Online sexual-assault list should make us all scared

At the University of Washington Seattle, survivors of sexual assault are taking matters of justice into their own hands by creating an online “rape list” called “Make Them Scared.”
At the University of Washington Seattle, survivors of sexual assault are taking matters of justice into their own hands by creating an online “rape list” called “Make Them Scared.” AP

In our digital world where there’s an app for just about everything, it should come as no surprise that vigilante justice is finding platforms. Case in point: a University of Washington student-run website called “Make Them Scared.”

“Do you know the name of someone who has committed sexual assault or harassment? We are collecting names for the world to see.” The invitation circulated via flier around the Seattle campus at the beginning of this fall’s quarter.

The purpose of publishing rape allegations online is twofold: To alert potential victims for the sake of safety and to punish alleged perpetrators by making their misdeeds public.

But websites like this cross a dangerous line. Online shaming platforms are a cheap substitute for fair, thorough criminal proceedings.

Initially, the naming of names was done anonymously, so victims would feel more comfortable coming forward. After some backlash, all accusers now give the website moderators some form of identifying information. But all that’s made public is the name of the alleged assailant and as much description of the incident as the accuser wants to share.

Not surprisingly, everyone on the list is male. Some have common first and last names, creating the potential for mistaken identity. Not all are UW students – many are described as attending other colleges, or living in other states – and some incidents are years old.

We can’t fault students for wanting to take matters into their own hands; according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, one in five women in college experience sexual assault, and only one in five of those women report it.

There’s no question the list gives women a way to fight back, but any shortcut to justice should make us all scared. Hiding behind the cover of anonymity minus hard evidence and due process erodes the rule of law and is an invitation to libel.

Granted, “Make Them Scared” comes with a grain-of-salt qualifier: “If a name is on the list, all it means is that we have received an accusation against them. If the name of someone you know appears on this list, take note and proceed with caution, but it does not mean they have necessarily committed a crime.”

A UW School of Law professor told the school’s student-run newspaper any false accusations on the list could be met with charges of defamation.

There’s often a penalty to pay when students appoint themselves angels of justice – or vengeance. Consider a disturbing episode at the University of Puget Sound two years ago, when anonymous fliers were posted around the Central Tacoma campus, outing the so-called “bigots of Puget Sound.”

Twenty-two UPS students and staff members were named, tarred with labels such as “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist” and in one case, “rapist.” Three students were eventually implicated in distributing the material and were suspended from school.

Printed fliers can damage lives, but the internet takes it to another level. As #MeToo has shown, social media can be an effective tool for social progress, galvanizing people against the normalization of sexual harassment and abuse. But the utility of a webpage or social media hashtag must be weighed against the potential for extrajudicial harm.

And we don’t just mean men whose reputations could be soiled, perhaps leading to violence against them, possibly after a false accusation. We’re also thinking of victims who must be heard and believed outside cyberspace, women who should not be shortchanged the help and legal redress they deserve.

Moderators of the “Make Them Scared” site are current and former students. One told the UW Daily that she helps run the site in order to offer victims “a sense of justice and rest that other avenues deny them.”

She’s not wrong about women being denied justice. Our state has nearly 6,500 untested rape kits, some decades old. And in sexual-assault cases where physical evidence can be difficult to produce, it often comes down to he-said she-said accounts.

We need look no further than recent events to know that women still find themselves on the losing side of that equation.

We can still hear the mocking tones of President Trump during one of his rallies as he described Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the nomination hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanagh. Trump’s ridicule incited the crowd to chant “Lock her up.”

The only people who need locking up are criminals, which is why sexual assault crimes must be reported and investigated. If the accused are found guilty, they must face punishment.

Even in this digital age, there’s no app that can substitute for a court of law.