Trial By Social Media Is the New Form of People’s Court

Article by Araceli Cruz /
Vivala /
February 03, 2016 /
Click here to view original /

Recently, Amber Coffman — a musician with the indie group Dirty Projectors — was tweeting up a storm about being sexually harassed by a music publicist. The tweets started a conversation about sexual assault and the inequalities women have to deal with in many different industries. Now that social media is part of our daily routines and it’s become commonplace to share both our triumphs and frustrations so publicly, more people are willing to open up about their trauma as well. The repercussions of making such public statements, true or false, are always unpredictable. The reality is that people will come to their own conclusions and judgements regardless of whether or not they know all the facts.

During the Twitter unloading, Coffman outed the publicity guy that harassed her, and other women came forward to say they, too, had terrible experiences with him. She was praised for speaking up. A couple of days later Heathcliff Berru, the man she accused, admitted to wrongdoing and stepped down from the PR company (Life or Death PR & Management) that he founded. The repercussions continued as the company eventually went out of businessbecause artists did not want to work with them after the debacle.

This new phenomenon of outing wrongdoers and exposing them on social media can be attributed partly to the Bill Cosby scandal. As woman after woman came forward to accuse Cosby of sexual assault, it became a snowball effect. It also became apparent that this was not an isolated incident, but rather that Cosby was an alleged pathological rapist and abuser. But the majority of the women didn’t out Cosby online, they filed formal complaints and lawsuits and then that information was shared on social media and spread like wildfire.

Even though Cosby had faced allegations of sexual assault for decades — it wasn’t until comedian Hannibal Buress went on a Cosby rant that the accusations were taken seriously. A single clip of Buress’s stand-up, in which he called Cosby a rapist, went viral, and the rest is history. It could be argued that the viral video was the beginning of the end for Cosby.

Similarly with Coffman, Berru’s behavior wasn’t exposed until Coffman tweeted openly about it. Several others came forward to support her and share their own experiences about his offenses and backed up the claims Coffman made, but not until that first brave tweet Coffman fired off. It’s proof that if one person is strong enough to stand up for themselves and share their painful or embarrassing experiences with abuse and harassment, it gives others strength as well.

On November 28, 2015, Stoya, a well-known porn actress, writer, and model, tweeted: “That thing where you log in to the internet for a second and see people idolizing the guy who raped you as a feminist. That thing sucks.” And then: “James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword. I just can’t nod and smile when people bring him up anymore.”

And just with those two tweets, Stoya basically brought down one of the most popular and highly regarded porn actors in the industry. Within minutes, other women tweeted their support, while still more said they had also been raped by Deen; companies associated with Deen said they would no longer be working with him. It all happened within a matter of days.

Deen didn’t respond until a week later. When asked why his ex, and former scene partner, would accuse him of rape, he said: “I do not know at all. I am completely baffled. I also can’t speak to her motivations. There are public articles all over the internet, written by her, that make the exact opposite claims. She discusses how we communicated and how we were very careful with consent especially when involved with rough sex. What I do know is that Stoya and I did not have a clean break up.”

Whether these allegations are true or not, if she had reported his actions to authorities, it would haven taken months, maybe years to give her what she wanted: Justice. And that’s assuming she would have won. But we will never know now, because she got justice her way.

So which option is better: Reporting someone to authorities or reporting someone on social media? We reached out to Dr. Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who recently wrote Cyberbullies, Cyberactivists, Cyberpredators: Film, TV, and Internet Stereotypes, about what she thought of how women disclosing their trauma online and outing their alleged predators. 

“I think if victims feel inclined to report their attacks then this needs to be done in courtrooms and not on social media,” Rosewarne said, adding that act of revealing names of alleged accusers can be dangerous. “I am extremely uncomfortable with it,” Rosewarne said. “It makes every step of the legal process more complicated and more compromised.”

All of this isn’t to negate the relief of outing your secret. Take the story of comedian Beth Stelling, who late last year posted shocking images on her Instagram account showing terrible bruises on her legs and arms. In the caption, she wrote about the abusive relationship she had been in and her experience with rape and domestic violence. She decided to keep the abuser’s name anonymous.

Of course, Internet sleuths eventually figured out who her alleged accuser was, and he came forward with his side of the story. Cale Hartmann, also a comic actor, called himself “the new villain of the week,” and said in a lengthy response: “I was incredibly hurt to see my ex-girlfriend had made public accusations across all of her social media platforms that tell a story so far beyond the truth. The severity of her accusations are false and extremely harmful. I’m not sure she realizes the irreparable harm of her actions.”

The whole point of social media is that everyone can be heard. Who needs to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees when a jury of your peers is right there at your fingertips? But there is a dark side to making these kinds of accusations via social media as well. How can we know for sure that those accused are actually guilty? Sure, these guys seem to be, but the truth is, we will never really know what happened and that’s where trial by Twitter gets dangerous.