Burdens of proof

21 May

by Laura

For concern trolls only

So this thing happened on the sometimes informative, sometimes super-annoying community site Metafilter, in which a user asked for help keeping two friends away from a situation that sounded suspiciously like a human trafficking setup. (Two young Russian women with questionable English skills come to DC on an “exchange” program, only to find that instead of normal jobs they’re asked to hoof it to NYC for a midnight meeting with a stranger at a sometimes strip club.) The hivemind responded admirably and quickly, sending the OP information about charities, government agencies, and individuals who could help his Russian friends, offering places for them (and the OP) to stay in various cities, donating money to make sure they could buy meals. A user who claims to work in the anti-trafficking world helped get the wheels turning, and in the end, these young women ended up doing the tourists’ version of NYC with friendly people instead of going to middle of the night meetings with sketchy “cultural exchange” agents. Huzzah, internet!

Of course, there’s not really a way for any of us who read the thread ex post facto to verify what happened. Metafilter seems to be a tight community, but a huge one; I’m sure some of the people on there know each other’s real names and phone numbers and trust each other implicitly. I don’t. It’s possible that this is a grand exercise in collaborative fiction, and that none of the events described happened in the offline world. It’s hard for me to imagine what kind of person would orchestrate such a thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I’d rather believe that it’s not a hoax that people helped each other, but then, I’d *more* rather believe that two young women weren’t in danger of being abducted by sex traffickers. Whatever the truth is, I am relieved that the scenario is described as having ended as it did, rather than with two (real or fictional) women harmed.

On the relevant MetaTalk page, where community users can go to debrief and chat about the original post, a few dissidents are crashingly insistent that this may be a big fake lie, guys. One user in particular, who goes by the name bingo, is really really concerned that people might spread the “Internet thwarts sex traffickers!!!!!” story all over the tubes. Here’s one particularly delightful instance of his or her concern:

The resolution, it seems to me, also relies mostly on this collectively imagined narrative. There’s a lot of “everything turned out okay” going on here, but the truth is that we don’t know whether that’s true at all. We don’t know whether there was even a problem to begin with, we don’t know if the Lux Lounge deserves all this smearing, and we don’t even know whether the girls will be allowed to remain in the US.

I don’t claim to have magical powers of perception that allow me to be sure that a story I’m hearing doesn’t reflect the whole truth, or that a specific business isn’t a front for a human trafficking ring. But to suppose that this means anything of substance is to buy into a witch hunt mentality. The burden of proof should not fall on the person who is merely suggesting that the conspiracy may not exist.

An elaborate tale has been woven between these two threads, with very little to support it beyond fear, speculation, anger, and hope. These are valid things to feel, but they do not in themselves prove anything. I think that when some time has passed and the air has cleared, at least some of you will read back over this discussion and realize that it sounds an awful lot like Congress’ deliberations over whether to invade Iraq in the wake of 9/11.

Y’all, there were no WMD in the strip club! You have all fallen victim of mass hysteria in your terrible desire to not watch two women be harmed! Bingo and his or her fans is really concerned about a “witch hunt mentality” in this situation — far more concerned for the potential traffickers, in fact, than the potential traffickees.*

This incredibly deeply wrought concern for imagined men is a common trope when it comes to discussing violence against women. When Shapely Prose ran the celebrated/infamous post on Schrodinger’s Rapist, about how men can respect women who have learned to be suspicious of their motives, self-identified male commenters came out of the woodworks to express their great concern that some woman, somewhere, might have the wrong idea about a perfectly innocent, well-intentioned man who just thinks she’s pretty. When I read bingo’s deep worry about the Bush-invading-Iraq nature of the “let’s save these Russian women” thread, I was reminded of the point that escaped many of the defensive Schrodinger commenters: you can never prove that you’re not a rapist. You can only prove that you are one, by raping someone. Bingo and his or her fellow travelers are skeptical and seem to enjoy raining on a parade; that’s fine. But the “proof” that the women in question are a) real and b) really in danger would be the proof that two young women are in terrible danger. To prove definitively that they were being abducted by sex traffickers, they would have to be abducted by sex traffickers. And then skeptics could sit back and sigh and congratulate themselves on their wonderfully sharp and perceptive minds as two young women lose their passports, their freedom, and their bodily integrity.

I’m a fan of logic, skepticism, and rationality. But I’m also a fan of women not being exploited. If this Metafilter story is a big hoax, the worst that happens is that some internet users get to feel like heroes for a day and some people give some hard-earned money to fake emergency funds (while some give money to real anti-trafficking charities). If this Metafilter story is not a hoax, the worst that happens is two young women who thought they would be tasting the American dream barely escaped ending up as sex slaves and never seeing their loved ones again.

Personally, I’m more concerned about the safety of maybe imaginary women than about the gullibility of actual internet users, at least in this case — just as I’m a lot more concerned about the woman who wants to ride the subway without fear of harassment than I am about the man who just wants to tell her she’s pretty. And that, to me, is a logically and emotionally grounded stance. The two are not mutually exclusive.

*I made that word up, yes I did


4 Responses to “Burdens of proof”

    • Jess May 22, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

      I was just reading this, and currently the first comment says “over at Fark, we’re wondering if the chicks were hot.” Which is a whole other long, ranty post about women and the internet.

      And you’re exactly right about the “we don’t KNOW it was a trafficking ring” objections — so what if it wasn’t? So these young women were never in danger, hooray, and a lot of people have proved themselves to be decent folks. That’s the worst-case scenario, and in the best-case one people saved these two lives directly and more indirectly by raising money and awareness for a serious problem. Casting doubt on the story doesn’t enrich anyone or keep anyone from being exploited — it is a cynical, instinctual response towards anyone who invokes the endangerment and victimization of women.

      Which is why it doesn’t surprise me that the first skeptical comment on Mother Jones came from a Farker. But again… whole other rant.

      • Laura May 23, 2010 at 10:17 am #

        Oh good lord. Which do you suppose counts as more tragic: hot girls or non-hot girls?


  1. Suspending our disbelief « Birthday Bread Horse - June 24, 2010

    […] Culturally, we have invested a lot of mythology around Gore. We hope that it’s not true, because we hope that someone with great political integrity would also have great personal integrity. But that’s just a hope, and the kneejerk reactions of many in the media (ahem, Steve Kornacki) are about privileging the word of a famous, powerful, rich white man automatically over the word of an anonymous, relatively powerless and relatively nonwealthy woman. I don’t know who is telling the truth here, but that means I am withholding judgment — not assuming that my wish to see Gore as a heroic figure gives me some higher truth that can’t be disproved. […]

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