Can Tech Make The Whisper Network Legitimate?

Abbie Winters
In the heady days following the news of Harvey Weinstein, a Google spreadsheet circulated naming alleged sexual harassers in the New York media and publishing scene. The Shitty Men's Media List was online for less than 24 hours, but its reach was widespread. And among the many questions it raised: Why isn't there better technology to help support the whisper network?
Jess Ladd, a public health expert, has been exploring this question for years. Well before the explosive reporting on Weinstein and the Shitty Media Men list, Ladd, a sexual assault survivor, was working on potential solutions for reporting sexual assault on college campuses and how to create an environment where women felt they could report abuse. Her non-profit did a year of research with survivors, lawyers, psychologists, and law enforcement. "We concluded that carefully targeted and verified information will ultimately result in more good and less harm than public, anonymous, unverified allegations," Ladd says.
The result of all of her work is Callisto, a reporting platform for victims. Launched in 2016, it is currently used by 149,000 students on 12 campuses, including Pomona College, University of Southern California, and Stanford. The app provides users with a clever solution to an ugly problem: It’s an information escrow that’s designed to protect victims and provide what Ladd calls "higher quality evidence." It is the whisper network built to identify serial predators, and one where victims won’t feel alone. And Ladd says that matters a lot when it comes to the reporting the incidents: “When people are able to find each other and know that they're not the only one, everything shifts … it makes such a difference to the probability of success and action.”
Currently, the campus version of Callisto allows students to create an account (using their university email address) and write down their account of harassment or assault. The records are kept encrypted and secure, and it’s up to the victims whether they want to file a formal complaint with their school (with the option to name a perpetrator, or not) or choose the matching option where the report is sent to university authorities only if there’s a match. Callisto uses Facebook URLs as an identifier, in order to avoid false identification or common names, so theoretically, assailants could avoid being matched by simply staying off Facebook and Twitter until Ladd and her team add more unique identifiers.
It seems only natural there would be interest in Callisto’s potential beyond campuses, and the ability of technology to disrupt a problem that more than half of America woman say they’ve have experienced. That’s because, in spite of the reckoning, the apologies, the culpability of a society that’s simply asked women to tolerate such behavior in the workplace for decades — the question of what’s to be done has lingered. Companies don’t seem to have a good solution, and even the debate over whether workplaces should adopt zero tolerance policies or one of proportional response hasn’t been settled.
The intention of the Shitty Men’s Media List, which was created by Moira Donegan, a freelance writer in New York, was to circumvent the system that has long failed to actually support victims. It was anonymous, open-sourced, and it came with a disclaimer that the document was a collection of allegations and rumors. While it had good intentions, the effort came with some serious complications: Not only did it present a danger to Donegan, both professionally and personally, the focus of much outrage was about the spreadsheet’s creation instead of the misdeeds reported in it.
That little Google doc also made painfully clear that there needed to be a way to put the whisper network online without compromising a person’s security, a way for victims to document allegations without the media seizing on the information, and most importantly, a way for those victims to feel more control over the reporting process.
Jess Ladd
Ladd is currently raising philanthropic capital in hopes of making Callisto available to workers in the tech industry, which has weathered many of its own sexual misconduct scandals over the past few years. If she manages to raise the funds, a pilot could be ready by the summer. A wave of startups — such as tEQuitable, AllVoices, Spot, and STOPit — have also gained momentum in the fallout of #MeToo, as interest has surged around how technology can be used for anonymous reporting and leverage networks that already exist.
“#MeToo is exciting because it shows the power of networks in two ways,” Ladd says. “When you learn that you're not the only victim of sexual harassment or assault, you feel less ashamed about your experience and you feel more empowered to share your experience with others.” She also points out that the overwhelming media coverage of serial harassers has shown that there is power in numbers.
Digging into its data, the company reports that 84% of Callisto’s campus users are cis-women. The system was designed to increase reporting and accuracy, as well as provide information so victims can feel some control over the process. Users have had positive feedback, with some citing that the app helped them write down everything for later, and others praising the options and information the platform provided.
In the version of Callisto that’s being developed for the tech industry, the system won’t be sending the reports to companies but rather to legal advocates with attorney-client privilege who can help victims navigate the system. By adding this legal component, instead of partnering with companies or local police departments, the app can scale and expand faster to more industries.
The upcoming pilot will be invite-only, and tech workers will have to verify their identity with company email addresses or work documents to gain access. One of the challenges is privacy: Though Callisto is a neutral third-party reporting system, it raises questions about who is allowed access Callisto’s database. And if the claims are forwarded to a tech company’s human resources department, would that be so different than the way things currently stand?
Anne Hedgepeth, American Association of University Women’s top policy advisor, says that simply creating spaces where women can come forward and report safely would be progress. “We've seen in conversations about the experiences women are having in the workplace that obviously there are a lot of challenges with choosing to tell your story, and workplaces aren't always taking action or taking those stories seriously. Creating channels for people to come forward is, in a big picture sense, very important and something where technology and an app can help,” says Hedgepeth.

