The Whisper Network After Harvey Weinstein and “Shitty Media Men”

Three years ago, shortly after I moved to the city, I was introduced to the whisper network—the unofficial information channel that women use to warn each other about men whose sexual behavior falls on the spectrum from creepy to criminal—for New York media. I had encountered these networks before, in college and grad school and in the Peace Corps. Over time, in my experience, the whisper network always proves reasonably accurate: firings and settlements and investigations accrue to the names you’ve been hearing in different anecdotes for years. Gossip distorts details, but there are ways to test the information. Women ask for and examine sourcing; you know whether the story is firsthand or thirdhand. “I’ve heard that he gets grabby” is one type of information, and “this guy physically hurt one of my best friends” is another. Women know how hard it is to connect male misconduct to real consequences. The most we generally hope for is to save other women some heartache and trauma and time.

There are blunter alternatives: on college campuses, women scribble warnings about men on bathroom walls; these days, accusations lodged on social media sometimes blow up into major news. Following the meticulously reported revelations of harassment and assault allegedly perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein for decades, many journalists started talking among themselves about the open-secret reputations of a handful of well-positioned men in their own industry. There was guilt, and soul-searching. How many personal experiences had we been burying? How much had we ourselves been complicit in abuse? Like many women, I have found myself thinking that the whisper network needs to be expanded, and dramatically. That network is distributed through social and professional connections; the women who urgently need the information but lack those connections tend to be young and marginalized—exactly those women on whom predatory men most commonly prey. And, of course, I wish it were easier to assume that stories of male misbehavior would be the natural gossip, business, and responsibility of other men.

On Wednesday morning, a Google spreadsheet began circulating among women in the media. It was open to anyone; you could add to and edit it anonymously. There were columns in which you could input a person’s name, company affiliation, alleged misconduct, and miscellaneous notes. A disclaimer noted that the document was a collection of “allegations and rumors,” and added, “Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see a man you’re friends with, don’t freak out.” The spreadsheet was called “Shitty Media Men.” Over the course of the day, I watched women on Twitter make reference to it, cryptically and uneasily. By Wednesday night, friends told me, the document had nearly seventy names and double-digit concurrent viewers online. By 1 A.M. on Thursday, the document had been made private, and there was a piece up on BuzzFeed, headlined “What To Do With ‘Shitty Media Men’?”

The piece, written by Doree Shafrir, noted the spreadsheet’s good intentions, the ubiquity of abusive male behavior, and the drawbacks of this anonymous, open method of information collection: the claims were unsubstantiated, distribution couldn’t be controlled by the spreadsheet’s honor system, the misconduct alleged on the list ranged from creepy direct-messaging to physical violence and rape. The backlash to Shafrir’s piece was strong and immediate. (Shafrir declined to comment for this piece.) The shortcomings that she noted were obvious, and it is morally reasonable to request privacy for a document that is meant to share suppressed stories of abuse. At the same time, the spreadsheet was destined to become a news item that reduced it to its flaws. Later, through a friend, I was connected to the woman who created the spreadsheet, who works in media and answered questions over e-mail, asking to remain anonymous. She told me that she decided to start the document after reading about the allegations against Weinstein. She felt an “eerie sense of familiarity,” she wrote, with the description of a long-rumored predator who was also immensely successful and respected.

“I realized that I had been keeping this list in my mind for years, and that to make it I relied on backchannels and friendships that I only developed after having been in media for some time,” she wrote. “I didn’t have this information when I was 22, interning, and eager to make my potential apparent to the people—men—in power.” The democratization of the whisper network was always the goal of the spreadsheet, she explained, and anonymity was a necessity. But this, she realized, “was both what gave the spreadsheet its potential and also what doomed it.” The document was distributed more widely, and faster, than she expected—a testament, in her view, to “the pervasiveness of the problem” and to “the generosity of women who wanted to keep each other safe.” I asked her if, with time, women would have found a way to identify and remove any baseless allegations from the spreadsheet. “I hope so, but honestly I have no idea,” she wrote. “We didn’t get a chance to find out.”

The whisper network is an informal but relatively orderly reporting method, regulated by the direct accountability of a social ecosystem: if I give you false information, then my credibility and relationships will suffer. The network can be manipulated toward falsehood, but we know how to take that into account: we ask around, monitor social situations, shut down the rare false rumor. An open online document is not governed by the same moral physics—it’s governed by the physics of the Internet, which insure that groups attempting to combine openness, secrecy, and growth are inevitably exposed. There is no reason, in a vacuum, to take a single claim on the spreadsheet as true. But, as with the bathroom-wall system, people producing and receiving anonymous information don’t do so in a vacuum. When accusations are lodged in unconventional and unregulated ways online—and this will surely keep on happening—there is a built-in imperative to triangulate the information with what we know in real life.

On Thursday night, I finally looked at the spreadsheet, after getting a PDF copy from a friend. (This, of course, is another difference between a spreadsheet and a bathroom scribble: there is much less chance that a scribble will be delivered to Breitbart or Reddit.) I saw a dozen serious, painful allegations that I’ve heard from multiple women, and a dozen allegations describing behavior that might warrant an H.R. reprimand but not much else. I saw friends and former colleagues, men at publishing imprints and literary magazines, at Web sites and major newspapers. There was an entry that I don’t believe about a close friend—the extensive and specific allegation was identical to one further up, as if it had been copied and pasted. I asked him about it directly, and I believe his answer. So, in person, I’ll stake my credibility on the rumor being false, and wait for someone, in person—and I’ll believe you—to tell me that it’s true.

The whisper network tries to address the inadequacies of the “proper channels,” which, as we’ve seen in recent cases of sexual harassment and assault, often punish women for speaking out. But there are inadequacies in the whisper network, too. If there weren’t, the spreadsheet would not exist. We excuse or dodge bad behavior in our social circles—a moral error, even if the behavior is outside the bounds of the workplace or the law. I think we also underestimate the degree to which these various systems—formal, modest, chaotic—might require one another’s existence. It would be a waste of an exhausting political moment not to recognize that most decent people now understand that whispers need to be, as they haven’t been before, seriously examined, and pushed up the chain.

Last year, the nonprofit organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts published deliberately “de-identified” accusations against a poet. At Jezebel, where I worked at the time, I reported on the story at length. In talking to people about the fallout from the incident, I felt crushed by the extent to which male sexual misconduct had been configured, once more, as a women’s problem. Then, as now, women who agreed on almost everything—about the extent and urgency of the problem, about the failures of existing institutions—found themselves at war over methodology. Part of the problem was the way that different goals kept getting conflated. Speech about sexual assault can stem from a variety of worthy motivations: to warn other women, to find closure and catharsis, to enact or perform solidarity, to get an abusive person out of a position of power, to change institutional procedures. These goals can overlap, and they often do—but not automatically. They don’t in the case of the spreadsheet, a fact we can look at straight on. It would help if we didn’t rely single-handedly on women’s speech to lead us straight to justice, or if we understood that attempts to repair a flawed system are unlikely to be either perfect or categorically wrong.


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