Content Warning: Discussions of sexual violence and abuse.
In January 2021, actor Armie Hammer trended on Twitter after a third-party Instagram account posted private direct messages (DMs) allegedly from Hammer that detailed, among other things, cannibalistic fantasies. As media outlets picked up the story, the Instagram account continued to share DMs and texts allegedly from the actor, and ex-girlfriend Paige Lorenze spoke to Vanity Fair about his alleged abusive behaviors. As more women came forward and screenshots accumulated, the role of the DMs in the controversy remained central: They were upheld as evidence of Hammer’s abusive behaviors (or, as media outlets sometimes innacurately framed them, sexual kinks) while being simultaneously marked as potentially fraudulent and unverified because the senders’ identity cannot be proved from screenshots alone.
While an unusual story in its specifics, the use of DMs as evidence of abusive behavior is indicative of a change in sexual violence discourse and online survivorship: Sexual violence testimonials have been platformed.1I am building on the concept of the platformization of news and cultural production brought forward in David B. Nieborg and Thomas Poell, “The Platformization of Cultural Production: Theorizing the Contingent Cultural Commodity,” New Media & Society 20, no. 11 (2018). DMs, text messages, and images are increasingly shared as evidence of both online and offline abuse. Yet, as the case of Hammer illustrates, the power of this evidence remains debated. As I argue in this essay, while the DMs may be “unverified,” it is in fact the (alleged) sender/survivor, rather than the recipient/accused, who continues to be examined and scrutinized by the public, even as they must bring forward always more, always already doubted, proof of their claims.
The burden of believability“The violence is inaccessible to those who weren’t there; instead, the “proof” lies in the accuser’s behaviors as their authenticity and believability are interrogated.”
Feminist scholars have long pointed out that discourse about sexual violence is rarely about the violence itself. The violence is inaccessible to those who weren’t there; instead, the “proof” lies in the accuser’s behaviors as their authenticity and believability are interrogated. Victims as public figures have a kind of moral power: To be recognized as a victim is to be recognized as deserving not simply of sympathy, but reparations. This is particularly true in sexual violence discourse, in which there is often a battle over victimhood: Both the accuser and the accused (if named) engage in a tug-of-war to establish their respective suffering and, I would add, a claim to authenticity and believability. In the context of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Lilie Chouliaraki wrote that the “conflict over each part’s claim to suffering, assault for her and humiliation for him, conjures up a different narrative of vulnerability,”2Lilie Chouliaraki, “Victimhood: The Affective Politics of Vulnerability,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 24, no. 1 (2020): 2. and so, by extension, a different call to action. These tugs-of-war, however, are fought on uneven ground: Sarah Banet-Weiser has written about the “labor of being believed”—or the labor of becoming believable—that women must engage in when coming forward with stories of sexual violence.3Sarah Banet-Weiser, “The Labor of Being Believed,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 19, 2020. Women, and particularly trans women, women of color, or women of otherwise intersectionally marginalized identities, are encumbered with a “burden of doubt.”4Banet-Weiser, “The Labor of Being Believed.”
A survivor’s personhood and testimony become the subject of debate as they are told to demonstrate not that they are telling the truth, but that they are not lying, because survivors begin from the starting point of being suspected of possibly—probably—being liars or manipulators. Feminist scholars, such as Jocelynn Scutt and Jan Jordan, have explored how patriarchal notions of women’s deceitfulness infuse and structure sexual violence discourse, laws, and the treatment of survivors. As Jordan writes, “women have traditionally been ignored, subsumed within accounts pertaining to men, discounted as liars, or at best seen as wholly subjective.”5Jan Jordan, The Word of a Woman?: Police, Rape and Belief (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2004), 2. This labor of becoming believable is intrinsically tied to digital media and digital evidence, as testimonials take place increasingly on Twitter, Instagram, or other social media platforms on which survivors perform their authenticity for the public. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) recent statement on Instagram Live about her experiences as a survivor—combined with the responses from conservatives, Republicans, and other rape apologists that followed—demonstrates the ways that platforms allowed deniers and misogynists to take up her story and counter it with accusations of dishonesty and emotional manipulation. Though the responses to AOC in particular are shaped by her position as a highly visible political figure, they nevertheless highlight the political and highly misogynist nature of rape denial more broadly. Moreover, it is clear that deniers’ skepticism is rooted less in whether violence occurred than in whether survivors are acting appropriately. The response to AOC’s public survivorship prompts us to ask: How is an authentic survivor imagined to be?
