(Alternately titled: The Ethics of Tweeting Rape Allegations)
Last night when I got home from hanging out with some friends from high school, I got on Twitter before going to bed. Instead of the typical late-night pablum, I found a series of really interesting Tweets that former Missouri basketball player Kim English had rattled off starting at 12:09 a.m.:
The mention of a “student board” caught my eye, and my initial reaction was that this suggested that Missouri basketball player Michael Dixon’s suspension was related to a conduct issue, rather than an internal problem on the team. Dixon’s suspension was announced on Oct. 26. Missouri’s head coach, Frank Haith, had originally told the press that the suspension had nothing to do with a legal matter or an NCAA infraction. Instead, it was “more about the everyday choices we make and the cumulative impact it has on the ability to be good stewards on the Mizzou brand.” English’s tweet suggested otherwise.
This piqued my curiosity, so I did a general search on Twitter for users mentioning Michael Dixon to see if I could hear anything in the echo chamber. I stumbled upon a Twitter user whose bio lists him as a sophomore at MU who said that Dixon had raped one of his friends. He had retweeted a post by Twitter user @armybeautyy that said:
Yes, I said it. Michael Dixon sexually assaulted me. That’s why he is suspended. You all can call me names, but I know what he did.
When I went to this user’s account, I found a series of tweets, in which @armybeautyy said that Dixon had sexually assaulted her. Because tweets are bound to be deleted or protected, I decided to capture a screenshot of her tweets relating to Michael Dixon.
About 30 minutes after @armybeautyy said she had been sexually assaulted by Dixon, I tweeted out the screenshot I had captured. Shortly after I tweeted the below picture, @armybeautyy put her account on private.
Since I originally sent out that tweet at 1:50 a.m. Saturday morning, it has been retweeted more than 5o times and the picture I took has been tweeted by other users, often without attribution. By this point, I have absolutely no idea how far my original tweet has spread on the Twitterverse and the blogosphere, but from what I can verify, the picture I posted has been sent to more than 5,000 Twitter users.
That makes it the most-viewed tweet I’ve ever posted, and that knowledge makes me especially queasy given some of the ethical ramifications of disseminating rape allegations.
Do I think I should have tweeted that a Twitter user was accusing Dixon of sexual assault? Yeah, probably. But I think this is murky water. We’ve all seen how uncorroborated rape accusations can ruin careers, and so I think we have to tread especially carefully when we step into this territory. I have absolutely no idea of whether:
- Dixon is in fact going through conduct for sexual assault;
- Dixon actually sexually assaulted @armybeautyy;
- Dixon and @armybeautyy even know each other.
What I do know is that a Twitter user accused Dixon of sexual assault and that by the time I captured the screenshot and @armybeautyy put her account on private, her accusations were spreading through the Twitterverse like wildfire. Whether or not @armybeautyy’s accusations are substantively true, I think that providing the full screenshot of her comments was called for, so that people can have access to the original tweets.
That being said, I wish I could go back and change the wording on my original Tweet. One Twitter user actually took me to task for saying I had “no verification on this.” Here’s what he wrote:
I most definitely should have been more clear with what I mean about “verification” when I posted that tweet. What I meant to do was to show some hesitancy about (or not endorse) the truth of @armybeautyy’s claims. I also wanted to point out that I hadn’t verified @armybeautyy’s identity. That being said, I think that I should have framed that tweet differently so that it was more clear what I meant there.
As news outlets started picking up the Twitter story on Saturday morning, very few news outlets mentioned anything about the rape allegations. The Columbia Tribune was the first outlet to report that Dixon’s suspension was related to a student conduct violation:
What exactly Dixon is accused of doing and when — or if — he will be allowed to play again have never been specified by MU Coach Frank Haith. Sources have told the Tribune that the university’s Student Conduct Committee met weeks ago on a matter involving Dixon. Per university policy, if the committee votes to suspend or expel a student, the student can appeal to the chancellor.
We’ve also found out that Dixon tweeted last night saying, ““Our team fought hard. I wish I could b out there helping them. I’VE DONE NOTHING WRONG!” He then summarily deleted that Tweet.
Finally, I’ve been able to independently verify the identity of Twitter user @armybeautyy and that she is an MU student. But here’s where I think the ethical questions get quite a bit dicier because it’s current practice to not reveal the identities of alleged victims of sexual assaults. But does @armybeautyy get to retain her anonymity when she told the public about the sexual assault accusations? Should we treat rape accusations seriously when they come from anonymous Twitter users who don’t list their names on their accounts? At what point does one forfeit certain rights to privacy when you comment in a public forum?
These are all tricky and necessary questions, but I don’t have the answers to them right now.
I expect we’ll hear much more about the backstory to Dixon’s suspension in the coming days. I doubt the university will comment upon much. They’ll claim that they cannot comment on student conduct matters because that would be a violation of FERPA, and so I doubt we’ll have much substantiated evidence of how the university has been handling this. I guess I’m interested in whether or not there is a substantive reason to believe that Dixon sexually assaulted someone, but I’m equally curious about whether the police were involved in an investigation. I’m also curious as to how many people knew about the rape rumors that were swirling about and why it took so long for them to be disseminated.
That being said, we know very little right now about what actually happened, and therefore, the only normative conclusion I have is that I think it’s necessary for us to hold off on judging any of the parties involved in this. The blogosphere is already awash with people declaring Michael Dixon a rapist or @armybeautyy a liar. Few things are more repugnant that this sort of moral certitude when we have almost no solid facts behind our conjecture.