Skip to content Skip to navigation

Whisper Networks: On Media, Digital Technology, and Protection against Harassment

photo of Donegan, Daub, Dionne

Donegan, Daub and Dionne

Dec 17 2019

Evette Dionne, editor-in-chief at Bitch Media, asserts people “reduce a credible allegation, an accusation against someone who has harmed someone else” to gossip as a way to “delegitimize it and undermine it, and make it seem as if it’s simply a rumor with no weight and no truth to it.” 

Moira Donegan, an opinion columnist at the Guardian US, points out that originally the word “gossip” served as “an interchangeable noun for any kind of close female intimacy.” Donegan states the word got demonized during the 13th and 14th century because “the artisans and labor guilds started excluding women and forcing them back into the home.” Therefore, the contemporary ideas we have around women and gossip stems from a long history of sanctions and bias against the ways women seek to protect themselves from harm in the workplace.
 
Dionne and Donegan appeared together on Nov. 7 at Stanford in conversation with Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub as part of Whisper Networks: On the Feminist Function of Rumor, the first in a series of Clayman Conversations events. The pair of journalists discussed how whisper networks offer women a protective mechanism against sexual harassment, how the media and other powerful social institutions misconstrue reports of sexual assault, and the role of digital technology in how whisper networks operate today.
 
In response to Daub’s question about how technology changes whisper networks, Donegan argues “social media creates some connections that would not be there without it.” Further, though it mimics how social networks operate offline, Donegan asserts “social media tends to scale up and speed up human behaviors that are happening anyway.” Dionne notes social media also provides a means for people to “find a mass consensus around an idea,” which gives people experiencing trauma a space “to kind of affirm each other.” 

In response to Daub’s question about how technology changes whisper networks, Donegan argues “social media creates some connections that would not be there without it.” Further, though it mimics how social networks operate offline, Donegan asserts “social media tends to scale up and speed up human behaviors that are happening anyway.” Dionne notes social media also provides a means for people to “find a mass consensus around an idea,” which gives people experiencing trauma a space “to kind of affirm each other.” 

 
Social media creates new possibilities for how whisper networks operate outside of traditional mechanisms for reporting sexual assault in the workplace. In this way social media redresses the often times inert or dysfunctional policies against sexual harassment put in place by various companies. Donegan, author of the forthcoming book Gone Too Far, recounts the reaction to the “Shitty Media Men” list she created as a publicly available Google spreadsheet in 2017. Donegan describes this list as “sort of a crowdsourced whisper network,” that provided anonymity, shareability, and editing “as a stopgap replacement measure for the failures of HR departments.” 
 
Donegan feels the list went viral due to “a great hunger for this kind of ability to share people’s experiences without fear of retribution.” However, for all the potential it has to empower victims of sexual harassment, digital technology also enables perpetrators and their protectors to do more harm. As Daub notes, people who use the internet to create space for victims of sexual harassment in the way Donegan did face potential exposure of their identity to the broader public.
 
In January 2018, Donegan wrote an article for The Cut titled “I Started the Media Men List” after she got word another journalist intended to publish a piece exposing her identity for a different news outlet. Dionne, author of the forthcoming Fat Girls Deserve Fairy Tales Too, asserts “there are a legion of women who do the work” and engage in the victimization of other women by “outing someone who creates a list in which people were protecting other people” or going so far as to “question the legitimacy of a movement like #MeToo because of who it’s targeting.”
 
Dionne’s response to Donegan’s dilemma highlights social tensions around the perceived validity of sexual assault allegations. Referencing recent events with American singer Robert Kelly, Dionne notes that while many Black girls and women in Chicago had stories about him for decades, “it takes a trial, it takes being acquitted, it takes a Lifetime documentary, it takes a journalist, in this case Dream Hampton, being very diligent” before the singer faced new charges for his alleged crimes. 
 
Earlier in the conversation, Daub muses that the famous men implicated by #MeToo and Time’s Up will soon return to the public eye because “they can count on kind of the public having a worse memory than the whisper network.” Donegan responds the forgetfulness of the institutional record reflects “the motivations for the way that silence gets perpetrated by individual actors” because incentives to keep quiet exist “that are a little more of the stick than the carrot.” As an example, Donegan references a 2003 study that estimated 75 percent of people who report sexual assault in the workplace experienced retaliation. 
 
Whisper networks therefore offer protection to those trying to survive in systems and societies not designed for certain people. In this way, according to Dionne, whisper networks build communities as Black Americans did with the Negro Motorist Green-Book during the 1930s. Dionne states, “This book that went from black family to black family” and guided them “where they could go in the South” like restaurants or gas stations and other places “where you would be safe.” This comment brings attention to how whisper networks protect not only women, but also people of color and members of other marginalized groups. 
 
Daub brought the conversation to a close with a question about whether a shift has occurred between “the relationship between whisper networks and the sort of discourses in which these things are taken seriously and acted on” in the news. Dionne warns us not to get comfortable, because while we currently find ourselves in a media climate that publicizes reports on sexual violence, we will soon see silence from media publications “when it’s no longer beneficial and no longer generates money.” 
 
Donegan concurs and anticipates an “impending anti-feminist backlash.” Further, though Donegan does not have faith in institutional responses to sexual violence in the workplace, she does anticipate whisper networks will continue to matter due to “women’s continued insistence upon protecting one another.” As long as companies, universities, and other social institutions fail to enact policies that adequately address sexual violence, women will continue to exchange information about predators through whisper networks.
 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.