Nicole Cliffe Is A Poor Choice Of #MeToo Moral Guardian
I can speak from experience on this one!
Nicole Cliffe, the Slate parenting advice columnist and very successful freelance writer and newsletter author, wants you to know that she has some serious dirt on the Hollywood star Jeff Goldblum. It’s a theme she’s hitting over and over on Twitter, where she has more than 150,000 followers.
It appears to have started earlier this month:
(The starring-out-certain-letters-in-a-name thing supposedly prevents internet harassment.)
Then, last week:
Asked what the evidence against him was, Cliffe helpfully explained that “[h]e’s a bad person and it’s been whisper networked for years[.]”
These tweets rang a bell for me. The last time I saw Cliffe tweet excitedly that she had heard from many of the victims of a man’s creepy behavior, the allegedly creepy man in question was, well, me. This happened in 2018, when, outraged at my Atlantic article on youth gender dysphoria, Cliffe blasted out a completely false and potentially career-ending rumor about me without bothering to do one iota of verification. She then quietly deleted the most attention-getting tweet, never revisiting the matter, explaining, or apologizing:
She had proof, she told one person who asked a followup question:
None of this ever happened once, let alone “so so many times.” It’s a lie. And I mean it when I say “potentially career-ending.” If in fact I had been using my journalistic perch at New York Magazine and The Atlantic to try to get dates with trans women — or anyone — in a skeezy manner, then that would of course be something that could (and should) derail my career.
I had genuinely never seen a fellow journalist of Cliffe’s stature behave in this way on Twitter: It was completely inappropriate — like something even a particularly sociopathic middle-schooler would understand to be immoral — and almost certainly did long-term damage to my reputation and career. It’s now been almost a year and a half since Cliffe leveled these allegations against me and not a single shred of evidence has popped up to support them. (She manually deleted the ‘O B S E S S E D’ tweet without explanation; the others appear to have disappeared because she has one of those services that causes her tweets to self-destruct after awhile, which isn’t particularly unusual.)
Cliffe’s actions also did a psychological number on me. I know that might sound overly dramatic, but take a moment and imagine someone in your own professional field who is much better-known and more successful than you are publicly announcing, to all your professional peers (and a huge audience of online rubberneckers as well), that you’ve committed an act that, if true, would mean you should be banished from your job and forever treated as a pariah. That’s what she did.
So in this post I want to briefly explain the background of all that, tie it into the Goldblum thing, and argue that Cliffe just shouldn’t be trusted in these cases where she purports to be sitting on inside information about some guy’s sleazy behavior. As I’ll explain, that doesn’t mean she should take no action in these cases or that whisper networks aren’t sometimes very important; there are easy, obvious alternatives Cliffe can pursue. But in addition to the obvious moral problems with what she is doing, by publicly waving around half-formed allegations in this manner, Cliffe is likely making the journalistic task of actually getting to the bottom of the Goldblum situation more difficult than it would have been otherwise.
In Which I Literally Murder Literally Everyone With An Endless Torrent Of Inappropriate DMs
Someone, or more likely a (hopefully!) small group of people, began circulating online rumors about me as soon as my article about the closing of Ken Zucker’s gender-identity clinic in Toronto came out in February of 2016. No one has been able to highlight any errors in the article, and subsequent events have confirmed exactly what my reporting revealed, but because I was seen as defending the indefensible — Zucker was accused of doing conversion therapy to try to turn transgender kids cisgender — the reaction, from the darker and weirder corners of the internet, was immediate. The whisper campaign would eventually come to resemble, in certain ways, the one that hit Michael Bailey, as expertly recounted in Alice Dreger’s book, Galileo’s Middle Finger (though Bailey definitely got it worse than I did).
As you’ll see, the campaign has mutated and accelerated in the three and a half years since it started, but the rumors in question always orbit around the same central theme: that I am engaging in deeply inappropriate, exploitative behavior toward trans people online. The behavior in question is almost always portrayed as being just behind the scenes — almost always in private direct messages, or something that happened to a friend of a friend of the rumor-spreader — but the rumors are designed to be noticed and spread publicly by trans people, many of whom have, in fact, had terrible run-ins with real-life creeps. (Reliable data are hard to come by, but transgender people appear to face a much higher rate of sexual assault and abuse than cisgender people.)
