This Is What Has Been Happening

[Content Note: Abuse; harassment.]

Over the past week, I have been talking to the contributors and moderators, as well as to Iain, to decide how to best to approach this situation. This post is being published with their consent and input.

I have written previously about the abuse and harassment I've faced as a result of doing this job. But I've never spoken directly about the most active hate site, an outgrowth of another now-defunct hate site, the members of which have, for years, been obsessively documenting everything that happens at Shakesville.

The people who run and participate in this site are largely disgruntled former commenters, some of whom left on their own after I disappointed them in some way, and some of whom were banned after violating the commenting policy. There are, increasingly, participants at the site who have never even engaged at Shakesville, but just find some satisfaction in participating in a space dedicated to the explicit purpose of destroying this community.

screen cap of a page from the hate site labeled 'Stop Listening to Melissa McEwan' to which I've added a graphic highlighting a quote reading: 'The fact is, her time needs to be finished. No more invitations to Femfest. No more quotes in mainstream media. Done. Find something else Melissa. Maybe recaps since that's the majority of your content when you're not being snide and nasty.'
[Screen cap with pull quote added by me.]

They explicitly want to chase me out of my space, offline, and want me to have no opportunities to make a living doing what I've done for the last ten years of my life. They want this community to cease to exist because they don't like me and the commenting policy, and don't care what destroying it would mean for the people to whom this community means something.

The hate site operates under the auspices of warning people—namely, you, the active commenters, whom they routinely deride as too stupid or gullible to "save" yourselves from me—away from this community, where they assert people are "abused," the examples of which are inevitably people being held accountable for violations of the clearly stated commenting policy.

But, despite their preposterous claims to be engaging in legitimate criticism to prevent abuse, they in fact engage in egregious harassment and abuse themselves—of me, of the contributors and moderators, of Iain, and, increasingly, of commenters.

What constitutes "legitimate criticism" is, for example, a thread with 472 comments debating whether it's acceptable to mock me for being fat and/or not understanding how my own body works.

What constitutes "legitimate criticism" is, as other examples, a thread discussing wanting to slap Deeky in the face, or discussing how Ana Mardoll is like a "cat lady" who will be eaten by her cats when she dies, or tracking down a WordPress test site I was using to explore alternative commenting options and then spinning wild conspiracy theories about what I was really up to.

What constitutes "legitimate criticism" is, as but one more example of literally hundreds, routinely referring to me as "Liz," because I objected to being misnamed in comments here. The stated purpose is to try to harm me. It's also a simple way of dehumanizing me: I am not Melissa McEwan, a real person, but Liz, a cartoonish version of me wholly invented by people who are making an existential attack on me and this space.

"Legitimate criticism" is their pretense for engaging in rank abuse and the dissemination of ludicrous conspiracy theories and lies, often posted by anonymous submitters, of whom are required no proof or substantiation of their claims.

Relentlessly, members of the hate site propose and promulgate all sorts of conspiracy theories and straight-up lies about me and the moderators, including but not limited to: That I am a cult leader; that I'm not invested in this community beyond whatever capacity I have to exploit it for personal gain; that I trick people into becoming moderators by feigning friendships with them; that a moderator repeatedly emailed a commenter to harass her; that I have created multiple identities to sockpuppet at this and other sites; that Ana Mardoll and I am the same person; that I have invented Iain; that I abuse Iain; that my marriage is a sham; that I live in filth; that Iain makes so much money I don't need to work; that I make lots of money; that I make no money; that I pay no income taxes; that I do not have health problems; that I do have mental problems aside those from which I've disclosed; that I am a compulsive liar; that I am lying about Sophie being tiny to get attention; that I abuse Zelly because she is "fat."

None of these things are true. I certainly don't imagine that I will convince anyone who is inclined to believe any of this garbage; the reason I am sharing this truncated list of absurdity is simply to delineate the unfathomable and varied scope of the desperate, unethical, irrational attacks that have been levied in an attempt to discredit me and anyone associated with me, without the merest shred of honesty or decency.

They aren't even consistent in their wild accusations. If one attack doesn't work (Iain is a figment of my imagination), then on to the next one (I abuse my husband), without even the slightest hesitation at the promotion of demonstrably incompatible theories.

Truth is irrelevant, when the point is simply destruction.

All of this was ignorable, as long as it was contained to being directed at me. In truth, I have never even visited the site (and I have no plans to do so). Trusted friends have kept me abreast of the goings-on, repeatedly urging me not to look at the site myself, as I've got enough abuse to process from other sources, and instead alerting me when there was something they thought I'd want to know, such as orchestrated trolling of Shakesville. All of the linked screen captures included for sample documentation in this piece have been taken by others, who were concerned for me, themselves, and/or the members of this community. I had, unfortunately, a vast store of screen captures of abuse from which to select the few provided examples.

In spite of the insistent assertion made by the administrators and participants at the site that I am a voracious narcissist who only cares for myself (the sort of person who would care immensely if untrue things were being said about them), I have cultivated over the years of doing this work a keen capacity to ignore bullshit being said about me.

I do not and cannot ignore when people decide to go after people about whom I care, in order to get to me.

