When is the right time to talk about sexual assault? If it upsets men, apparently never

To journalists, I knew writing an obituary meant considering the full person, warts and all. Then came the threats

Published February 1, 2020 2:00PM (EST)

 (Getty/Leon Neal)
(Getty/Leon Neal)

When I saw the breaking news that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash Sunday, I had the same reaction many people did: shock and dismay. He was an exceptional basketball player; he was only 41; he was beloved in Los Angeles, which was my home for more than 20 years.

At 12:49pm Pacific Time, I tweeted out the first LA Times story about the crash. Rumors were flying and I'd been on staff there for eight years — I knew their reporting would be iron-clad.  

But that morning I'd been listening to Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill podcast, and I couldn't help but think about the way our culture treats sexual assault. I thought of the many ways victims are silenced; how powerful men are often not held to account, and how erasing abuse discourages victims from coming forward.

At 1:11pm, I tweeted, "After #metoo, it would be wrong to forget this," with a link to the 2016 Daily Beast story, "Kobe Bryant's Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser's Story, and the Half-Confession." It's the same story Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted out, after which she was suspended (she's now reinstated).

My first news tweet got a single interaction. The second immediately started racking up replies, comments and engagements, which are now at 4,047. There's no reason my second tweet should have gotten so much more traction than the first so quickly, unless something in the system is broken.

Some of the people who were mad at me were genuinely furious. I understand the burst of anger. It's painful when someone dies unexpectedly, and these had been awful circumstances. People lash out online in their grief. Their hero had done something terrible and they didn't want me to mention it.

I was called the c-word and threatened, much in the way I assume Sonmez was. Beyond that, a lot of the reaction to my tweet came from what were pretty obviously bot accounts. Still others were confusing maybe-bots or Manchurian Candidate-style sleeper accounts. That's what was propelling my tweet into the paths of still more angry tweeters.

How much was real? In my case I'd guess less than half.

I've been on Twitter since 2007 and have seen it go through many changes (how I miss the banality of @Horse_ebooks). It's my preferred social media platform — I quit Facebook and Instagram more than a year ago — where I have 42,000 followers and mostly tweet about books and, of course, cats. I want it to be a functioning community so I decided to read through my mentions; I didn't like the feeling of being yelled at, but could tell Twitter about the accounts that were abusive or obviously fake.

These were some of the abuses I reported: The person who said the LA Times should "fire this cunt"; the person who replied to me and others sharing stories of Kobe's sexual assault, "Fuck you"; the person who said to me, "Epitome cunt. Enemy of the people"; the person who tweeted, "you should be silenced and erased"; the person who wrote, "No wonder people hate journalists. Clearly you're seeking attention and I don't think your gonna like what you get."

The only one of those that Twitter considered a violation of its rules was the first one that used the c-word. The threats were fine to their moderators

The intense vitriol surprised me. Obituaries should not be hagiography; doesn't it behoove us to consider all sides of a person when they pass? People are complex, and all people, including heroes, are capable of both good and evil. Famed football coach Joe Paterno died in 2012, not long after it was revealed that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had been abusing male athletes for years, and that Paterno had known about the sexual assaults possibly as far back as 1998. The public narrative, at Time Magazine and on television and radio, was that Paterno "died of a broken heart," and the online response was sympathetic. Wrestler John Cena tweeted, "Joe Paterno dies at 85. Surrounded by accomplishments and scandal. My condolences to his family," without receiving anywhere near as much animosity as I did.

As with Paterno, there is certainly precedence for how we mourn figures who have been marred by scandal or controversy. As a journalist, I thought this was uncontroversial. But at least a few people online disagreed.

At the same time, people had started tweeting out my profile photo (with commentary, of course). I changed it to Velma from Scooby Doo. I look through my stats now and I can see, disturbingly, that a third of the engagements with that post were people looking at my profile. I'm glad I changed my location to the entire USA instead of my home town.

The thing that got most people riled up were a series of tweets about my post by a guy named Richard Lewis — not the comedian, but an esports commentator from Wales who has a verified account, @RLewisReports, with 124,000 followers. He tracked down female journalists who had brought up Kobe's sexual assault that day, retweeting us with angry commentary: Addy Baird at Buzzfeed, Felicia Sonmez, and me.

"I wonder what Slack these journalists were all on to coordinate posting the same link moments after a father and his daughter passed away. This is how they operate and they wonder why they are despised," Lewis tweeted.

Please note: I'm not on any journalist Slack. I'm on a Slack for book critics, where I can't coordinate a thing — mostly I complain about people missing deadlines. In any case, the idea that journalists would coordinate mentioning a well-publicized incident in a celebrity's life upon their passing is absurd; this is standard practice.