My introduction to the whisper campaign came shortly after the Zucker article was published, when a trans correspondent informed me, via DM, that someone was circulating the rumor that I had threatened to out a trans person — that is, to reveal their trans status to the world or to their community against their will. That obviously never happened. Well, but that’s the thing: It’s easy for me to say it never happened (because it never happened). And it’s easy for, like, my friends to believe me when I say it never happened. But when it comes to random people on the internet being exposed to damning information about a figure they find controversial, or actively despise? Of course they’re going to believe it! As a species, we are not good critical thinkers when we gossip.
I think the people who are behind this whisper campaign understand that. The basic way it has gone down in the intervening years is that a bunch of weird social-media accounts keep popping up and, in many of the places where my name or my work come up on the internet, aggressively seeding salacious rumors about me, over and over and over. It isn’t fun to dig these up so I’ll keep this to a few examples, but I promise if you poke around you can find countless others.
One is a Reddit user named sejuani_air_ult, since deleted (more than once, I’ve seen an account pop up to spread this stuff and then poof into nonexistence), who tried to tell the Chapo Trap House subreddit that I had been asking a bunch of trans women about their penises:
Another, more recent one is an account named @PorqQueen. It changed its display name to “Jesse Singal, sue me you coward” and approached Noah Berlatsky, a liberal writer who is not a fan of mine, with a spectacular story about how I had sent a dick pic (something I’ve never done to a girlfriend, or to anyone else in my life, let alone a stranger) on Grindr (a site I’ve never used, which I say with no judgement since a friend of mine met his husband there):
(@PorqQueen first disabled their account after notifying Berlatsky of the info they had, then returned, but with a locked account.)
It’s always the same general storyline: me aggressively, intrusively communicating with people online, asking personal stuff or just leading with the dick pic. There are never any screenshots and never, or rarely, named victims (with an exception I’ll get to shortly). Over and over and over and over. How many more examples of this am I unaware of because they didn’t happen on openly visible parts of the internet? What are people saying in private chat rooms and group DMs? The whole point of this campaign is to freak me out, to get me to ruminate on questions like this, and to eventually cause me to determine that it just isn’t worth it to write about gender dysphoria anymore, because the consequences of continuing to do so are so potentially severe.
At least one subset of the accounts spreading this stuff is controlled by a single person who makes endless sock-puppet accounts, always with a cat or a mouse reference. They started as @ashencat1 and iterated from there — @sciencemajormo1, @smollabmouse, and so on. These accounts existed almost entirely to jump into Twitter threads I was participating in and say genuinely unhinged stuff about me, ranging from the false claim I was fired from New York Magazine (I left to write a book) to the idea that I had engaged in “stalking and trying to dox some lgbt teens[.]”
If you look up these accounts and their tweets, you’ll see almost everything has been deleted (but the Google footprint and various screenshots often live on). Again, that’s often the play here: Tweet completely unhinged stuff, delete it later. As everyone knows, once a tweet spreads, it has imparted its information permanently, and even if it’s later deleted, the vast majority of the people who initially saw it will never find out.
In the case of this AshenCat person, the sheer number of accounts created and the frequency with which new ones popped up, no matter how many times I blocked them, suggested a rather Herculean effort. Mostly I was freaked out by it, but once in awhile I’d have a I’m not even mad — that’s amazing moment at just how persistent this weirdo was.
While I have some suspicions, I don’t really know, with any certainty, who is behind most of the accounts who have participated in this whisper campaign, how many people are spreading these rumors, and what the overall breakdown is between the people who initially fabricate and seed these stories and those who spread stuff they “heard online” second- or third- or nth-hand from the original liars. But whoever is behind this, I have to admit, has been quite successful. The Jesse-Singal-As-Online-Sex-Pest meme completely broke out beyond small weirdo accounts.
First, it was somewhat larger but still pseudonymous accounts, mostly in social-justice spaces, that started spreading these rumors — sometimes with what appears to be a bit of further embellishment. “Secret Gamer Girl,” with 6,000+ followers, is one example:
Here she is, about a year later, explaining that she is aware of “at LEAST a dozen” of my victims. At LEAST!
