Who Owns a Tweet?

13. March 2014 Social Media 0

This is the question swirling around @steenfox and tweets from rape survivors. To summarize, @steenfox asked her followers who had been the victim of sexual assault to tweet her what they had been wearing when they were raped. The responses  underscore the absurdity of blaming victims for what they wear. @steenfox asked permission to retweet their responses, and many did. Jeans, t-shirts, pajamas… It is truly heartbreaking.

I applaud these women for sharing their stories– they are helping shed light the culture of rape blame in our society. 73% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. It happens on the way to work, coming home from class, or getting tucked in at night. It doesn’t happen simply because you were wearing short shorts that day. (Though even if you did wear short shorts, that shouldn’t matter to begin with. But that is another post.)

A few media outlets took notice of what was going on, and covered it. This is an amazing example of how social media connects people through common experience and amplifies our humanity– the good and the bad. Makes for a great story, right?

One outlet covered this story by hiding the Twitter accounts of @steenfox’s followers.

Another showed the tweets, which includes associated handles and avatars.

And here is where things get interesting.* @steenfox and many others are pissed. They believe that media outlets like Buzzfeed have no right to republish these tweets with the names and faces attached. One participant said that she “gave permission to @steenfox, not buzzfeed. I feel attacked.” In other cases, the reporter was able to get in touch and get permission to use her comment.

Sure, the women willingly posted the information, but did any of them expect to have her face and twitter handle plastered across one of the most traffic sites on the internet? I’m going with “No.”

You do have to ask… In an age when digital platforms strip us of our privacy, what rights do we have when we share personal content? With the ability to disclose personal information so easily, have we lost sense of what “personal” even means? When does a tweet become public property?

Personally, I think that Buzzfeed reporter Jessica Testa does have the “right” to publish this content. Technically the information is in the public domain and technically the first amendment covers this kind of thing. But she failed when she forgot that context matters in responsible reporting.

Jenee Desmond-Harris is the classier act here. She recognized that even though she may have the right to republish, she chose to treat her subjects with respect and sensitivity.

This isn’t a legal issue. It is an ethical one.

But that’s just me. I’d love to know what you folks think. It’s a complicated issue about respect and privacy in the digital era.

* I think the very idea of blaming rape victims is appalling, and I do not mean to trivialize this issue. That is a separate and vastly more serious discussion.  I’m interested in exploring how social media changes how we communicate with each other and consume information.


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