Buried within the Toronto Star's report detailing allegations of sexual violence by celebrity Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi, there is a nugget explaining why none of the alleged victims have agreed to come forward to police, or to go on record with the media: they fear a backlash from Internet trolls.
The paper admits that partly because of these alleged victims' refusal to go on the record about their allegations, their accounts are unverifiable, and thus virtually useless for a respectable news organization. According to the paper, it did not publish the story at an earlier time "because there was no proof the women's allegations of non-consensual abusive sex were true or false."
It was only after Ghomeshi posted his own version of events on his Facebook page, following his sudden firing from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), that the Star deemed it in the public interest to publish the allegations. His firing appears to be directly connected to these allegations, though the CBC will not expand on its decision. (Ghomeshi denies any wrongdoing, and says any rough sexual encounters between him and these women were wholly consensual. He has also filed a lawsuit against the CBC.)
There's a lot to digest there, so here's a quick recap: one of the biggest radio stars in the hemisphere has lost his job due to anonymous and unverified allegations of sexual violence, without a single police report being filed, and without a single report filed to the CBC's HR department. For the moment at least, the truth in this case is elusive; all we are left with is the first-hand account of the accused on one side, and a faceless group of accusers on the other.
And the main thing standing in between the truth and the public appears to be a fear of retribution from Internet trolls.
Ex-CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. Photo by Getty Images
That trolls and online intimidators play a major role in contentious digital interactions is not a new development. A Pew survey released last week found that 40 percent of online users report having been harassed online, with a full eighteen percent saying that they have witnessed cases of cyber stalking. But recent news events suggest that trolls might be becoming more adept and formidable in silencing dissidents, and therefore controlling the narratives of the stories to which they are committed.
#GamerGate is yet another current example of capacity to silence dissent in action. The movement, which is ostensibly about upholding ethics in video game journalism, is actually more about harassing women, according to a Newsweek analysis of Twitter data released this weekend. Several top female developers have been forced to leave their homes after receiving rape and death threats by online trolls. And in more than one instance, this persistent harassing has led to usually outspoken parties refusing to comment about the scandal on the record.
Felicia Day, an actress who is well respected in the gaming industry, made note of this environment of intimidation in a blog post she wrote on her Tumblr. Until writing the post, she said, Day had remained largely silent about the scandal out of "self-protection and fear" of what might come to her if she spoke out.
"I have been terrified of inviting a deluge of abusive and condescending tweets into my timeline. I did one simple @ reply to one of the main victims several weeks back, and got a flood of things I simply couldn’t stand to read directed at me," she wrote. "I had to log offline for a few days until it went away." Shortly after her publishing her post, which condemned the online trolls dominating the conversation about #GamerGate, her address and other personal information were shared online, and the threatening messages started coming in. Her fear had come to realization.
News outlets including Gawker and Gamasutra have been intimidated and monetarily pressured away from covering #Gamergate, due to attackers targeting advertisers and authors. In a critical post about #GamerGate, a Kataku author acknowledged that they are inviting virtual attacks simply by virtue of writing about it. This article is no exception.
The fear has even led to the most prominent video game publishing companies and video game industry analysts refusing to go on the record about any aspect of it; even the indefensible threats of rape and violence against women. “Nobody who takes a position gains anything from doing so,” said one analyst, who demanded anonymity in a Fortune article. “It’s a story about a lot of people (mostly men) behaving badly, and I prefer not to contribute to the never-ending drama."
In yet another recent case of trolls moving to hush opponents, freshman football players who came out about being beaten and sexually abused by older teammates of Sayreville War Memorial High School in New Jersey report being intimidated by online trolls into backing down from their allegations. One noted to the New York Times that the backlash “made me want to shoot myself.”
In a pointed editorial, NJ.com said of the Sayreville case: "We cannot allow Twitter to become a tool for witness intimidation. That is mob rule, not justice."
The detrimental effect of online intimidation on society's ability to synthesize and gather media information "lay[s] bare the pervasiveness of violent sexism, which existed long before intimidation tactics became so visible online," Dr. Whitney Phillips, a media studies scholar and communication lecturer at Humboldt State University, told Fusion. "Who wins [that fight] depends largely on whose voices platform administrators, advertisers, and other people on the business end choose to privilege—the targets of intimidation tactics or those who are doing the intimidating."
Phillips also adds that online harassment and intimidation is a cultural issue, and "is far from an online problem."
It is one thing when online bickering and acts of vandalism play out on message boards and on the notorious comment sections beneath web articles, and it is an entirely different question when these messages spread fear of real retribution in the physical world, prompting self-censorship in the case of #GamerGate and Sayreville, and an incomplete account of potentially career-ending sexual allegations in the case of Ghomeshi.
And so I propose the question: are the trolls winning the quest for truth in the digital age? I fear the answer to that question, and sadly I can't help but ask of myself: Should I be in fear for even putting my byline on this article?
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.