Early last month, an anonymous Facebook user posted to the “University of Minnesota Twin Cities Secret Admirers” page detailing an account of a sexual assault.
The post garnered more than 150 “likes” and prompted a long list of similar stories on the page.
As sexual assault victims are increasingly encouraged to report the crimes to authorities, many have begun turning to social media to share their experiences, often as an attempt to cope with resulting trauma.
But as more people become vocal about sexual assault, experts say there may be unintended negative consequences for victim-survivors. The public platforms offered online, they say, have limited policing and potential to become a battleground for harassment or legal issues.
Amy Isenor, an attorney with Civil Society, a nonprofit organization that offers legal services to sexual assault victims, said accused parties occasionally use the threat of a defamation lawsuit to intimidate someone pressing sexual assault charges.
She said it’s rare to see a victim charged with defamation, but the threat is generally enough to get victims to remove social media posts.
At the University of Minnesota, reports of sexual assault on campus have spiked in recent years. In 2010, 88 sexual assaults were reported to the Aurora Center, and
in 2014 that number nearly doubled. The added reports come as national and state officials are starting to focus more heavily on policies surrounding rape on college campuses.
“Social media and the voice of students — that coupled together has really redefined and reshaped how this country looks at and pays attention to sexual assault,” said Katie Eichele, director of the University’s Aurora Center. “Before, sexual assault was a silent crime, and with social media, nothing is silent anymore.”
Nationwide, it’s estimated 65 percent of sexual assaults are never reported — making it one of the most underreported crimes.
Defamation lawsuits typically come from someone who feels their reputation has been damaged through written or spoken statements. But proving defamation is a difficult task.
Winning a defamation lawsuit hinges on whether or not the alleged defamatory statement is true.
But media ethics and law professor Jane Kirtley said bringing a defamation lawsuit is a valid action after someone makes a social media post that names someone as a rapist.
“A lot of people think that publishing in a digital environment or on social media isn’t subject to the laws of libel — it is,” Kirtley said. “It’s not that you get less protection, but you don’t get a free pass just because you’re publishing in a digital environment.”
Kirtley said even if a person is not directly named in a post but enough identifying traits are given to pinpoint a person, the post could prompt a valid defamation suit.
Journalism sophomore Courtney Blake said she was one of the first to post on the “University of Minnesota Twin Cities Secret Admirers” Facebook page earlier last month with her account of being sexually assaulted during her freshman year. Her post was followed by several others.
Before, Blake took to Tumblr and Facebook to tell of her experience. She said naming her alleged rapist in a public forum made her feel like she was protecting other women who might come into contact with him.
“Putting his name out there gives him less power, because I don’t want him hurting other girls,” she said.
In October 2014, Blake agreed to be part of the Minnesota Student Association’s “No Gray” campaign, which began in April to promote more open conversations about sexual assault and provide support for victim-survivors on campus.
But MSA dropped Blake from the campaign last month because of her post on the secret admirers Facebook page, citing potential harassment charges the student government group could face as a result, said MSA’s Communications Director Drew Coveyou.
Isenor said she advises her clients against posting on social media, but she said she understands that going public with stories helps victims to connect with one another online.
“They have a right to talk, and it’s part of their healing to talk and connect with other people,” she said. “If they are telling the truth, they’re not committing defamation.”
Blake said she was intimidated after she made some of her posts, but she said the benefit of the support she receives from other victims outweighs the fear of a lawsuit.
“I think there’s good ways out there for them to connect with each other and not feel so alone,” Isenor said. “A stranger who’s been through it might understand better than my best friend who hasn’t.”