"Technology can't authentically teach you how to treat another human being with respect and dignity. But I do think it can be a catalyst."

There is one key difference from the status quo: The professional version of Callisto will address a core issue for serial predators in an industry: If one person was harassing people across multiple companies, it’s hard to identify them even if their victims go to HR. “We could find predators with or without institution protection," Ladd says.
Getting around institutional protection is key in finding a solution for the workplace: In a system where harassers are routinely protected — from the tendency of victims not to report for fear of retaliation, to the futility of reporting to an HR department that tends to not believe women until a degree of “severity” is reached (not to mention that HR is arguably around to protect companies, rather than individual employees) — it simply hasn’t paid off for women to report and root out harassment. The costs were too big; the consequences dire.
“This raises a very important point: There are certainly cross workplace and cross industry issues when it comes to sexual harassment, and finding ways to solve that issue is an important step for us to be taking,” Hedgepeth says. “If an app can tackle those gaps and those problems, I think that's certainly something we can see potential in — both the general public and individual workplaces could see a real incentive if it's bringing people forward and helping them proactively address issues.”
Ladd, for her part, has made Callisto’s code available for nearly a year for companies to download on Github, so their HR departments can implement the same reporting system for serial harassers. Though it wasn’t heavily promoted, no companies to her knowledge have implemented the system. Sakshi Thakur, an entrepreneur in Australia, is creating a similar service for companies with funding from Credit Suisse and Creative Innovation Global. Thakur, who experienced sexual harassment early on in her career, highlights the fact that HR has a conflict of interest.
In some ways, though, the lack of reporting structures within companies is why third-party platforms have so much potential. Shielding the professional version of Callisto from security concerns and fake stories will be a big part of the effort. One major difference between Callisto and an online spreadsheet is the verification of stories. Instead of being decided in the court of public opinion, it will first go where the victims want.
#MeToo, in many ways, was a first mover in itself: thousands of women came forward about sexual harassment and abuse past and present. In recent weeks, there have been worries and hand wringing that the movement has reached a tipping point due to a report about actor Aziz Ansari. There are vocal women who already think it’s gone too far, but far more importantly, there are those who have been striving for nuance in the aftermath: How does one type of transgression compare to another? What does proportional response look like? And what kind of repercussion is appropriate?
In the context of America’s workplaces, #MeToo is far from over. And while secret spreadsheets may never go away, it's worth pondering whether they'd be necessary as reporting apps become more widely available. “Tech isn't the magic bullet,” Ladd says. “It isn't going to solve all those problems. It's a part of the system, and a piece of the puzzle. Technology can't authentically teach you how to treat another human being with respect and dignity. But I do think it can be a catalyst. It can help the truth come to light.”

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