When I pointed out to Lewis that I was no longer at the LA Times — my bio says "Former books editor" — I tried to get him to follow their actual reporting. One of the paper's best reporters happened to live near and see the crash. Lewis seemed more interested in fomenting anger toward me.

As I looked at the barrage in my mentions, I found a large number of accounts that had zero followers of their own which had been online for months or years — accounts that by then should have been able to make at least one friend. Bots!

I don't know why fake accounts, bots and a zombie Twitter army would come after me for tweeting about Kobe Bryant's sexual assault.  I do have a few guesses. But first, a little about these Trojan horse accounts. The NY Times has reported about the big business of fake followers — in 2017, one estimate was that 48 million Twitter users were fake. Likewise, I do know that these accounts are really easy for amateurs to create. A single reactionary Army veteran in Texas was responsible for hundreds of thousands of pro-Bolivian coup tweets from thousands of different Twitter accounts he controlled. In other words, one or two furious people with basic programming knowledge create manipulations that look like an authentic viral swell.

Some fake accounts are cobbled together with information from real people; some are brand new; some scoop up long-dormant accounts and put them to new use, as Twitter "zombies."

My guess is that the bot attacks on me came after Lewis' tweets. A quick survey of Lewis' followers can easily turn up accounts that are possible fakes or zombies, such as @GreenNick93, who has been on Twitter since 2014, follows 210 people, has 5 followers, and has never tweeted, or @John88109 who has been on Twitter since 2012 and has tweeted just 3 times, all giveaways in the last 2 months.

Once my tweet made it into Lewis' ecosystem, I think the bot-and-zombie attacks were triggered by something there, maybe an algorithm or a follower. Lewis' attention seemed to have put me in the line of video game enthusiasts who otherwise had zero connection to me, many with few or no followers at all. (Video game enthusiasts have a history of misogyny and online harassment that boiled over in GamerGate in 2014.)

The point is, there is a tiny minority that gets very angry whenever someone — especially a woman — even mentions rape culture or toxic masculinity online. Evidently, there is something threatening about the very thought. Then, a few bad eggs with basic programming knowledge can manipulate social media in real-time, giving the illusion of polarization.

In the moment, I could tell that a swarm of not-quite-real people were quickly making my tweet go viral. I didn't know it was also happening to others as well.

In retrospect, it's clear that female journalists were targeted, and that we were targeted for bringing up a credible accusation of rape against a famous man.

Why? Were they trying to get us fired, or sanctioned, or shut up? In the case of Sonmez, it almost worked. Luckily she is both protected by her union, which has stood up for her, and had receipts (an email from the paper's respected editor, Marty Baron, that seemed to cite a different reason for her suspension than the one publicly given).

I wonder if I was battling bots who targeted a woman who stood up for women's issues because that would inflame real people and ignite fights online. If it was practice.

All of this is to say that there are very real concerns about Kobe Bryant's death. I'm sorry for those who feel his loss so keenly; I'm sorry for his death, his daughter's death, the deaths of the other families on that helicopter and its pilot.

I'm not sorry for merely mentioning that his reputation is marred by a credible rape accusation — I don't understand how anyone who reads the victim's account of what happened could dismiss it. If we continue to omit the bad actions of powerful men when we remember their lives, we are erasing the pain of their victims and telling women that those stories don't matter.

But if I hadn't quit the LA Times, I wouldn't have tweeted about it. Kobe was such a hero there that the paper did a special print issue for his retirement. Billionaire owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, who rescued the paper from near-death in 2018, is a part owner of the Lakers. As a staffer I wouldn't have felt like I had the freedom to offer any criticism of him.

And that's a mistake — news organizations try so hard to hold up news standards, and they should do the same when someone dies. As I said earlier, obituaries shouldn't be hagiographies.

The reasoning for excluding negativity from an obituary is that it would be hurtful to the family and loved ones reading it. I think the deeper reason is a managerial sense of anxiety about readership and subscriptions and the precarious nature of newspapers. In that environment, something "going viral" can seem like reality when in fact there are bad actors manipulating the online narrative.

The Washington Post's first reaction was to sanction Sonmez for the negative viral attention, and to ignore the online threats against her. They needed to do exactly the opposite. I hope that's something the paper's leadership, and the rest of us, figure out.


By Carolyn Kellogg

Carolyn Kellogg is an award-winning culture journalist who served as Books editor at the Los Angeles Times for three years. She has been widely published and can be found on Twitter: @paperhaus.

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