Or take the much larger social-justice-oriented Twitter persona @CaseyExplosion, who has many mainstream media figures among her 35,000-plus followers. I blocked her at some point, and she responded by convincing herself I was secretly ‘obsessed’ with her (‘TL’ just means Twitter timeline):
Imagine, in real life, if someone told you “This person won’t return my calls and doesn’t seem interested in engaging with me — which suggests to me they are obsessed with me. I know it!”
More than seven months later, perhaps upset that no one had turned up any evidence of my sexual harassment, Casey tried to appeal directly to my ‘victims’:
I guess no one came forward? It’s now October of 2019, after all.
To be clear, none of this is really, at root, funny. If I’m being jokey it’s because this has been going on for a few years now, it has exhausted me, I’ve found it all rather disturbing, and the only way I really know how to handle this sort of thing is snark (it’s a widely known generational shortcoming). But it would have been one thing if the damage had been restricted to tiny, weirdo social-media accounts. What’s made it genuinely concerning is the way it has slowly but consistently crept up the Twitter ladder, ‘infecting’ bigger and bigger accounts as people respond in a predictably credulous way to salacious rumor-mongering.
Along the way, whenever I have debated whether and how to respond to all this (and people who follow me on Twitter know that I do mention it from time to time), I could at least rest assured that most of the people spreading this garbage 1) didn’t have large platforms; and 2) might not be taken seriously by the average internet denizen. Until Cliffe arrived on the scene. When she used her sizable megaphone to blast these rumors out to the world, it was horrible. Genuinely. I would not wish that experience on anyone. She is, again, extremely influential in my industry, and the first tweet alone racked up four-digit retweets, meaning that at least tens of thousands of people saw it. Knowing — or feeling like — everyone in your industry is talking about you in that manner, whispering about what an evil and creepy and exploitative person you are, is just an awful sensation, like you can’t breathe. I still can’t believe she did that, and I’m still frankly furious about it. Cliffe is not a moral or a trustworthy person.
Back To The Goldblum Thing
The main problem, of course, is that Cliffe made no effort to verify or fact-check anything she heard about me before broadcasting it to her very large following. And people seriously trust her. She has a very fervent fan base; there is a reason she is one of the top authors on this very platform. As soon as people see that Cliffe believes X is true, they instantly believe it themselves. It is borderline cultish behavior, but see for yourself: If you search within Twitter for the URL of Cliffe’s tweet about the Goldblum emails, you’ll see countless people for whom it is now a known fact that Goldblum is a deeply creepy person (as well as a skeptic or two).
It doesn’t matter that no one knows exactly what he’s been accused of, what the quality of the evidence is, what sort of stories supposedly flooded Cliffe’s inbox, or any of that: This is now a True Thing among the sorts of (rather misguided) people who look to Nicole Cliffe for moral guidance. One of the tweets responding to Cliffe’s claim laments, “well... there goes that.” Some people have enjoyed Goldblum’s work for years or decades, only to have decided on the basis of a handful of morally charged, vague tweets from an unreliable narrator that he’s terrible now. That is how quickly online rumor campaigns can spread and have their desired impact.
Now, Jeff Goldblum will be fine. While I’d argue even Hollywood stars deserve to have serious accusations about them handled more delicately than this, I don’t want anyone to get the impression that that’s my main gripe here. Rather, my main gripe is that this is just a deeply irresponsible way to handle accusations against anyone. You can’t scream out “I have dirt on this guy!!!!!!” and then refuse to explain what that dirt is or why we should believe it. And I’d argue that Cliffe has a track record of doing this in at least one case — mine — where she didn’t actually have any dirt. She had internet scuttlebutt that she misinterpreted as dirt. She acted just as confidently about the strength of the evidence against me as she is now acting about the strength of the evidence against Goldblum (who is obviously a much, much bigger fish).
It’s worth noting that there could be something to this whisper campaign! Cliffe knows a lot of famous people and maybe some of them have genuine dirt on Goldblum. But that still doesn’t mean that it’s a generally good idea to tweet the way she is tweeting, or to instantly believe negative rumors you hear about someone on Twitter. It could be that she happens to be right, but is still demonstrating a very wrongheaded way to approach potential #MeToo scandals.
