What happens after a whisper network raises its voice?

Supporters of the Alaskans Choose Respect campaign listen to speakers during a rally at the state Capitol, March 27, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Last week a woman in Anchorage went public on social media with an allegation of sexual assault, prompting other people to share their stories. 

By the end of the week, a group of Twitter accounts published a spreadsheet of names. It grew fast — from a few hundred to more than 500 people before the list came down three days later. 

The list — first called The Alaska Abuser List and later changed to Questionable People of Alaska — is anonymous and crowdsourced. In most cases, there are no specific allegations backing up the claim that a person is an abuser. In rare cases, organizers linked to a person’s name in the sex offender registry or noted court case numbers. But the vast majority are just listed by name.

The list’s organizers did not want to be interviewed on the record, but they said in social media posts that by publishing the list, they’re trying to bring some accountability to abusers in Alaska.

Advocates and law enforcement say this type of vigilante justice may not be the best way to do that. There’s the risk of being sued for defamation, among other considerations.

A similar national spreadsheet, called the Sh**ty Media Men list, gained attention when it was published during the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017. At least one person named on it filed a $1.5 million defamation lawsuit after the list’s creator revealed her identity.

In Alaska, more than half of women will experience intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both in their lifetimes, but most perpetrators will not get prosecuted.

Mandy Cole, the Executive Director of Juneau’s domestic and sexual violence shelter, AWARE, said a list like this can be a way for victims to take back control.

Mandy Cole is the deputy director of AWARE.
Mandy Cole is the deputy director of AWARE. (File/KTOO)

“I think it goes back to that feeling of just like powerlessness and hopelessness that you get when someone takes advantage of your body in that way and, for many of us, it doesn’t feel like there’s recourse,” Cole said.

She said going through the legal channels of filing a report and getting a medical examination is an emotionally costly prospect.

“The idea of then subjecting yourself to more trauma in order to get a result of just being believed and heard is hard,” she said. 

Cole said she understands the motivation behind wanting to say “this happened to me” without having to do all of the things that go along with making an official report to law enforcement. 

She doesn’t know who made Alaska’s list, but she thinks it’s more about catharsis for survivors of abuse than it is about punishment for people named on it. 

People sometimes rely on a whisper network in situations where they can’t get justice — sharing information between friends and colleagues, warning people away from abusers. 

Cole said the power of a whisper network lies in the trust people have in the people they’re sharing and getting information from. The people in a whisper network know each other, and they know the people they’re whispering about. 

“And so that is the information that I need — not necessarily like, you know, forensic evidence,” she said. 

But Cole said these networks also lose some of the power of trusted secrets shared among friends when they go public. The bar gets higher, and people want proof and evidence. 

“I mean, I think that’s how our culture decided to solve this issue — once it’s in the public sphere, it has to be about things that you can prove,” she said. 

Cole and others said this spreadsheet is a symptom of a much larger problem in Alaska. 

A view of downtown Anchorage
Downtown Anchorage, as seen from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in April, 2020. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

The majority of sexual assaults are never reported to the police and every year hundreds of thousands of instances of domestic violence nationwide go unreported. 

And Juneau Police Department Lt. Krag Campbell said just a fraction of what is reported will be prosecuted successfully. Still, he said he probably would have encouraged the list’s organizers to find another way to tackle the problem. 

“I would say they just have to use a lot of caution. Because, they’re throwing out a lot of information that could be damaging to people — it might not be justifiable, because they’re not vetting the source of information,” he said.

He looked at the list when it was published and said it was difficult to figure out who was being accused of what. The list had just two categories, sexual assault and domestic violence, but many of the names were not categorized in either. 

Campbell is looking for more specificity, in part because an officer in the Juneau Police Department is named on the list. Like so many of the names on the list, the claims are unsubstantiated. But Campbell said he takes the allegation seriously. 

