It was 5 a.m. on the first day of school when two University of Washington students started posting flyers around campus.
“Do you know the name of someone who has committed sexual assault or harassment? We are collecting names for the world to see,” the flyers read.
By the end of the first day, the students had received nearly a dozen names. As word spread, they began pouring in from around the country. Then, one night in late September, a student published the first batch on a website she created called “Make Them Scared.”
The site, which describes itself as a “communal rape list,” has received nearly 400 submissions, more than 120,000 page views, and a few queries from students at other colleges interested in creating their own lists, according to the site’s creator, who runs the site with another student and an alumnus.
It has also received backlash for publishing names of people the site’s moderators acknowledge may or may not be guilty, and for doing so under the shield of anonymity.
Make Them Scared is not the first example of sexual-assault survivors using the internet to publicly come forward in the #MeToo era. But by publishing names with little or no evidence of guilt, it’s pushing legal and ethical boundaries, and even those sympathetic to the cause are conflicted over its methods.
The Daily editorial board came out against the site, saying while the hopelessness behind it was understandable, “It ends up lending more credit to the argument that even truthful accusations should be viewed with suspicion and as part of a vengeful agenda, not one that seeks justice.”
Three men’s names were removed after they threatened to sue. Some others expressed a level of support for the site’s mission in interviews with The Seattle Times, saying it caused them to grapple with how they harmed their accusers. In one case, the site sparked a conversation between a woman and the man she accused.
The UW senior who created the site would only speak to the Times on the condition her name not be revealed. The Times agreed, in order to to get a better understanding of the origins and motivations behind the site, and how it operated.
She said she thought about the site for a year, but feels in over her head, unable to eat, constantly on edge. She hopes a group with more experience and resources will take over, but for now, plans to keep it running.
The student said she’s watched friends who are survivors agonize over whether to report to authorities. #MeToo gave her hope for institutional change, but that faded as she realized the reckoning occurring in the highest halls of power wasn’t trickling down.
It was from this sense of hopelessness, she said, that Make Them Scared was born.
The site’s stated purpose is to “fill a gap left by inadequate treatment of these cases by formal institutions.” Its creator said her goals are to give survivors a voice while protecting them from retribution, to warn others and to prevent sexual assault by making people afraid they’ll end up on the list.
A 2016 UW survey found that out of about 1,000 students who had been sexually assaulted since enrolling at UW, only 18 percent reported it to a university employee. Of those who didn’t tell anyone, most said it was because they wanted to forget or weren’t sure it was assault. Nearly half said they didn’t want to be forced to make an official report or didn’t want to get the perpetrator in trouble.
Only 55 percent of the survivors surveyed said they were confident a student who reported to the school would be protected.
Reports to law enforcement are also low, and the inflated perception of false reports can be a barrier to reporting, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“For hundreds of years, the pendulum has been swinging against the accuser and not the accused. I agree we’re swinging it too far the other way, but it evens things out,” the student running the site said. “People are feeling the need to take things into their own hands to keep their communities safe.”
Students at Western Washington University ran a secret Facebook group with a similar purpose for eight months, but shut it down this summer after, they said, it became too large and difficult to run. Students at Washington State University and the University of Idaho are preparing to start their own site, the creator of Make Them Scared said.
The UW site lists the names of the accused and a few other details, such as the type of incident, where it occurred, whether it was reported to authorities and whether the accused is a member of the Greek system. Though details are scant, with posts often saying nothing more than “rape,” some spell out accusations in wrenching detail. One person describes a 17-year-old raping her when she was 6.
The site lists incidents submitted by people at UW and a few other campuses — as well as by people who aren’t students.
On the site, the administrators acknowledge they cannot determine innocence or guilt. They do a minimal level of investigation. When they get a submission, they check the provided social media accounts of both parties to make sure they belong to real people, weren’t created recently and align with information in the submission, such as location. They search the name in online jail and court databases, though many of the accusations on the list were never reported. If it seems likely the assault could have occurred, they publish the name of the accused, but not the accuser.
The site’s administrators do not post the names of prominent figures, as the site’s creator said they’re more likely to be public in their defense or file a lawsuit. Unless someone has “an especially credible claim” against a prominent person, they ignore it, she said.