There is no better evidence that, in reality, the people who inhabit the hate site know exactly who I really am than the fact that when coming after me wasn't working, they went after the people I love.

They know that I am a person who cares profoundly about other people's safety, and they have endeavored to exploit that.

They now obsessively document the contributions of all the writers and moderators to this space, including what they do in their own spaces, if they blog elsewhere. Portly Dyke, who hasn't been active on the site for years, as she's now the primary caretaker of her elderly parents, is still a target. Her professional blog has been scrutinized and discussed, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with Shakesville. When I don't give them enough fodder for obsessive discussion and documentation, they go after Ana Mardoll:

screen cap of a page from the hate site labeled 'An Ana Mardoll Break' to which I've added a graphic highlighting a quote reading: 'Since Liz isn't giving me a whole lot to work with this week I thought I'd have a peeksy over at Ana's place and see what all this Twilight business is about. Much like the Wendy Davis transcript, Ana is trudging on doing the [lord's crossed out] feminist's work and recapping the Meyers masterpiece.'
[Screen cap with pull quote added by me.]

Just her association with me makes her "fair game."

They have posted vicious personal smears against the contributors and moderators, told flat-out lies about them, mischaracterized our relationships, and demeaned them in innumerable ways.

Those words, that one sentence, cannot begin to encapsulate the breadth of hostility which has been unleashed against the moderators of this space, under the ludicrous claim of preventing abuse.

In one entirely typical instance, the site administrator justified their torrents of abuse against me by saying that people like Ana Mardoll don't understand how dangerous Shakesville is, and that she needs to have her wrongheadedness pointed out to her so that she might realize Shakesville isn't a safe space for her. That post was sandwiched in between two posts harassing Ana Mardoll.

Consistently, they justify abuse of me with claims of protecting Ana, for example, then engage in wild speculation about Ana's mental health and physical disability.

They have found Iain's LinkedIn profile and posted screen shots of it, and have discussed where he works, what he does for a living, and how much he might make. After his profile was posted, he got a flurry of contact requests from people he doesn't know, hoping to exploit his one bit of online presence, which has nothing to do with Shakesville, in order to get access to our personal lives.

A former contributor to this space, whom I once invited into my home, used my having trusted her with access to our personal lives to give verisimilitude to her tall tales of having seen in person our filthy home and my emotional abuse of Iain.

All of this is treated as truth.

Further, former commenters to this space, to some of whom I've given considerable amounts of my time and concern to help them in some personal or professional way, participate there—bitterly resentful of having been banned for repeated violations of the safe space, which only meant as much to them as it protected them, and nobody else. Naturally, they aren't inclined to share stories of Liss, who cared about them, but gleefully pile on the abuse of Liz, who is a cartoonish effigy of me. There are breathtaking betrayals out of nothing but sheer vengeance, and it has made me deeply reluctant to be as open with strangers in need as I used to be.

To make the obvious point, there could not be more compelling evidence that we made the right moderating decisions regarding these former commenters than the quality of the content at that site.

They demonstrate in every conceivable way that they are hostile to the ideas, central to the space here, of consent for boundaries and harm mitigation.

Their harassment does not stay contained at the site. It comes to me via Twitter and my inbox. When I take time off, I get calls from numbers I don't recognize, so I can't get a moment's peace. Threatening messages have been left on my voicemail, or, sometimes, just maniacal laughter, so as not to break any laws. Other writers/online activists have reported to me receiving communications admonishing them not to have anything to do with me.

And, of course, it comes to this space. Their primary beef, which I'm certain they would dispute but is evidenced in every obsessive documentation of the moderation here and the detailing of how they were "abused" by me and/or the moderators, is that I draw and defend boundaries in my own space.

So it is no surprise that they are deeply hostile to those boundaries, and have no interest in engaging here in good faith.

It is the opposite of good faith to coordinate and orchestrate shit-stirring, then come over here and do it, then run back there to complain bitterly when we moderate those comments in exactly the way they know we're going to moderate it.

They operate within this space with the goal of forcing our moderation to become tighter and tighter, and then, having been the cause of ever tighter moderation, they accuse us of being "abusive."

The pitiful irony is that they use some of the very same rules of participation at their hate site that we do here:

screen cap of a comments section from the hate site, in which one commenter is taking the admin to task: '…you believe what she's saying and explicitly state your biases. Saying that it's because fat shaming might happen is pretty weak' and the admin responding: 'Okay so anyway, no. This isn't up for discussion…'

The breathtaking hypocrisy: If I set off-topic something that I don't want debated in my space, I'm "abusive." But there, it's just eminently reasonable moderation.

(For the record, I believe anyone has the right to set off-topic in their own space whatever they want. My contention is that the same right is not afforded to me, without fear of harassment in response.)

And their "borrowing" from Shakesville does not end there, naturally. After positing a conspiracy theory about how I use the Open Threads as a sort of gateway drug to recruit sycophants to my cult, they started posting Open Threads of their own. After complaining about Shaker Gourmet threads, they started posting food threads of their own. The site admin hosts threads inviting people to share how they found their way to the space, just as I have done many times. They mock me for posting content like kitty videos, and then post kitty videos. They even use a variation on the teaspoon concept in their tagline: "Knocking down Shakesville 3/4 cup at a time."

