Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hoaxes? On The Rolling Stone Rape Article And Its Aftermath

This post covers sexual violence and rape

What is a hoax?  One online dictionary defines it as "a plan to deceive a large group of people; a trick," another one as "something intended to deceive or defraud."  Sounds pretty serious, right?  Note, in particular, the terms "a plan" and "intended."  We are not talking about a misunderstanding of events or of partial memory after, say, a traumatizing event.  No, a hoax is something planned on purpose, something intended to deceive.

This is how it all began.

First Round

The Rolling Stone magazine published an article about an alleged gang-rape, a shocking piece which hit many readers in the gut and made them doubt the wisdom of belonging to the human race, a piece which was about the inadequate response of the university where the event was said to have taken place, University of Virginia, a piece which was almost completely about "Jackie," the woman who stated that she was raped.

The article did not name those accused of the rape though it did name a fraternity building as the place for the rape and gave additional information which could be used to try to find the identity of one of the alleged rapists (called "Drew" in the story).  It also provided a date for the alleged gang-rape and some additional evidence of preceding events.

Soon questions about the article began.  Allison Benedikt and Hannah Rosin asked why the author of the Rolling Stone article, Sabrina Rubin Erderly,  didn't interview the accused men and if she failed to get a response from them, why she didn't say so in the article.  Ravi Somayia in The New York Times echoed those journalistic concerns.  Then Robby Soave in the Reason magazine pulled out the big guns by asking whether the whole Rolling Stone article was a gigantic hoax.  You know, a planned, intended attempt to deceive people.  By whom, you might ask.  Is it "Jackie" that is accused of a hoax here or the Rolling Stone author and her editor(s)?

Lindsey Beyerstein in the New York Observer analyzed some of the evidence that had come under criticism while also noting that the memories of trauma sufferers are often partial and nonlinear.  Paul Farhi in the Washington Post delved even deeper into assertions which seemed not to have been verified in the original Rolling Stone article.  And Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic criticized the fact-checking by Rolling Stone while Rebecca Traister wrote about how the problems in the article could be used to minimize or ignore complaints of rape sufferers in general.  Olga Khazan at the Atlantic addresses the same issues, noting the fodder all this has given to the false-rape-accusations-are-fifty-percent gang (despite the statistical error in that kind of thinking) and the very sad consequences of the whole debacle for the next rape victim who comes forward.  Will she be believed at all?  Perhaps if she is almost dead, covered in blood and tossed out of a moving car at the end of her ordeal.

Second Round

Something shocking happened next.  The Rolling Stone magazine posted a retraction of the story, apparently because discrepancies between "Jackie's" statements and those made by representatives of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity mentioned in the original article.  The retraction originally contained this statement:

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.
The more recent version omits the above sentence and the magazine takes full responsibility for what it did.  But the original formulation probably hits much closer to the way those who come forward with rape accusations are treated:  They tend not to be trusted, as the default position of many observers, and that lack of trust is unrelated to the ultimate truth of the matter.

A Washington Post article then listed all the inconsistencies its authors could find in "Jackie's" story, as well as  the defense made by the fraternity mentioned in the original article, Phi Kappa Psi.

Was Rolling Stone guilty of a "gigantic hoax?"  I wouldn't go that far, but Maya Dusenbery's article on the importance of fact-checking and the biases of journalism is well worth reading in this context. 

Fact-checking taught me a lot, and here’s one thing I learned: One of the main purposes of fact-checking is to correct journalism’s bias toward a “good story” above all else. ... A compelling, clean narrative is seductive to both writers and editors, and one of the main duties of a fact-checker is to fight that bias in themselves in order to balance the tendency toward dramatic arcs, villains and heroes, and neat conclusions — to constantly re-inject inconvenient nuance, to keep adding the jagged edges when everyone else involved in the process would ideally love to see them smoothed.

Dusenbery also notes that thorough fact-checking is for the benefit of the source, especially when a story is so likely to go viral as the University of Virginia gang-rape story.   Finally, she points out a serious breach of journalistic ethics:

The Washington Post has reported that Jackie said she felt “manipulated” by writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely and said that at one point she asked to be taken out of the article and Erdely refused. If that’s true, that’s a clear violation of ethical journalism guidelines for reporting on sexual assault. If that’s true, that failure by Rolling Stone is worse than any of the many failures that came after it. And if Rolling Stone was so eager to keep Jackie’s story in the piece that they were ready to run it against her will, that suggests their willingness to bend their fact-checking standards may have had less to do with some feminist “sensitivity” to a survivor’s request and more to do with not wanting to risk losing a particularly shocking tale of a gang rape that would help their article go viral in the way it ultimately did.

Third Round

Chuck C. Johnson, himself famous for various hoaxes, has doxxed* the "Jackie" in the Rolling Stone article.  "Doxxing" means stripping a person of his or her anonymity by providing real names, addresses, names of family members and so on.  "Doxxing" invites others to harass and pester not only the doxxed person but also his or her friends and relatives.

