A whisper network describes a chain of information privately passed between people, typically a list of powerful people in an industry alleged as being sexual harassers or abusers. The information is often shared between women by word of mouth, online in private communities, in forums, via spreadsheets, and sometimes using crowd-sourced documents. The stated purpose of maintaining these lists is to warn potential victims of "people to avoid" in their industry. Whisper networks also purportedly help victims realize they are not alone so they can find each other and come forward together about a serial abuser. The term "whisper network" was newly popularized during the #MeToo movement after several private lists were published outside private networks, for example the Shitty Media Men list, the California State Capitol list, and the Harvey Weinstein Google doc. Karen Kelsky created a less controversial list called "Sexual Harassment In the Academy: A Crowdsourced Survey" which had grown to over 2000 entries by the end of 2017, and includes stories without actually naming the accusing and accused parties. Kelsky said she hoped the list would help demonstrate the scope of sexual misconduct in the academic field, and it has resulted in the investigation of twelve men at the University of Michigan.
Publishing whisper networks to the public has been widely criticized for spreading unsubstantiated rumors which can damage reputations, though there continues to be debate on the best alternatives to anonymous sharing for women who have been punished or ignored by official channels yet would still like to warn other women. It has been noted that certain vulnerable groups rarely get access to these private lists, for example women who are young and women of color. As a result, these groups rarely receive any protection from whisper networks unless they are published. The main problem with trying to protect more potential victims by publishing whisper networks is determining the best mechanism to verify allegations. Some suggestions have included strengthening unions in vulnerable industries so workers can report directly to the union, maintaining industry hotlines which have the power to trigger third-party investigations, and creating public systems that allow anonymous reporting with the ability to connect victims who report the same perpetrator. Several apps have been developed which offer various ways for women to report sexual misconduct, and some of these apps have the ability to connect victims with each other. Sex workers regularly share “bad date lists” and St. James Infirmary Clinic (which offers health and safety services for sex workers), created a “Bad Date” app that allows sex workers to anonymously log incidents with clients who have threatened, extorted, robbed, or been violent, potentially warning other sex workers in the future.
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