Seeing + believing = change?
The use of social media to publicize accusations of sexual violence has been hailed optimistically by many scholars as a positive change, a way for survivors to wrest control from “old media” and develop feminist counter-publics.6See Michael Salter, “Justice and Revenge in Online Counter-Publics: Emerging Responses to Sexual Violence in the Age of Social Media,” Crime, Media, Culture 9, no. 3 (2013): 225–242; Carrie A. Rentschler, “Rape Culture and the Feminist Politics of Social Media,” Girlhood Studies 7, no. 1 (2014). As public figures, influencers, and everyday users take to Twitter or other platforms to share stories of sexual violence, they often come in the form of extensive Twitlonger posts,7Twitlonger allows Twitter users to write tweets that are longer than the standard 280 characters. Thank you to my colleague Christine H. Tran for alterting me to how Twitlonger has been used particularly by accusers (and those accused) of sexual violence to write extensive testimonials of their experiences. threads with screencaps and DMs, or, of course, hashtags. These can certainly be opportunities to tell one’s story and have it seen and shared by hundreds, perhaps thousands. Yet, while digital media have in some ways allowed survivors to circumvent old media to narrate their own stories, it comes at a price. It has also raised the bar of believability, putting the onus on survivors to demonstrate their authenticity with even more DMs, more screenshots, more evidence. Digital technologies thus offer not simply the opportunity for survivors to amass “evidence” in the form of texts, DMs, or saved images, but the necessity for them. If you could have had DMs, the thinking goes, why don’t you?“Demanding transparency from survivors is a form of control, a demand to know everything that happened.”
As media scholars have explored, digital life carries with it the expectation that one be visible and viral, or at the very least open to the possibility.8See Jodi Dean, “Publicity’s Secret,” Political Theory 29, no. 5 (2001): 624–650; Sarah Banet-Weiser, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018); Nelanthi Hewa, “When the Machine Hails You, Do You Turn? Media Orientations and the Constitution of Digital Space,” First Monday 26, no. 1 (2021). Combined with our cultural suspicion of women—and those who are otherwise minoritized or oppressed more broadly an authentic survivor is, by the logic of digital media and skeptical audiences, a transparent one. Stories of sexual violence typically center on the accuser rather than the violence itself, with their motives and behaviors becoming the central site of examination: Survivors’ willingness to provide “proof” in the form of ever more details works less as evidence of the violence than as proof that they themselves are open to scrutinity (and so believable). Demanding transparency from survivors is a form of control, a demand to know everything that happened.
Writing in the context of airport security, Rachel Hall gives the term “transparency chic” to an aesthetic that celebrates “self-exposure for the sake of secure mobility.”9Rachel Hall, The Transparent Traveler: The Performance and Culture of Airport Security (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 27. Similarly, Hall and Lise Gotell have argued that the ideal feminine sexual subject is increasingly a “responsible, security conscious, crime-preventing subject who acts to minimize her own sexual risk”10Lise Gotell, “Rethinking Affirmative Consent in Canadian Sexual Assault Law: Neoliberal Sexual Subjects and Risky Women,” Akron Law Review 41, no. 4 (2008): 865–898, 879. Once they go public, self-exposure becomes proof of risk management and evidence of good sexual behavior, and survivors demonstrate that they are open to exposure and scrutnity. The broader ideology of transparency—the equation of “I have nothing to hide because I am good” with “I am good because I have nothing to hide”—underlays sexual violence testimonies and expectations of evidence. The platformization of sexual violence testimonies operates under the assumption that more evidence can always be given, more transparency can always be demanded from survivors, so that it is “precisely such visibility that renders them vulnerable.”11Brooke Erin Duffy, “Meghan Markle and the Long History of Authenticity Policing,” Vox, March 11, 2021. In the case of sexual violence testimony, more details lead to more denial, to a call for more evidence, or to attacks and denials rooted in the very details offered as proof of transparency. Survivors who refuse transparency also court risk, as refusing to divulge details can be proof of having “something to hide.”12See my discussion of Emma Sulkowicz and their provocative—and opaque—art projects in Nelanthi Hewa, “The Mouth of the Internet, the Eyes of the Public: Sexual Violence Survivorship in an Economy of Visibility,” Feminist Media Studies (2021): 1–13.
