Yesterday, Tracy questioned the veracity of the story of Leo Traynor, a man who wrote about tracking down and meeting his online anti-semitic harasser. The response has been sharply divided between people who don’t even think that Traynor exists and those who say they know him well and have had conversations with him. There are also those who feel that it is morally wrong to ask for evidence from someone who has been harassed, like this Tweeter:

Why are you questioning someone’s traumatic personal story? He hasn’t used it for personal gain.

It’s a fine question to ask, really, though I admit when I first saw it I was a little baffled for several reasons. For one, I know that there are many ways falsities enter into our discourse, and “for monetary profit” is only one. Others include fame, exaggeration, misunderstanding, typos, and pranks gone wrong. The fact that The Guardian’s reprint of Traynor’s story ends with “The author has asked us to make clear he does not want to be paid a fee” does not automatically indicate veracity.

For another, I was baffled because I believe that truth has inherent value and that skepticism is most crucially applied to the things we want to believe. Not everyone shares that belief, though, and even amongst those who do, we probably apply that belief in different ways.

For instance, I don’t constantly question every idea that crosses my path. I don’t have that kind of time, and somewhere down that scary path lies Alex Jones territory. Like most people, I pick and choose what I will actively be skeptical of, and I choose based upon several factors: is this situation unusual? Do the facts I have make sense? How easy is it to verify or refute?

And so it is in the case of Tracy’s post. I read about Traynor last week and found it to be an extraordinary story. While I didn’t have alarm bells going off when I first read it, Tracy did bring up some points I felt were worth exploring. For instance, the fact that Traynor says he had pictures and screenshots of the abuse but he hasn’t provided them, despite the fact that he could easily black out names and identifying features. Plus, the questions about how one uses an IP address to identify a specific house. Her other points, in my opinion, were fairly unremarkable.

As Fiona Hanley noted in the comments, the point at which Traynor’s lack of evidence becomes interesting enough (to me) to explore is when a mainstream news outlet (in this case, The Guardian), reprints the post in full. As a blog post, I’m happy to trust Traynor – that level of abuse, the fact that the police don’t care, and the fact that he was driven off-line are not in any way out of the ordinary. The meeting of his stalker is extraordinary, but again, as a blog post, I don’t really care to demand evidence for it.

I do have a higher standard for newspapers, because that is where an amazing anecdote becomes historical fact. And really, it’s an anecdote that is very, very easy to fact check. Traynor can provide the pictures and screenshots to the Guardian, clarify how he tracked down the physical address, and let a Guardian fact-checker chat with a parent of the troll. Done!

That is the kind of professional fact-checking a person should expect (and even demand) of a mainstream newspaper, and I highly doubt that it would be in any way traumatizing for Traynor. This is nowhere near equivalent to, say, a mob of people demanding a rape survivor provide evidence beyond all reasonable doubt when she describes her story on a blog or social network. It’s not equivalent to shaming harassed or assaulted women because they didn’t go to the police. It’s simply asking for the evidence already mentioned in the story, so that we have the confidence to trust in the author and use this as impetus for future action, such as counseling teens to stop this type of abuse from happening, or coaching victims of harassment on how to track down their bullies, or campaigning for more action on the part of the police.

I emailed an editor at Comment is Free (CiF) asking if the fact checking was done, but after several hours, I haven’t heard back.* I’ll update this post if I do, but in the meanwhile, my friend and frequent CiF contributor Martin Robbins told me that fact checking is not done on CiF as a matter of course. I find that unfortunate, particularly considering that the name of the site apparently comes from a quotation by former Guardian editor CP Scott: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

That’s a sentiment I quite like. Facts are sacred, but stories are not – not even the stories of victims.