In a nod to the possessive and projective nature of stalking, they ape me even as they claim to despise me, and they imagine me to be capable and desirous of doing the very things they do: Lying, sock-puppeting, infiltrating their space to stir shit.

But, unlike me, they are not remotely concerned with the safety of other people.

Once more, if they had contained their harassment and abuse to their space, and the direction of its trajectory toward me, I would not be writing this piece.

But they came after people I loved: They decided that, because they hate me and the policies of this space, anyone associated with me is fair game.

And they justify posting dishonest, unethical, abusive harassment of the moderators, my husband, and commenters by claiming to be concerned about them, about you. They actively harm people, and then claim to be doing it out of concern.

To state the obvious: No one is required to read this space, and no one who reads it is required to participate in comments. All anyone has to do to avoid the monster that is Melissa McEwan and her cult of abusive moderators is not read Shakesville and/or not follow me on Twitter.

I haven't written for an external publication in years. I have done a total of three on-site speaking engagements in a decade. My sphere of influence is limited to people who seek me out.

I am fully cognizant of the fact that Shakesville isn't for everyone. And the way most people deal with finding Shakesville disagreeable for any one of a number of reasons is simply not reading it.

Not that anything could justify this sort of harassment, but that underlines the point that this is an existential attack on me and this entire community. The administrators and participants of the hate site don't like me, and instead of simply ignoring Shakesville, they seek its complete annihilation.

When I take time off, and they believe it's because I'm on the verge of quitting, they celebrate.

The past week, I have been thinking long and hard about how I can continue to run this space, when I know that anyone affiliated me will be considered fair game. I cannot begin to convey the guilt and the hurt and the rage I feel that the moderators have been harassed and abused as a result of their association with me; and that which I feel because commenters are targeted as a result of their participation in this community.

And, to state the obvious, I am angry that I am being harassed and abused, too.

I have been desperately looking for a way through this, because I don't want to quit. I don't want to lose my community; I don't want to close a community that means so much to so many people; I don't want to give up on the space into which I've put so much energy; I don't want to lose my livelihood.

But I also don't want to keep it at the expense of people being harmed.

So: I have been working with my colleagues, my friends, to try to find a way to move forward while protecting people as best I can.

To that end: We are making some changes to the moderation policy. In addition to changing some members of the moderating team, moderators will now be doing moderation under anonymous moderator accounts. (Except for me. I will still be moderating under my own name.)

We have always wanted to have complete transparency regarding moderation in this space, but I have to weigh transparency against the safety of the moderators. All I can do is assure you that these changes are not being made because we want to make them, nor because we want to be anything less than transparent.

If you're angry about these changes, well, so am I. That anger is best directed at the people who forced us to make them.

I want to make it very clear that I have made no attempt to get their site shut down, and I am not imploring anyone to engage with them, and certainly not exhorting anyone to harass them in response.

If you feel obliged to do something, then you can leave a comment below saying, in no uncertain terms, that you do not consent to be harassed and that you do not want false professions of concern for your well-being to be used as a justification for abuse against me, the moderators, my colleagues, Iain, other commenters, and anyone else they see fit to harass because of their association, no matter how tenuous, with Shakesville.

I have no illusions about what will happen once this is published: The harassment will escalate.

But I am not intending to start a war.

(Or, perhaps more accurately, I am not intending to respond in kind to the one-sided war currently underway.)

To the contrary: What I am doing is shining a spotlight on what is being done to me, to the moderators, to commenters, to my colleagues, and to my husband. I am stating, bluntly, that we are being harmed. I am doing the best that I can to protect and defend the people I love, and myself, and I am staking a claim to my own space.

I needed to tell you what was happening, so that you know what we're up against and so that you can be fully informed—I can't stop them from screen-capping your comments and saying stupid things about you; I can't even stop them from going after my husband.

And I needed to tell you because I need the support of my community.

I also want to say this plainly: The moderators of this space are some of the most incredibly decent people I have ever known. They don't deserve this. None of us do. And this damnable lie that the moderators are sycophants who capitulate to me cannot go unaddressed: Every single moderator is part of the moderating team specifically because, in part, they are willing to challenge me, because they expect more of me.

Fuck anyone who wants to hurt them, or my husband, or you, because they don't like me.

That is not criticism. That is harassment; it is exploitation; it is abuse.

And it needs to stop.

[Commenting Guidelines: I am not going to allow any kind of "debate" about whether this abuse toward us is: 1. Justifiable; 2. Not abuse. Any comment even remotely along those lines will be deleted. And the only people who are going to have a problem with that, or try to classify it as "shutting down criticism" or some other bullshit that elides criticism and abuse are not the same thing, are the very people who don't engage here in good faith, and I don't give the tiniest fuck about accommodating them. And, frankly, I don't think any reasonable person, after reading all of the above, will begrudge me the absolute right to keep this shit out of my space.]

NOTE: There is a follow-up post here.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

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