The site allowed anonymous submissions, but stopped after two days. Some names submitted anonymously are still up, but the site’s creator said she’s taken them down when challenged.
Of nearly 400 submissions, The Times knows of 67 posted as of Oct. 26, and six taken down. Three were removed upon the threat of legal action, which the site’s creator said she knows puts those who can’t afford a lawyer at a disadvantage.
False reports to official sources are rare, but the student said she understands why people are concerned they may end up on the site. She said she tried to think of a way to prevent this, but found no perfect solution. If she found out a false accusation ruined someone’s life, she said, she would try to help them clear their name.
“People are quick to disagree with the site and say it’s wrong, but they rarely have any alternative,” she said.
Conversations about Make Them Scared often aren’t linear. Attorney Anne Bremner, who prosecuted sex crime cases as an attorney for the King County Prosecutor’s Office in the 1980s, initially said she opposed the site, saying survivors seeking justice should use the legal system.
“You can’t just call somebody a rapist online,” she said.
But after recalling how she didn’t want to go to the police when professors stalked her in college, she said she could understand why people want another way to warn others. Still, posting names online without much evidence goes too far, she said.
Attorney Rebecca Roe, who co-founded the special assault unit at the King County Prosecutor’s Office in 1979, said she’s sympathetic to the student’s mission.
“The legal system will never operate on anything that doesn’t involve the burden of proof being on the accuser,” she said. “So the idea that [the website] is violating a presumption of innocence, I’m kind of tired of that argument.”
That standard has a place in the courts, but she said survivors should be able to post their stories and name their perpetrators online.
Roe said she is concerned that some accusations don’t have descriptions of the incident, and she thinks it would be fairer for the accusers’ names to be on the site.
Three sexual-assault survivor advocates from King County Sexual Assault Resource Center and UW didn’t speak for or against the site, but said they want survivors to know there are confidential support resources.
“I can certainly understand why students may feel the need to create something like this when they feel as if their voices are being lost,” Brittany Bowhall, a UW health and wellness advocate, said in an email.
Others have stronger opinions, like attorney Andrew Miltenberg, who specializes in defending students accused of sexual assault. He called the site “vigilantism.”
The site is on legally shaky ground, but it would be difficult for someone to win a defamation case, said Seattle media law and appellate attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard. A court could find the site administrators responsible for the site content, since they’re choosing what submissions to publish, but a person suing for defamation would ultimately have to prove the allegation was false. A lawsuit would make public the identities of those behind the site, and could reveal the accuser, she said.
The UW isn’t actively pursuing the identities of the people running the page, but may investigate if they become public, spokesman Victor Balta said in an email. Balta called the contents of the website “very concerning,” and said he hopes students will file reports directly to the university, which he said investigates reports thoroughly.
Of the University of Washington students and alumni on the list, eight responded to or saw messages from a reporter.
Three had their names removed and said the claims were false. Two said they did not want to talk, although one of them had an apology published in The Daily.
One had been expelled for sexual assault earlier this year, according to university documents. After seeing a message from a reporter, he increased privacy settings on Facebook and deleted his LinkedIn account. Another deleted his Facebook account after receiving a message.
In one case, a woman ended up communicating with a man whose name she submitted to the site.
The woman, a UW student, said two fraternity members sexually assaulted her during her freshman year. Her brain shut out the memories, and she said it took her six months to fully realize what had happened.
By then, she didn’t want to report — not just because of how much time had passed, but because she’d heard horror stories from other survivors and was afraid of having the entire Greek system against her.
She saw Make Them Scared as a chance to report for the first time.
The site is necessary, she said, but it has flaws. The woman said the site administrator forwarded her an email from the man she accused without asking if she wanted to read it. She decided to contact him through Facebook, knowing she made what could be a life-altering accusation. She told him she’s struggled with post-traumatic stress since the night she says he raped her.
“I was scared, but I was able to talk to this girl I hadn’t talked to for three years who I had apparently scarred traumatically, but never knew,” the man said.
Both students told the Times he promised to reevaluate how he interacts with women, as well as his alcohol consumption.
The woman agreed to take his name off the site but said, “I don’t think it’s survivors’ responsibility to educate the people who assaulted them.”
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