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.