conversations” online.

Donegan admits to being “frightened” by the spreadsheet she created, which ultimately lost her both friends and her job. Living with the fear of being exposed and harassed also took its toll on the writer, who only revealed her identity after discovering that Harper’s magazine planned to run an article exposing her. “I still don’t know what kind of future awaits me now that I’ve stopped hiding,” she writes.

That future could be anything from a libel lawsuit to further harassment – which may leave women who want to share their stories of assault online wondering what to do.

For a Google Doc to work as a whisper network, it has to be shareable on a mass scale, meaning it can quickly get out of its creator’s control. Over the past months, women have sought an alternative in group chats on places such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, but these channels also present different difficulties.

“When I first joined, I felt excited and relieved to be part of a network of women who had very similar experiences to me – it felt like we had strength in numbers and a real moment of change,” a woman who was part of a WhatsApp group used to discuss sexual harassers in her industry tells me. Reading people’s experiences helped her to validate her own and warned her away from specific men, while WhatsApp’s encryption practices meant the chat felt both practical and secure.

“But it was also quite stressful,” she says, explaining that receiving literal notifications about abuse became overwhelming. “There were so many people on there I didn’t know, unrecognised numbers, and it felt less and less secure. Anyone could have been added to the group, and anyone could have leaked it – which, in the end, semi-happened.” The group was disbanded after its members feared being outed.

The fact online communications can be screenshotted and saved is also troubling to anyone who fears a permanent record of their whispers. “Anything recorded in writing, if inflammatory, could form the basis of a libel claim,” explains Jenny Afia, an award-winning defamation lawyer. Afia explains that the creator of a Google Doc or WhatsApp group that libelled a man by accusing them of sexual assault could also ultimately be the person liable to the law, even if they didn’t personally write the offending message. “If they have the ability to still control the document or delete the messages, then you could still be held responsible.”

Nonetheless, Afia emphasises that the best defence against a defamation claim is that your accusations are true. “If you want to do it, you just have to be certain it’s true,” she says of creating an online whisper network. “You should be willing to stand by it and you must have a very strong belief that what you’re saying is true, that you’re not acting maliciously or with an axe to grind.”

When it comes to defamation, it’s also important to remember that, technically, a traditional network of whispers leaves you open to a civil suit. “A whispered conversation in a bathroom, if somebody else heard it, that also would carry a legal risk,” says Afia. While there is therefore no ironclad way to protect yourself from defamation claims, it is helpful to bear these risks in mind when designing a digital whisper network. Apps like Telegram and Signal pride themselves on providing a space for anonymous, encrypted conversations, and Telegram even allows anonymous blogs. In the past, the more technically-savvy have even been able to send and decrypt messages about abusive men.

In the end, then, the risks of online whisper networks may be similar to their real world counterparts – and more than ever women find themselves wanting to turn whispers into shouts. Stephanie Boland is a journalist who co-founded The Second Source, an organisation designed to tackle harassment in the media (she is also a contributor to the New Statesman). She explains how whispers between friends became a concrete organisation.

“The Second Source started because one of the founders, Emily Reynolds, wrote a piece entitled ‘An Incomplete List of Men in the Media Who Have Wronged Me,’” Boland says. “Once we began talking, we realised that we all had a story from journalism: ranging from men who would keep harassing you, low-key, for months to quite upsetting stories.” The Second Source was set up as a way to lobby the industry and work on real policy change, while ensuring employers take up guidelines that work for victims.

“My advice if your industry has been a bit quiet on this front is just go for it,” says Boland. “It’ll expand to fill all your available free time, sure, and make half the men you talk to very nervous – but maybe it's time for a few men to get a bit nervous!”

When it comes to risk, Boland acknowledges it – “But that's how pretty much all solidarity works.”

For her part, Moira Donegan’s article is reflective but not remorseful. What shocked her most about the spreadsheet, she writes, was how badly it was needed. Her final message is one of both accepting the risks and understanding the rewards.

“The experience of making the spreadsheet has shown me that it is still explosive, radical, and productively dangerous for women to say what we mean,” she concludes her piece.

“But this doesn’t mean that I’ve lowered my hopes. Like a lot of feminists, I think about how women can build power, help one another, and work toward justice. But it is less common for us to examine the ways we might wield the power we already have. Among the most potent of these powers is the knowledge of our own experiences. The women who used the spreadsheet, and who spread it to others, used this power in a special way, and I’m thankful to all of them.”

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.