I would also argue that Cliffe is making it harder for any journalist who does want to investigate the Goldblum rumors to do so. That’s because as soon as you turn this sort of thing into a big, attention-getting internet spectacle, you are going to attract a lot of liars and weirdos who simply want to join in on the fun, or gain the attention of an internet celebrity they idolize, or whatever. You couldn’t come up with a better way to add a great deal of noise onto whatever underlying signal exists here than how Cliffe is handling this.
Again, I can draw upon my own experiences being targeted by her. As soon as Cliffe tweeted what she tweeted about me, people popped into her replies to up the ante and spread new and better and more specific lies. For example, Jay Edidin, a highly regarded trans journalist, quickly identified himself as one of the ‘victims’ of my egregious behavior:
Nothing remotely like that ever happened. Rather, in 2016 Edidin asked if we could take a conversation we were having off of public Twitter:
We did, discussing the issue in question (and, briefly, some other aspects of our disagreements) via Twitter DM. At no point was there any attempt at a meetup or anything that was one bit creepy or questionable. Edidin lied. You can read our entire, brief DM logs here. It doesn’t matter whether or not you can follow what we’re discussing — what matters is the gulf between the actual conversation and the “he has done the same shit to me” claim, “the same shit” in question being creepy, disturbing alleged behavior. It never, ever happened.
Another reply to Cliffe came from the well-known writer Lauren Hough, who has more than 27,000 followers, and who spread the story that I had driven one of her friends off of Twitter entirely with my relentless DMing.
Setting aside that nothing remotely like this ever happened (I am so tired of typing that phrase), it’s unclear how it even could happen — on Twitter, you do two clicks and someone can never DM you again. What is the theory here? This person didn’t know how to block me? Where are the screenshots? In these people’s tellings, I must scarcely have time to do any real work given how much of my day is dedicated to endlessly creeping on and terrorizing innocent Twitter users. Why hasn’t a single screenshot of any of this emerged? If you’re Lauren Hough, a professional writer launching a serious accusation at another professional under your real name, how can you possibly view it as acceptable to spread a rumor like this unless you are a hundred percent sure it is airtight? This isn’t how adults are supposed to act.
Edidin and Hough’s tweets demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about: Social media pileons are batshit insane, and when you turn the heat up, you’re going to generate these sorts of responses. Even many otherwise normal people go crazy during internet outrage-fests. If Cliffe were genuinely concerned about Jeff Goldblum’s behavior and hoping to pass off her ‘investigation’ to a real reporter, the last thing she should do is tweet repeatedly about it, ginning up outrage. This is a surefire way to attract weirdos, hangers-on just hoping to interact with Cliffe, and others with stories that won’t, in the long run, check out. All of which will make more work for the journalist who actually starts to dig into these rumors, if that does eventually happen.
Cliffe claims to be in touch with Goldblum’s ‘victims,’ with the whisper-network’s whisperers. If she is telling the truth, they obviously shouldn’t be forced to publicly come forward, revealing their full names — that’s a terrifying thing to ask them to do. But why doesn’t Cliffe just pass on what she has to journalists, with the permission of the whisperers? Again, why make this a giant social-media spectacle? Forgive me for being cynical, but I think part of the answer is that if Cliffe handled this in a remotely ethical or journalistically responsible way, she wouldn’t be able to put herself at the center of it, further boosting her already impressive online clout. Actual journalism of this sort is done quietly until the facts can be locked down. (That’s not to say it’s never appropriate to issue a public call for more information about someone, of course, but when you see, for example, the New York Times open up a tipline about Harvey Weinstein, it’s after a lot of reporting has already been confirmed.)
One more time: If you are an adult in the media world with a platform, you really can’t just blab out OMG YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT EVERYONE IS SAYING ABOUT X!!!!!! if you are not prepared to provide evidence supporting the claim that X engaged in wrongdoing. I think normal, reasonable people understand this, and I have firsthand experience of the sort of damage that can be done when someone like Cliffe carelessly, almost playfully knocks around someone’s entire reputation and career like a beach volleyball. It’s gross behavior and she should stop.
Questions? Comments? Tips about the illegal dogfighting ring my reliable sources on Twitter told me Cliffe and her husband run out of their basement, which only involves the cutest and most innocent of puppies? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal.