Oct 11, 2008

Lifestyle - Sexcharges & a Facebook Frenzy

Winston Ross

Anyone who Googled Morgan Shaw-Fox's name two months ago would have learned that the 21-year-old junior at Portland, Ore.'s Lewis & Clark University was the director of a play, a baseball player, a hip-hop fan and the founder of an a cappella group. Google Shaw-Fox today, and the results are starkly different. On dozens of blogs and Web sites, the theater and music major is branded with an indelible, life-altering epithet: "rapist."
Campus sexual-assault allegations are always confidential, but in the Internet age, nearly anything can go public. Even before a 19-year-old sophomore filed a complaint with university officials accusing Shaw-Fox of sexually assaulting her in October, his name had become mud online. The charge came in a forum that requires no jury and demands no corroboration: the social-networking Web site Facebook.com. When the accuser told some female students about the alleged assault, several women students launched a Facebook "group," an online bulletin board that connects members with a common interest. Their goal was to protect others from a person they considered potentially dangerous. The group's not-so-subtle title: "Morgan Shaw-Fox is a piece of s--- rapist."
The group was supposed to be private. But within in a week, 80 students had joined, and "it spread like wildfire over campus," according to Caitlyn (Calli) Bishop, who helped create the forum. (The accuser had no part in creating the site, Bishop told NEWSWEEK.) The online allegations shook the campus; the accuser brought formal charges to school officials. Shaw-Fox was suspended for the spring semester "for violating the College Sexual Misconduct policy," as school spokeswoman Jodi Heintz told NEWSWEEK in an e-mail that did not refer to him by name. But Shaw-Fox's name and that of his accuser were prominently featured in a cover story in a local alternative weekly, Willamette Week. In that article, which described the episode at length, the accuser granted the paper permission to use her name and photo. (NEWSWEEK does not publish the names of victims of alleged sexual assault; the accuser declined to be interviewed by NEWSWEEK, even anonymously.) Bloggers picked up the story, publicizing the incident far beyond the bounds of the private liberal-arts school of 2,000 students nestled in the wooded hills of southwest Portland. The saga has provoked discussion about how to handle sensitive allegations on campus, the power and regulation of social-networking sites—and the eroding distinction between public and private in the Internet era.
Shaw-Fox has not been arrested or charged in the case. In a Facebook posting thanking friends for support, he wrote, "I am innocent of all sexual assault on any level." In an e-mail exchange on Facebook, he told NEWSWEEK he's hired lawyers and is appealing his suspension but declined to discuss the case in detail. "I have an appeal in the process, so I'm not talking to anyone besides my lawyers until that is complete," he wrote. He did not deny that he was the unnamed student whom university officials say they suspended in December. But he seemed anxious to tell his version of events. Shaw-Fox (who obscured the default picture on his profile and changed the designation of his gender on the site to female) said, "I would like to get my story out there because what is said in [Willamette Week] is far from the truth and very harmful to everybody who is involved and who would like to make some progress in the problems with sexuality in our culture."
Shaw-Fox and his accuser were not strangers. The two had dated briefly in 2006, but hadn't seen much of each other until Oct. 10 of last year, when the alleged victim text-messaged him out of the blue, and he invited her to his room. In an anonymous letter the woman sent to the campus newspaper a week later, which didn't name Shaw-Fox, she said she "initiated" the interaction, and that both of them had been drinking when the visit turned sexual. But when she changed her mind, she said she tried to push away, only to have the man she described as a "seemingly charming junior" force her to proceed. "When he began to cause me physical pain, I told him I wanted to stop, and he ignored me, holding me in place and, at times, hindering my ability to breath [sic]," she wrote, claiming that she was able to flee only when the male left the bedroom to vomit. She said she had not alerted authorities because "I thought that no one would believe me, since I had also been drinking and I had chosen to go to his room."
The publication led university officials to request that the accuser come forward to file a complaint, and generated heated speculation among students. It was in this climate that a group of women heard Shaw-Fox's name second-hand and decided to set up the private Facebook group in hopes of protecting other women. Bishop, the student who helped create the group, says she acted because "it was horrifying to know he had done this and was still walking around on campus not facing the consequences. So we made a really rash decision to create what I thought was going to be a secret Facebook group."
