Everything You Need To Know About Whisper Networks

Everything You Need To Know About Whisper Networks

In the wake of the recent sexual harassment allegations that have plagued every professional industry, from finance to academia to Hollywood, the importance of whisper networks for female victims have also made it into the spotlight. But what exactly is a whisper network, and do they actually help women, or end up doing more harm than good?

What is a whisper network?

A way for women to privately warn one another away from serial assaulters, whisper networks are informal alliances among tight-knit groups of women, often in the same industry. In the past, the term carried a more literal meaning. It was oral documentation; information passed in private conversations between women; discussions that could never be traced.

While these whisper networks were once closely-kept secrets, in the wake of the #MeToo movement many have been made public. The women of UK politics created a WhatsApp group highlighting the male politicians who had harassed or abused them; Karen Keslky, a former university professor, created a similar spreadsheet chronicling the extent of sexual harassment in academia; women from investment banking firm Bear Stearns had a ‘Glass Ceiling Club’ in the 90s, and would meet to swap stories on who were the lecherous suits to avoid.

And now, as with everything, whisper networks have been reborn online. In the days following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, an anonymous Google spreadsheet began circulating among news outlets. Entitled ‘Shitty Media Men’, inside was a list of more than 70 names of alleged sexual harassers in the New York media and publishing world, with a chain of information documenting their crimes. It ranged from unwanted touching to violent sexual assault.

The spreadsheet was only live for a few hours, but that was enough time for it to go viral. The accusations caused such a furore that publications hunted down its creator – NYC-based Journalist Moira Donegan – and threatened to expose her identity. Faced with no other options, she chose to come forward herself.

What are the benefits?

Whisper networks provide women with a way to look out for each other; to warn one another about potentially dangerous men. They also help to dismantle the culture of silence around sexual harassment, abuse and assault by encouraging women to speak out in a safe and supportive environment.

The anonymity of whisper networks also protects their users from retaliation – as Donegan said of the women’s accusations: “No one could be fired, harassed or publicly smeared for telling her story when that story was not attached to her name.”

As a result of certain whisper networks being made public, including Shitty Media Men, many abusers have been investigated and publicly fired from their high-profile positions.

And the downsides?

Whisper networks, as important as they may be, once again put the onus on women to work around abusers. And, as such, often don’t stop repeat offenders from perpetrating again – these groups can be elitist or insular, and there will always be vulnerable women who aren’t a part of them; despite rumours swirling around Weinstein for years, the constant influx of fresh talent into Hollywood kept him supplied with new victims.

Because whisper networks have so far been informal, there’s not yet an adequate system in place for collating the information provided by women and no straight route to justice. When Shitty Media Men was made public, many pointed out Donegan’s list was flawed: as it was never meant to be made public, she hadn’t taken into account that it could be used as evidence in an investigation one day – there were no time stamps, no encryption, the victims were nameless.

As with Donegan’s case, digital whisper networks in particular have the potential to put women at risk – conversations leave a trace, users’ names could be made public. The journalist now admits to being “terrified” for her safety. Many have also prophesised these online networks will spark a rise in false allegations but, in reality, these are rare. What’s far more common is women with credible allegations being disbelieved.

What’s the solution?

Such is the power of the whisper network, apps are now being created to make the process easier for women. Public health expert Jess Ladd launched Callisto, a platform that allows victims to safely report abuse, in 2016 and it is currently used by 149,000 students on 12 different campuses across the US, including Stanford – a reaction, in part, to the women scrawling information about predatory co-eds on the walls of campus toilets in a bid to protect each other.

The app builds on the criticisms made of the Media Men list – it stores the information in a way that protects victims but provides what Ladd calls “higher quality evidence.” Students create an account using their university email address and write down their account of the harassment or assault, and the records are encrypted and kept secure. From there, it’s up to the victims as to whether they want to file a formal complaint with the school, or select the ‘matching’ option, which indicates when more than one person has identified the same perpetrator. A report is then only sent to the university if there’s a ‘match’.

But as brilliant as the Callisto app is, and as helpful as whisper networks may be, their presence is proof that the systems currently implemented by schools, workplaces, the courts, and the government aren’t working. Until these institutions put a system in place that protects women, women will find a way to protect themselves.

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