On March 12th, twitter user @steenfox curated a conversation asking sexual assault survivors what clothing they were wearing during their assault. She received hundreds of messages from other users and within hours of her first tweet a writer from Buzzfeed, Jessica Testa, posted a story online using many of the tweets. While Testa asked for and received permission from many people whose tweets she used, she did not get permission from @steenfox to use her original tweets, her photo or her name.
The incident not only prompted backlash for the use of survivor's stories as a form of voyeur journalism but also from @steenfox who never gave permission for her personal images and photos to be put on on their website. Responses not only came from people on twitter but Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan wrote an article linking to a tweet from Mikki Kendall who was discussing the implications of twitter as a public space. The next day Kelly McBride from the Poynter Institute posted an article that wrote about the incident but took aim at @steenfox specifically, erasing her identity as a survivor of sexual assault and attempting to silence her. We are disturbed and outraged by the callous disregard for standard journalistic protocol and ethical laxity demonstrated by Testa, McBride, and their publishing entities.
Furthermore, we are seeking a collective action against vulture journalists who believe their platform does not change what is public speech on the internet. When someone stands on the street corner or has a conversation in a public outdoor space, journalists have the obligation to ask for permission from every person that they quote. They have the obligation to get permission to use the photographs of every photo they print when the person can be easily identified. Being in a virtual public sphere should not change these rules, particularly when images taken by users on twitter have a copyright and cannot be used for financial gain by other parties.
While twitter is a “public” space online, someone with one thousand followers has a far smaller platform than one million and when survivors of sexual violence have their ability to consent to how their lives, identity and photographs are used by journalists on platforms larger than their own it is an act of violence. This opens up users of social media to significantly higher levels of violence through elevated levels of hatred and trolling directed toward them impacting their own wellbeing.
Due to the increased level of visibility we are demanding that journalists, media companies and social media platforms like Twitter take the steps below to not only protect users but to outline the ethical and moral obligations journalists have to not engage in violence toward marginalized people, survivors of sexual violence and others when engaging in online discussions.
1. A formal retraction and apology to @steenfox for the use of her image, erasure of her identity as a survivor of sexual assault and her name from Buzzfeed writer Jessica Testa and Poynter writer / faculty member Kelly McBride. McBride’s response to @steenfox in her article was a gross mischaracterization of what had actually occurred targeting her as someone who wanted complete control of what she said online and not for being upset that her tweets / photos were being used without permission. Her story and the corrections made after have only served to protect herself and not make the necessary changes to her story. At this point we believe it should be retracted completely and a formal written apology be issued.
-During a conversation with McBride via email @steenfox disclosed her own personal story to McBride in an effort to show the level of secondary trauma she was experiencing by having to read all of the stories coming from other users on twitter. After that email McBride forwarded to another coworker who was also involved in the conversation and has since stopped responding to emails when asked why she would disclose that information without the consent of @steenfox.
-@steenfox was the only person quoted who had to fight to have her image taken down from the original BuzzFeed article. It took 30 hours from when the story went live until she finally had to contact Buzzfeed’s editor to get it down. Her own brother and family members were shocked to find her image popping up on their Facebook accounts as other people shared the story.
- @steenfox has been left on her own to comfort and emotionally support many users who had initially given permission to Buzzfeed for the original story. While their images and names were blurred their identities are easily found making them targets.
2. Have Twitter protect its users from journalists by requiring media personnel to get consent from users before allowing their tweets to be used.
3. Outline the ethical and moral obligation journalists have to informed consent when seeking permission from users of social media including the relative harm that may come to them due to the heightened level of visibility they will have due to the platform they write on. This means seeking consent from users beyond merely asking for permission but informing them of what could happen if they give permission to be included in a story.
Shafiqah A. Hudson
**All information written on this post was approved by @steenfox in advance before posting. In her own words of the whole situation, "You're like a lazy & wrong lasagna. Just layered with lazy & filled with wrong."