Bishop's plan, she explained, was to invite into the group only people she knew from school who might interact with Shaw-Fox and warn them to avoid him whenever he drank alcohol. But she didn't consider that Facebook publishes a "News Feed," a feature which lists just about everything a person does on the site—including adding new photos, changing one's status from "single" to "in a relationship," or creating a new group with a salacious name. The group itself included no specific allegations of rape. But its title was reported to each of Bishop's 91 Facebook "friends" at Lewis & Clark. Each time someone joined, Facebook disseminated that "news" to the complete list of friends, rapidly spreading Shaw-Fox's name all over campus.
Bishop says she did not intend to destroy Shaw-Fox's reputation. "None of us wanted to bring him down," she said. "I didn't think it was going to be this big. We had no idea the can of worms we were opening. I'm worrying now about being sued for libel."
The group's "wall," a part of the site where any member can post links, pictures or comments, soon became a flashpoint of discussion about the propriety of the group with the accusatory name. Some users hailed the group's creators as soldiers in the battle against sexual assault—a rampant and often underreported crime on colleges campuses. (Lewis & Clark reported three incidents in 2006.) Others lambasted the group's administrators as "vigilantes" who were defaming Shaw-Fox's character with no proof to back up the rape allegation. The Facebook group only lasted a week before the women pulled it down amid growing criticism.
What happened at Lewis & Clark is a reminder of the power of social-networking sites like Facebook, which now boasts more than 60 million active members, according to Forrester Research. It's the sixth most trafficked site in the United States, with more than 65 billion page views per month. More than half of its active users visit the site every day. "Facebook has enormous power as a potential weapon," said Montana Miller, an ethnographer at Bowling Green State University who is conducting a study about how students at the Ohio college use Facebook. "For a long time, people have been called sluts, losers, cheaters and rapists anonymously on bathroom walls. For today's cyberconnected campuses, Facebook is the bathroom wall on steroids. You can erase it and replace the wall, but once it's posted online, it stays up forever."
Others see social networks as a force that just needs to be better harnessed. "A lot of educational institutions, particularly at the secondary-school level, just hope to avoid [networking sites]. They want to filter out Facebook and MySpace and delay the day of reckoning as long as they can. They're not seeing it as a chance to educate," says Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University and author of a forthcoming book called "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It." "The sooner young people can learn how to responsibly exercise the power they have online, the better."
A Facebook spokesperson declined to speak about the Shaw-Fox group but told NEWSWEEK via e-mail that the site bans derogatory, demeaning, malicious, defamatory, abusive, offensive or hateful material, and that such content is removed when reported.
Debate about the Lewis & Clark episode flared anew in early January after Willamette Week published its cover story. The alleged victim agreed to be named and photographed for the article, and she graphically described the encounter, which she described as "gray rape." The story did not include Shaw-Fox's version of the events. Soon, the story was rocketing around the blogosphere. The celebrity sex blog Jezebel termed it "Blood-boiling-yet-fascinating college rape vigilante justice story time!"
As students return to classes this week from the holiday break, a fierce discussion continues on two Facebook groups that sprang up after the original site's creators shut it down. In one, started in November, "Students who refuse to shut the f--- up about sexual violence," 281 members discuss the sexual-assault issue, mostly praising the group for shining a spotlight on the subject.
A second group, called "Beth Slovic is a piece of s--- journalist," launched this month, critiques the Willamette Week reporter and includes several comments from people frustrated with what they called a sensational treatment that did more to damage Shaw-Fox's reputation than anything else.
Earlier this month, Shaw-Fox posted on this site through a roommate named Ricky Wax, as Wax told NEWSWEEK. In the posting, Shaw-Fox thanks the group's members for "looking and listening as individuals and not part of the mob. In the midst of random people sending me hate mail I can still maintain a positive attitude because I know that some people (and I hope a lot of people) make their own informed decisions ... we need more free thinkers in this conventionalized society."

1 comment:

Montana said...

Hi Winston...nice post. I can't remember, did we speak directly? It was a while ago and I remember talking to several reporters about this...remind me!