*EDIT: Just after I posted, I found an email from the Guardian hiding out in my inbox. Sorry about that! Here’s what CiF Editor Becky Gardiner had to say:

We cross-posted Leo Traynor’s piece because we loved it. You can never
be 100% certain that an account of a personal experience is the truth
(had he introduced us to the troll’s parents, for example, how would
one know that they were who they claimed to be?) so as editors we do
the checks we think necessary in each case. In Leo’s case, we had no
reason to doubt him or his story, and ran it in good faith. Since
publication, we saw a bit of activity on Twitter questioning his story
– specifically, some people had doubts over the IP address tracking.
We contacted Leo again, and he immediately gave what to us was a
convincing explanation – one which he has since posted on his blog.

Re the photos or screenshots, no we haven’t seen them. I’m not sure
they would be particularly useful in any case? Faking a cardboard box
with an address on it would be easier than making the whole story up!
The rest of the “accusations’ against him seem to relate to his
behaviour (why follow people on Twitter if you’re being stalked, etc)
and don’t seem to me to amount to much. Different people respond to
events differently. Again, in Leo’s case, we had – and still have – no
reason to doubt him or his story.

I very much appreciate Gardiner getting back to me, though I disagree with her standards and her views of fact checking. I’m not able to find the update from Leo Traynor about the IP tracking but I’ll edit this post if I can find it. Here it is:

FOOTNOTE: The methodology used by my IT friend has been verified as legal & was almost identical to what is described in this post ‘Tracking a Troll..
I’ve received hundreds of comments which I will publish a selection of soon – including the negative ones. I have been snowed under with emails etc for the last few days but once things settle down I will work my way through them – thank you for your patience.

Featured image is the relevant part of the Comment is Free masthead.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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16 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Tracy King
    October 2, 2012 at 1:43 pm —

    I’ve had far more people say they too have unanswered questions about the story than have said they don’t think it’s OK to question it, but it’s absolutely the case that had it not been in the Guardian, I wouldn’t have written my post. What someone puts on their blog, viral or not, can easily be contained there, and the story has a comments section. But once it’s on the Guardian and other mainstream media, titles which have a readership and weight of authority that no blog does and therefore a huge responsibility to fact-check, it’s a different issue. Martin Robbins and others (including Gimpy) have complained publicly many times that Comment is Free is not fact-checked (neither are Guardian opinion columns I believe), even when they make factual claims, although I do not know if Leo’s was an exception to that.

    As I stated in my article, I am extremely sorry for any additional hurt asking questions may cause, but I think when it comes to extreme anti-Semitism, fears of social networking, police inaction, and the possibility of a perpetrator still being at large, it is important to verify the story.

    The other very important motive here is that the original blog post asking questions was on a website which many people did not want to promote, though they did want to share the questions. I wanted to provide a platform to enable that. I didn’t include many of the original guy’s questions that I didn’t think merited attention.

    If I was the only one asking questions I would have just tweeted them.

    I also notice that I’ve received abuse merely for asking these questions. I would say that if that’s your tactic for defending the story, you’re not helping change my mind about questioning victims.

    I think it’s far far more likely that Leo’s story is entirely or partially true than that he simply made it up, but for the reasons given I think there’s a responsibility to provide evidence along with Guardian copy.

    • Profile photo of killyosaur
      October 2, 2012 at 2:25 pm —

      Since there is no like, thumbs up or +1 feature on this blog for comments, I will just say, I completely agree with this sentiment.

    • Profile photo of captaintripps
      October 2, 2012 at 2:28 pm —

      Since I was the first commenter to question why you questioned the story, I think it would be of benefit to edit the original posting to make your reasoning about the article’s reprinting in The Guardian being the impetus for writing your post more clear. Or at least link through to your comment above. It was a genuine point of confusion. You mention The Guardian reprinting exactly once and none of the following copy contains any of the reasoning you just outlined.

      For someone like me, who is not British and wasn’t pointed to the outside context you outline above, it was baffling why this story was extraordinary or required vigorous questioning. I read the original blog post and moved on before it was reprinted and didn’t understand that you were concerned about The Guardian’s having fact-checked this.