It is a despicable act, the more so in cases like the current one where the so-called online court (as some appear to view this debacle) hasn't, in fact, found that Jackie's claims are utterly without foundation.  That the debate is not a court, that the discrepancies argued to exist in Jackie's evidence do not have to mean that she wasn't sexually assaulted, given the statements of her first-year roommate (who writes** that Jackie's story is not a hoax) and of her friend*** ("Andy" in the original story),  and given the fact that traumatic events can cause memories to be partial and fallible.

Johnson and several other right-wing commentators appear to view the legal rule of holding someone innocent until proven guilty (in court) an Internet rule, and one which works out like this:  If "Jackie's" statement has discrepancies that means she lied about everything.  If she lied about everything that means there was no sexual assault whatsoever.  Therefore, "Jackie" knowingly made a false rape allegation, and she deserves public shaming via doxxing.  The justification is that the fraternity mentioned in the article has had its windows broken and its reputation smeared.

But note that the game played there is a seesaw in the minds of those commentators: If the men or the fraternity alluded to in the article are to be held innocent then "Jackie" must be held guilty.  Until her innocence can be proven, I guess, though that, of course, is now impossible.  Thus, whether "Jackie" was raped or otherwise sexually assaulted doesn't matter.  Her accusations are now labeled as false.

This thinking applies to many of the "false rape allegations" stories so popular among the online men's rights sites where the seesaw of guilt vs. innocence is played as a zero-sum game.

That shows a poverty of imagination (not to mention the need to view a large chunk of all rape survivors as evil liars), because there are many other possibilities which that simple seesaw game doesn't cover:

Memory is fallible, trauma and shock affect one's ability to recall all possible details, re-telling a story can change it until the new details become part of the story fabric, alcohol or drugs can affect recall, a rape may happen but the culprit is falsely identified.  Note that eyewitness testimony is not always found to be reliable.  How much more likely is it that this would be the case for someone to whom violence was done? 

Fourth Round

Perhaps by chance, Emily Yoffe's article titled "The College Rape Overcorrection" was published a few days ago on Slate.  It seems to fit the series about hoaxes and yet more hoaxes, arguing that college rape policies pay scant attention to men's civil rights and pointing out the alleged victims' responsibility not be inebriated and not to take a man to the college authorities for simply something that might have been bad and/or drunk sex. 

To support her thesis, Yoffe cites evidence from several cases.  What's fascinating about these cases is that they are written fairly completely from one side only, that of the accused.  Even the cases which didn't result in the accused declared innocent are written from that tilted point of view.  Or that's how Yoffe's writing reads to me:  As if I were reading the evidence and arguments compiled by only the defense.

Should Slate have insisted that Yoffe include more space for the arguments of the other side?  Should Slate have insisted that Yoffe  covers not only the dissatisfaction with college rape policies that the accused have but also the widespread dissatisfaction with those very same policies that alleged victims have expressed?  Given what Yoffe has chosen to cover, the case looks open-and-closed:  The alleged victims almost always win; the alleged accusers almost always lose, even if they are innocent.  Except that this is not necessarily the case.

This make-a-case treatment means that the first case in Yoffe's article, that of Drew Sterrett, gives us a detailed set of arguments from Sterrett's point of view but something very fuzzy and quite ridiculous when it comes to the case her accuser (called CB) may have prepared.  Is this acceptable if a case has already gone through the college judicial system?  Is it acceptable to retry it in the online court?  And should we now go out and try to verify or falsify all the statements Mr. Sterrett made, to follow the journalistic guidelines of the Rolling Stone debacle?

It's possible that the cases against the men described by Yoffe indeed were that weak.  It's also possible that Yoffe presented one partial view of the problem of campus rape and ignored the other views.  As I mentioned above, perhaps there is a fundamental difference which makes the partial view of the Rolling Stone article more reprehensible.

Could any of that be called a hoax?  I doubt it.  But Yoffe does seem to argue that most of the statistical evidence about campus rape is misleading.  Either the study wasn't representative enough (only two colleges or men of all sorts of ages and not just the usual college ages) or its methods were seen as faulty (guesstimates to get from one-year rate of rape or attempted rape to total rapes/attempted rapes experienced by women at the point of graduating from college) or a focus on campus rape that ignores the possibility that rape rates of young women not in college might well be higher.

