I wasn’t going to write about the Conor Oberst rape accusations, because the last thing the internet needs is more noise over allegations that no one has any way of knowing are true or false. But the way this whole thing is playing out is both depressing and mildly terrifying. Virtually as soon as the accusations were posted, the internet went crazy, and not in a great way. First it was the accusations going viral on Tumblr, and then it was irresponsible commentary pieces like this, in which a writer explains that she believes the accusations because she had a similar experience. Now, Tumblr discussion of Oberst has become a cesspool of unfounded assumptions and increasingly frightening attempts to out and/or discredit the accuser. People. We need to stop.
Let me be very clear: I’m not defending Oberst here, and I’m not stating that I don’t believe his alleged victim. The thing is, I have absolutely no evidence to form an informed opinion either way, and neither do you. All we have is a credible-sounding testimony from a person in an internet comments section. The testimony could very well be true. Just as easily, it could be a person with some sort of vendetta against Oberst, who stands to gain something from publicly defaming him. We just don’t know. We have no way of knowing.
Clearly, this case raises depressingly familiar issues of rape victims feeling scared to speak out for fear of not being believed, and it’s impossible to overstate the extent to which the noise over false rape allegations is Men’s Rights Activist bullshit that should be treated with the contempt it deserves. Rape victims are routinely disbelieved and ridiculed, and this is an enduring blight on our legal system and our society. But the fact is that online comments sections are both rife with lies and hidden agendas and studded with startling examples of semi-anonymous candidness, and no one — not me, not you, not anyone else on the internet — has any idea right now which this is.
You might have a gut feeling, but the point isn’t whether any one of us believes this person or not — the point is that people on the internet have no business making unilateral decisions about Oberst’s guilt or innocence, as many people have already been all too keen to do. You can no more say “I just know this is true” than you can say “If it really happened, she would have reported it at the time” or “I just know Conor would never do that!” You can’t know.
The court system has certainly proven itself terrible at evaluating rape accusations. This is something that clearly deters rape victims from reporting what happened to them, and makes it plausible that an xoJane comments section is the only place someone might feel comfortable speaking out about what happened to her. This problem urgently needs to be redressed, and the first step is approaching rape accusations with sympathy rather than skepticism.
But having the internet mob pursue these claims doesn’t produce “justice” either. As the Reddit Boston bombing fiasco proved, the internet acting as judge and jury on the basis of something that’s ultimately nothing more than a nebulous gut feeling is a dangerous business. It doesn’t serve the interests of the victim as much as it does the self-righteousness of the angry mob. Indeed, it may be the exact opposite of what the victim wants, and either way, she ends up marginalized in her own story.
If you think I’m exaggerating here, there’s a whole bunch of amateur internet detectives who are doing their best to out the girl who made the accusations, and to “prove” that she’s lying. There’s also a post doing the rounds on Tumblr right now — 5,000 notes and counting — entitled “Conor Oberst: Rapist.” Both of these are wrong, because no one here is operating with the facts.
Ultimately, the only judgment that anyone can make here is a personal one. You might well feel that you believe the accusations, and reassess your support of Oberst accordingly. You might also feel that you don’t believe them. All anyone on the internet should be doing now, however, is offering resources for this person to get help and to pursue her allegations further, if that’s what she wants to do. Beyond that, it’s irresponsible and dangerous to speculate, and anyone who’s come out and made definitive statements either way should know better.
Sadly, it’s looking like, if anything, the wave of internet opinion on this is discouraging the original commenter from pursuing the case. In a now-deleted Tumblr post, someone who claimed to be the same person posted this (scroll to the bottom of the page to see the reblog):
Look, I didn’t intend for any of this to happen. I was a somewhat regular commenter on xojane and felt safe there. Call it dumb, naive, etc but when I hit that post button, I did not think my comment would be anything more than an exchange with one or two other commenters sharing their stories.
There are also now threats of impending lawsuits, and one gets the feeling that no one is going to come out of this at all well. The internet as a whole needs to take a very deep breath here. Mob justice is no justice at all — not for the alleged victim, not for Oberst, and not for anyone else.