Juneau Police Officers search Wednesday afternoon a property in the 300-block of Village St., downtown Juneau after serving a search warrant on the property. Items from recent burglaries were recovered, including stolen property from The Observatory bookstore, Police Lt. David Campbell said. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO)
Juneau police officers near downtown Juneau. (File/KTOO)

He said the officer went through a background check to get a job in the force, and Campbell didn’t hear of any allegations or even rumors that came up in that investigation. 

 “Could it still be [that] things are out there? You know, there’s always the chance,” he said. “But we just, we just don’t have any information to go off of, and our plan is to at least look into it.”

Campbell wouldn’t say if he talked directly to the officer about the list; he called it a personnel matter. 

“It would be good, you know, if somebody does have an allegation that they believe is true and accurate, then, is to make a report,” Campbell said.

And if that person doesn’t want to go to Juneau Police with an accusation, he suggests making it to another agency like the Alaska State Troopers or a sexual assault and domestic violence advocate. 

Campbell said he’s cautious of an unsubstantiated list of allegations because he’s dealt with instances of false reporting throughout his career — not just confined to rape and sexual assault. 

Data shows that it’s not common for people to falsely report rape or sexual violence. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates the rate of false reporting at somewhere between 2% and 10% of cases. 

Isaac Weber says he’s one of those rare cases. He found out his name was on the list from an ex-girlfriend. 

“It was just really a stomach-dropping moment. I couldn’t believe it. I went through the list and saw that it was, in fact, there — my name along with a bunch of other people that I knew all in a row,” he said. “I couldn’t think of what I could have possibly done to deserve a place on this list next to all of these disgusting people. Just being roped in with that made me feel very small in the moment.” 

His mom, Sarah Weber, works in addiction and mental health services. She describes her professional and personal lives as trauma-informed. She said it was surreal and difficult to talk to her son about what may have led up to someone putting his name on the list. 

“I absolutely grilled him,” she said.

Isaac had similar conversations with his current girlfriend and older sister, and he said he felt hopeless. 

“Every part of me tells me that they trust me completely and that they know that I would never do this. But that irrational anxiety that just keeps nipping away at my head tells me that everybody kind of believes it, and that’s really scary,” he said. 

Setting that fear aside, Isaac and his mother say their family is intimately familiar with sexual violence and the toll it takes on people. He said that being falsely accused of something is hard, but it doesn’t compare to the experience victims of violence and sexual assault go through every day. 

They believe they know who put his name on the list. They shared a screenshot of a text-thread appearing to corroborate their account that his name was included as a cruel joke. But they know that’s probably not enough to prove Isaac’s innocence to people who have never met him.

Sarah Weber fears that this allegation will follow her son throughout his life. But there’s also the problem of pushing back against an effort they both believe is valid. She said the unfortunate thing about the list is that there’s a need for it. 

“It feels like for some of the women that were posting names on there, it’s like their only way to get any sort of justice. And for lack of better words, that sucks,” she said. “That sucks to know that … an anonymous Twitter feed is the best that some of these women can get. It is really disheartening.” 

Both said if they had seen the list and Isaac’s name hadn’t been on it, they’d have assumed everyone on it had committed a crime. 

This is the tough spot the family is in. They say they’re concerned that the inclusion of names of people who don’t belong on the list lessens its impact. 

Sarah Weber feels her own discomfort and sees her son’s discomfort, but she thinks there are probably people on that list who deserve to be there. 

“Having the discomfort of their names put on the list versus the discomfort and pain they’ve caused real victims is like small potatoes. It’s nothing,” she said. 

“Drops in a pond,” Isaac added. 

If you’re a survivor of sexual assault, ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News compiled this Alaska Sexual Assault Survivor Guide.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Sarah Weber’s name. 

Rashah McChesney

Daily News Editor, KTOO

I help the newsroom establish daily news priorities and do hands-on editing to ensure a steady stream of breaking and enterprise news for a local and regional audience.

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