None of this makes the statistics into a hoax (as intended to trick or mislead), of course, though larger and more representative studies would be most welcome****.  What we have today are estimates based on partial information, not purposefully misleading attempts to lie about campus sexual assaults.   Or so I think, though Yoffe might not agree, because she states, in reference to the study with the  guesstimation method that:

In a footnote, the authors acknowledge that asserting that one-quarter of college students “might” be raped is not based on actual evidence: “These projections are suggestive. To assess accurately the victimization risk for women throughout a college career, longitudinal research following a cohort of female students across time is needed.” The one-fifth to one-quarter assertion would mean that young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war.
The link Ms. Yoffe provides for the Congolese data (from 2011) tells us this:

The conclusions in the new study, by three public health researchers — Amber Peterman of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Tia Palermo of Stony Brook University and Caryn Bredenkamp of the World Bank — are based on extrapolations from a household survey done in 2007 of 3,436 Congolese women nationwide.
The researchers found that around 12 percent were raped at least once in their lifetime and 3 percent were raped in the one-year period before the survey. Around 22 percent had been forced by their partners to have sex or perform sexual acts against their will, the study showed, implying that sexual abuse often happened at home. The women, ages 15 to 49, were interviewed in a demographic and health survey partly financed by the American government.
The study’s authors then used current population estimates, which put Congo’s population at around 70 million, to extrapolate that as many as 1.8 million Congolese women had been raped, with up to 433,785 raped in the one-year period, which would mean almost a rape a minute.

But is it the Congolese wars alone that cause all those high rape statistics in the sense of warriors on either side raping women as a weapon of war?  Another summary of the study seems to disagree:

But another statistic may be more sobering – and important to any future attempts to combat the problem: 22.5 percent of women have experienced sexual violence from their husbands or partners, according to the report.

That's the real story, according to Monitor correspondent Jina Moore.
Indeed, that stat complicates the oft-repeated storyline that the main problem stems fro soldiers and rebels using rape as a weapon of war in Congo's east.Sure, rebels and government soldiers alike still use rape to terrorize villages into submission. I remember listening to a government soldier recount how he raped women when he was a rebel fighter when I was in eastern Congo in 2009. (See video here.)
But the idea that more than a fifth of women have experienced sexual violence at the hands of their intimate partners – at least according to the study – reminds me of the words of a Harvard doctor I interviewed for that story.
"Rape is becoming part of the culture," said Michael Van Rooyen, the director of Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative and one of the foremost experts on rape in the Congo.
This does not mean that the US figures on college rape and attempted rape are correct or incorrect.  It does serve, however,  to point out the importance of knowing what studies actually find or when comparisons are as apples to oranges.  And one of those apples-to-oranges problem could come from the far greater likelihood that Congolese women understate rape frequencies (because of the social stigma attaching to rape in that country) than that US college students would do so.

If you have had the stamina to read this far, you may have noticed that I have toyed with the idea of a "hoax", partly to take the bite off the vicious way it is used by the false-accusations brigade:  This assumes that women often lie, that false rape accusations are 50% of all rape accusations and that the goal of false rape accusations is to either cover up bad sex from parents, say, or to inflict misandrist feminazi vengeance on all men who are falsely accused.  This particular "hoax" has a hard time dying, despite the fact that the best studies suggest a rate of false rape accusations somewhere between two and eight percent of all reported rapes or attempted rapes.  And this is the hoax that both "Jackie" (by Chuck C. Johnson) and the Rolling Stone article writer and editor(s) have been accused of.



*I'm assuming here that the woman who was doxxed indeed is the woman of the Rolling Stone story.  This may, of course, turn out not to be true.
**From the Cavalier:
Sometime that year I remember her letting it slip to me that she had had a terrible experience at a party. I remember her telling me that multiple men had assaulted her at this party. She didn’t say anything more. It seemed that was all she’d allow herself to say. I wish I had done something sooner. I wish I had known how to help. But I applaud Jackie for telling her story, now two years later. It was a story that needed to be told.
 However, the articles released in the past few days have been troubling to me, and the responses to them even more so. While I cannot say what happened that night, and I cannot prove the validity of every tiny aspect of her story to you, I can tell you that this story is not a hoax, a lie or a scheme. Something terrible happened to Jackie at the hands of several men who have yet to receive any repercussions.
***From the Washington Post:
A student identified as “Andy” in the Rolling Stone article said in an interview with The Post Friday night that Jackie did call him and two other friends for help a few weeks into the fall semester in 2012. He said Jackie said that “something bad happened” and that he ran to meet her on campus, about a mile from the school’s fraternities.
The student, who said he never spoke to a Rolling Stone reporter, said Jackie seemed “really upset, really shaken up” but disputed other details of that article’s account. Rolling Stone said that the three friends found Jackie in a “bloody dress,” with the Phi Kappa Psi house looming in the background, and that they debated “the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape” before advising against seeking help. He said none of that is accurate.
“Andy” said Jackie said she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to perform oral sex on a group of men, but he does not remember her identifying a specific house. He said he did not notice any injuries or blood but said the group offered to get her help. She, instead, wanted to return to her dorm, and he and the friends spent the night with her to comfort her at her request.
****I haven't read enough in this field to make any kind of informed guess about the "best" estimates of college rape prevalence in the United States.  This page suggests that the "one-in-four" statistic for rape and attempted rape comes from more than one study, however.