human rights, international development, social change, women's rights

Please, don’t tweet rape

Yesterday, a huge debate on Twitter ensued when Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland began tweeting the graphic story of a Haitian rape survivor – complete with too much personal detail like the woman’s name, age and medical situation. An editor at Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery, also re-tweeted parts of the story and encouraged her followers to follow McClelland’s tweets.

Like many others, I felt like this was a huge fail for Mother Jones. While McClelland stated that she had the consent of the rape survivor, and that the survivor wanted her story told, I still have doubts about whether this was informed consent. Sure, the woman might have known that McClelland is a reporter, but did she know that the story was being tweeted, and that thousands of people were hearing about the extremely graphic details of her experience? Did she even know what Twitter is? Did she know that her name was being used, and that the reporter was providing identifying information about what she looked like, how old she was, where she lived, and how many children she had? Not only is providing all this information somewhat unethical, but it could be downright dangerous if the rapists find out about the reporting. Can McClelland really ensure the rape survivor’s safety, in this case?

My opinion is that we simply shouldn’t reveal a victim’s name and identifying information, or at least should use a pseudonym when describing the victim. I currently work for a civil rights law firm, and we have a strict policy of attorney-client confidentiality. We are simply not allowed to discuss our cases, and particularly not the names of our clients, outside the office. While I understand that the journalism field is a completely different beast, I think there’s some value to retaining a level of confidentiality, particularly when you’re talking about victims of brutal, violent, traumatic gang rape.

I also have doubts about whether using Twitter as the medium to report a rape story is ethical, or even simply the best medium for doing so. Twitter is good for disseminating information, but it’s not good at capturing the whole story or the complex context for a situation. When you’re talking about something like rape at refugee camps in Haiti, we need some more context. You can’t just jump into the story like that, and that’s exactly what McClelland did. We need more information – what is the current and historical situation in Haiti, what are the conditions in refugee camps, what is being done to change this. Frankly, 140 characters isn’t enough for this story to be told appropriately, and respectfully.

Moreover, I believe it is disrespectful for a journalist to be on the phone, distracted and tweeting, while interviewing her subject; I believe the subject of the story deserves more respect that that. Shouldn’t McClelland be paying careful attention to everything that goes on around her, observing the details so she can write a great story later on? Jina Moore argues that McClelland should have taken notes and then waited to tweet her story, rather than tweet it live; this gives the journalist time to draft a story, plan out the tweets, and ensure that the subject knows what exactly is going to be up on the internet. And I would agree. The subject has the right to know the details of what the journalist is writing, where.

Ultimately, this Haitian rape survivor is a human being – and she has a basic human dignity. We should respect that human dignity by at least, telling her story in a more appropriate manner – and ideally, not on Twitter. What I ask is: if McClelland’s family member or close friend experienced the same type of traumatic rape, would she tweet about it in the same way? I doubt it. If our parents, our friends, our lovers, our relatives go through trauma, we often keep those stories hidden out of respect for the victim/survivor. We don’t want OUR stories to be broadcast to the world. Why do we broadcast the traumatic stories of Haitian, Ugandan, Indian men and women in this way? Do we have less respect for the dignity of individuals in the developing world, who we see as “less” than ourselves in any way? Certainly, such lack of respect plays a role.

I understand that trauma journalists focus on shocking stories in order to force the readers to consider the morality of this senseless violence, but I also believe there are ways to tell this story while also respecting the rights and dignity of the rape survivor.

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5 thoughts on “Please, don’t tweet rape”

  1. BR says:

    Most NGOs in the development sector fail to respect the privacy rights of the people they work with. They’re also acutely aware of this as it is an issue raised time and again. However they feel the need to promote personal stories more important for fund-raising and securing donor faithfulness than it is to uphold the rights of the people they are trying to help.

    1. Akhila says:

      It’s true– I wonder how many of the “sad children” pictures we see used so often by NGOs for marketing purposes were taken with the informed consent of the child’s family. So many of NGO marketing materials may not be created with informed consent.

      Just imagine if you were sitting outside your home, and then some NGO came by, took some pictures of you, and soon you saw your picture on a huge billboard or magazine with the words “Poor, needy, please help” or something similar across the front. I just wish we could use the language of empowerment instead..

      I think personal stories are GREAT, but they should be used with informed consent, and should use the language of empowerment instead of the language of poverty/need.

  2. guardianstar77 says:

    I missed all this on Twitter, but I am appalled that this journalist thought this victim’s story was good “fodder” for the Twitter feed mill. I don’t even know what else to say. How insensitive can one human be with respect to the privacy and dignity of another? It is stuff like this that made me avoid Twitter for as long as I did!

    1. Akhila says:

      I love Twitter, and I do think there are a *lot* of wonderful uses for Twitter- especially for social change organizations. It can be really valuable for marketing and communications for non-profits, and to connect with likeminded people. Yet, I do think that at times like these, I think we need to develop some sort of boundaries on how we use Twitter. I agree that it’s very insensitive, and I just don’t think this rape survivor’s story should have been used in this way..

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