Transparency is increasingly both a facet of digital life and a solution to much of its problems already: Google, Facebook, and Amazon thrive off our openness and employ covert surveillance mechanisms that “want us to relax and be ourselves.”13Siva Vaidhyanathan, Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2018), 68. See also Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015). In what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls the “cryptopticon” of surveillance, we are each given the means to surveil one another, and to have nothing to hide in turn. Not only that, but the very way we approach correcting algorithms themselves is through a politics of transparency, a belief that having Google expose its proprietary algorithms to public scrutinity will by extension make them easier to control. Yet Mike Ananny and Kate Crawford, writing against demands for simple algorithmic transparency, argue that “the implicit assumption behind calls for transparency is that seeing a phenomenon creates opportunities and obligations to make it accountable and thus to change it.”14Mike Ananny and Kate Crawford, “Seeing without Knowing: Limitations of the Transparency Ideal and Its Application to Algorithmic Accountability,” New Media & Society 20, no. 3 (2018): 973–989, 974. Transparency, they argue, “includes an affective dimension, tied up with a fear of secrets, the feeling that seeing something may lead to control over it, and liberal democracy’s promise that openness ultimately creates security.”15Ananny and Crawford, “Seeing without Knowing.” While algorithms continue to be allowed or even expected to be opaque, digital affordances bring with them the expectation that we be ever more open to one another and to the platforms we use to communicate, testify, and seek justice. It is the norm for algorithms to be closed-off, private properties with no obligation to make themselves vulnerable to scrutiny. But in the cryptopticon of digital surveillance, where everyone with a smartphone takes the role of surveiller, a black-boxed survivor is simply a liar.
New hardware, old software
These narrative conventions of sexual violence testimony are perhaps eerily similar to the questions police ask survivors, who commonly use testimony as a method of tripping survivors up. Questions like what clothes a person was wearing, what was said during the evening, or the color of a shirt, can be (and often are) easily turned into evidence not of trustworthiness but of duplicity.“Rather than be free to be opaque, to withhold whatever irrelevant personal information as what they wore, believeability for survivors has become an active openness to scrutiny, the willing offering of evidence in the form of DMs, screenshots, text messages, careful timelines.”
Digital proof, those tools of self-narrativization, can also be easily turned against survivors. In the United States, the New York Times has detailed how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been accused of sexual harassment, used text messages from his accuser to “suggest that she was malicious.” In Canada, CBC media personality Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted in part because texts proved his accusers had had “post-incident contact” with the man they accused of sexual abuse. The fact that Ghomeshi’s accusers had messaged him after they alleged they had been assaulted, was named in his acquittal as being “out of harmony with the assaultive behavior ascribed to him,” though many survivors may have contact with their assailant after the fact. Indeed, platforms, such as Facebook and its People You May Know algorithm, have been shown to connect victims with their assailants by operating under the assumption that users are ever-open to connections.16Rena Bivens, “Under the Hood: The Software in Your Feminist Approach,” Feminist Media Studies 15, no. 4 (2015): 714–717. Rather than be free to be opaque, to withhold whatever irrelevant personal information as what they wore, believeability for survivors has become an active openness to scrutiny, the willing offering of evidence in the form of DMs, screenshots, text messages, careful timelines. But even with evidence, it is still, in the end, her DM against his.