      Otherwise, in my own experience as an American Jew, it simply read as questioning the facts of some dude’s rather ordinary (apart from its conclusion) story of anti-Semitism.

    • Profile photo of Wilson
      October 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm —

      I similarly didn’t understand that you were trying to make a point about standards of evidence in reporting. I’m fine with questioning the author of an article, it just seemed that the level of scrutiny being applied was extreme, and really did seem to echo the kind of questions demanded of rape claimants. (“Why didn’t you do this? Why did you respond like that?”) Initially the tone did seem hostile because, like captaintripps, I didn’t understand all the context. As I read them again now they seem straightforward. Ah, the joys of viewing the world through the chemical haze of this meatsuit.

  2. Profile photo of Tauriq Moosa
    October 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm —

    Great write up, Ms Watson. The balance of questing for actual answers amidst a climate of empathy is indeed difficult; it’s the classic case of being “the boring/naysaying scientist” trying to undermineMMR vaccines leading to autism as espoused by the grief-stricken parent. I’m using this merely as analogy, but I hadn’t considered fact-checking in a case like this, because I think my deep sympathetic blinders went up for Mr Traynor.

    Reading probing questions like “is this really true?” was at first a slap in the face to me as someone who spent more time advocating sympathy and respect for Mr Traynor than anything else. I’m glad to be reminded that being ethical toward another human who may (or may not) have endured such a horrible series of events does not mean one has had access to the truth. This is a needed reminder since we benefit being shown evidence either way.

  3. Profile photo of Josie Miller
    October 2, 2012 at 2:58 pm —

    Here’s what I think the Guardian could do to confirm the story:

    1) Ask for the police report and/or phone police to confirm their response

    2) Do some research on Leo Traynor, who makes a lot of fantastic claims, not just in his story but about himself.

    I have detailed all this on my Twitter stream so I won’t bang on here other than to say at this point, the Guardian should certainly feel a need to attempt to validate this story.

  4. Profile photo of Parse
    October 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm —

    I’m a geek who knows enough to know what I don’t know, and the idea of being able to track an IP address to a specific address struck me as suspicious too. There’s one or two sneaky ways I can think of getting the address (through javascript trickery to scrape data from sites that would already know and show your exact location), but it’s enough to raise a red flag in my mind as well. That being said, I can see the exact details being removed as 1) not relevant to the narrative, 2) being of questionable morality/legality, and 3) too technical for the intended audience.

    As far as the your having questions about the story, well, I believe that you can trust somebody and still want to verify what they said. For example, if a friend told me person X did unsavory act Y, I’d trust them, but I’d still want corroborating evidence before telling it to other people.

  5. Profile photo of Tracy King
    October 2, 2012 at 3:13 pm —

    captaintripps – good point, I have added my comment to the original along with a link to Rebecca’s follow-up piece here.

    As to you questioning why I questioned the original, looks like we both like questioning the things people write :D

    I half wonder if I did the right thing but if it turns out to have been a horrible mistake then so be it. I’m the last person to be above admitting a mistake. I do wish Leo Traynor would respond but of course he’s not obliged to (I would argue he’d be obliged to respond to the Guardian but they aren’t asking any questions and I found their response to Rebecca baffling. It doesn’t matter if you can fake a photo, the point is that you ask for it, receive it, and if it turns out later to be a fake, you still did your job).

  6. Profile photo of David Shariatmadari
    October 2, 2012 at 5:17 pm —

    Hi there. I’m a deputy editor on the comment desk at the Guardian. I’ve discussed this a little on Twitter with Rebecca. She suggested I write something myself to add to the end of the post. I guess I may as well just leave a comment.

    It’s a small but important technicality. I’ve seen it stated a few times that Comment is free doesn’t fact-check articles. In fact, Tracy King says:

    “Martin Robbins and others (including Gimpy) have complained publicly many times that Comment is Free is not fact-checked (neither are Guardian opinion columns I believe), even when they make factual claims, although I do not know if Leo’s was an exception to that.”

    As far as I’m aware, the fact-checker doesn’t exist in the UK. The title is one used in US news rooms and on magazines.

    However, this doesn’t mean facts are not checked. In the UK, sub-editors perform a role – separate to that of the editor – which includes checking for sense, legal issues and accuracy. The lengths they go to verify something (to ‘fact check’ if you want) depend on variety of factors, such as anticipated deadline, genre, knowledge about the writer, and so on.

    Comment is free articles – and all opinion columns that appear in the paper – are routinely sub-edited.

    • Profile photo of eean
      October 3, 2012 at 1:54 am —

      That is a lot of whining about terminology. But I guess it’s important since you end up with this verb ‘sub-edited’ which could mean cleaning up an article’s grammar or perhaps, time permitting, fact-checking (which btw does not require a dedicated staffer, a US passport, or a degree in Fact Checkery).

      are the ‘comment is free’ articles routinely fact checked or not?

    • Profile photo of gimpyblog
      October 3, 2012 at 3:49 am —

      It’s a small but important technicality. I’ve seen it stated a few times that Comment is free doesn’t fact-check articles. In fact, Tracy King says:

      “Martin Robbins and others (including Gimpy) have complained publicly many times that Comment is Free is not fact-checked (neither are Guardian opinion columns I believe), even when they make factual claims, although I do not know if Leo’s was an exception to that.”

      As far as I’m aware, the fact-checker doesn’t exist in the UK. The title is one used in US news rooms and on magazines.

      However, this doesn’t mean facts are not checked. In the UK, sub-editors perform a role – separate to that of the editor – which includes checking for sense, legal issues and accuracy. The lengths they go to verify something (to ‘fact check’ if you want) depend on variety of factors, such as anticipated deadline, genre, knowledge about the writer, and so on.

      My complaints about a lack of fact checking apply primarily to articles run on CiF where some activist group or environmental polemicist makes claims about diet, GM, nuclear power or animal experimentation that simply are not true. In these cases it is obvious that the article was not passed to someone with a knowledge of these areas to check that the claims made are plausible and a fair reflection of the literature.

      That said, I am aware that some articles have been ‘fact-checked’, so perhaps the more interesting question is why some authors are checked for accuracy, and some are not? Are there internal guidelines on this? Do The Guardian have a flow chart explaining the process by which submitted articles are checked for “sense, legal issues and accuracy”? It would be interesting to see a detailed explanation of the process made public.

  7. Profile photo of absinthia
    October 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm —

    I used the IP tracker link given in “Tracking a Troll” to determine it was my ex’s gf who was trolling me. It didn’t give me their address, but it gave me the street and service provider, which narrowed it down specifically enough for me to confirm who hated me enough to do that. I confronted her and she threw back the “no one can track an IP address, I’m in tech and I know that, you liar, liar expletives deleted.”

    *sigh*

    • Profile photo of Tracy King
      October 2, 2012 at 5:59 pm —

      Yeah, a street would do it, if you know someone who lives on that street the chances of being a random other resident are pretty damn slim.

  8. Profile photo of seanh
    October 3, 2012 at 6:00 am —

    “And really, it’s an anecdote that is very, very easy to fact check. Traynor can provide the pictures and screenshots to the Guardian, clarify how he tracked down the physical address, and let a Guardian fact-checker chat with a parent of the troll. Done!”

    Why didn’t the Guardian just call the police? Surely, if Traynor reported this behaviour, they’d have some record of it.

    Or is there some reason they’re NOT calling the police? The story just doesn’t ring true to me.

  9. Profile photo of lindalk
    October 4, 2012 at 1:42 pm —

    When I first read Traynors story it just sounded like Reader’s Digest schmaltz to me.

    But it is supposed to really have happened?

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