The Falsest of False Equivalencies

[Content Note: Harassment; misogynoir.]

Note: When I originally wrote about Adria Richards two years ago, I said that I wished I'd had her consent to do so, but she was under siege and I didn't want to remain silent. This time, I am writing this piece with Adria's consent and input.

Two years ago, Adria Richards was at PyCon, a tech conference, when a man behind her made sexualized jokes to another man, in violation of the conference guidelines. The jokes persisted for several minutes and at a volume much louder than a whisper, despite how they have since been mischaracterized by others. Adria's building discomfort with the distraction led her to report them to the conference organizers. The first guideline in reporting said that identifying the person was key. Adria, thinking it would be unlikely that men would willingly identify themselves if she asked so, decided to use her smartphone—a strategy applauded for identifying street harassers and one which would later be applauded in Ferguson last year.

Adria took their picture and tweeted it, also notifying the listed contacts in the Code of Conduct via text message and asking the conference organizers to handle it. (As a side note: It was policy for the conference to publicly list Code of Conduct violations, at least three of which were reported that weekend.) The conference organizers reported to Adria that the violation she reported had been addressed, and she agreed.

Everything was seemingly resolved, and there was no public reaction on Twitter. It was only once the man "posted about losing his job on Hacker News" that the pushback started, and then escalated exponentially, with even ostensible allies abetting the abuse by tone and choice policing.

After her employer's website was targeted for a DDoS attack along with a letter demanding her termination, Adria was fired from her job and had to take the drastic measure of moving out of the apartment she shared with two roommates because of the relentless cacophony of threats and harassment.

That was two years ago. Fast forward to this week, when Adria's story and experiences were reduced to an anecdote, propping up one of the main subjects in Jon Ronson's article for the New York Times, "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justice Sacco's Life."

The 2013 "stupid tweet" in question was a "joke" about how Sacco, who was boarding a plane to Africa at the time of the tweet, could not get AIDS because she is white. In the most generous interpretation of the joke, Sacco is making a commentary on white privilege—but it's still structured in a way that only other people with white privilege can laugh at it. It's a racist joke. A joke that highlights her privilege while reminding people with less privilege of what they don't have.

Ronson goes into great detail to describe the way Sacco was targeted, harassed, stalked, and fired, and then tells the story of another white woman, Lindsey Stone, who came under attack after posting a photograph of herself and a friend at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns, flipping the bird and pretending to scream next to a sign requesting "Silence and Respect." Stone, like Sacco, is a white woman.

Then Ronson abruptly segues into Adria Richards' story—except it's not from Adria's perspective at all.
I met a man who, in early 2013, had been sitting at a conference for tech developers in Santa Clara, Calif., when a stupid joke popped into his head. It was about the attachments for computers and mobile devices that are commonly called dongles. He murmured the joke to his friend sitting next to him, he told me. "It was so bad, I don't remember the exact words," he said. "Something about a fictitious piece of hardware that has a really big dongle, a ridiculous dongle. . . . It wasn’t even conversation-level volume."

Moments later, he half-noticed when a woman one row in front of them stood up, turned around and took a photograph. He thought she was taking a crowd shot, so he looked straight ahead, trying to avoid ruining her picture. It's a little painful to look at the photograph now, knowing what was coming.

The woman had, in fact, overheard the joke. She considered it to be emblematic of the gender imbalance that plagues the tech industry and the toxic, male-dominated corporate culture that arises from it. She tweeted the picture to her 9,209 followers with the caption: "Not cool. Jokes about . . . 'big' dongles right behind me." Ten minutes later, he and his friend were taken into a quiet room at the conference and asked to explain themselves. Two days later, his boss called him into his office, and he was fired.

[Note from Liss: This timeline does not appear to be accurate. Adria pointed out one of several inaccuracies: "The issue at PyCon happened on Sunday, March 17th, 2013. He posted to Hacker News less than 24 hours later on Monday, March 18th, 2013 saying he had been fired." That contradicts the "two days later" timeline presented in Ronson's article. Please go here for a slideshow of the timeline, provided by Adria.]

"I packed up all my stuff in a box," he told me. (Like Stone and Sacco, he had never before talked on the record about what happened to him. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid further damaging his career.) "I went outside to call my wife. I'm not one to shed tears, but" — he paused — "when I got in the car with my wife I just. . . . I've got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying."
Only then, are we finally introduced to Adria, and finally learn her name: "The woman who took the photograph, Adria Richards, soon felt the wrath of the crowd herself."

Now, here's some stuff I want you to know about Adria (and, to be abundantly clear, this information is being shared with her explicit permission): Adria grew up in Minneapolis, in a home filled with domestic violence and then in foster care, lacking many of the basics that most of those in the middle- and upper classes take for granted. (In fact, just a few weeks before all this happened, Adria had written a brave post about the obstacles she's faced and overcome to become a successful tech professional.)

The daughter of a Jewish, city-born mother and a Black, Southern-born father, Adria had some early awareness of racism, by way of people who would get angry and yell at her parents. But it was in fifth grade, when she was moved to a new foster home in the suburb of Eden Prairie, where everyone around her was white, that she was called an N-word for the first time on the school bus.

That was not the only notable thing that happened to her that year. She also had her first kiss, and she got glasses for the first time, realizing that other kids had been able to see the chalkboard the whole time. She was introverted, smart, and "weird" (according to the other kids)—a burgeoning nerd.

By age 17, she'd fallen in love with computers. A year later, she was working at Geeksquad, employee #26, and she absorbed everything she could about hardware, operating systems, and networks. That summer, she registered her first domain name for a client for whom she was building a website, and learned about DNS. She buried herself in books and scoured websites, learning new things and trying them out, relying on friends whose parents had more resources to get access to hardware.

She embarked on a career in tech, where in literally every job she had been the only Black person and often one of very few women. She found it easy to work with others in her beloved tech, but sometimes found it hard to build friendships. But, before 2013, despite having worked in tech, often as the only Black woman, for many years and having attended over 200 tech conferences, hackathons, meetups, user groups, mixers, hack nights, and workshops, she had never needed to report sexual harassment.

Which is not to say she'd never experienced something that made her uncomfortable before. In fact, it was the familiar feeling of the hairs on the back of her neck standing up and her back aching, symptoms she'd come to associate with stifling her voice in similar situations, that made her report the "jokes" at PyCon.

So, why would Adria become the target, when she was pushing back on behavior that violated the conference's code of conduct? Because the man whose photograph she took to report his persistent telling of sexualized jokes loud enough for several other people to hear at a tech conference, publicly complained about losing his job on a board where participants were primed to be sympathetic to him. Within hours, hundreds of comments appeared on the forum thread. It should be noted the man did not use his real name or account, but created a fake account on Hacker News to share he had been fired.

Here is Adria in her own words about what happened next:

By Monday night, when I finally checked my social media account (I was still at the conference on Monday doing code sprints with other teams), I was confused and horrified to find gender and racial slurs filling my timeline. I hadn't checked email either for several hours but that began to fill up with nasty communications and, by Wednesday, I was receiving death threats.

Many people get the timeline wrong here. I posted my blog article that evening, Monday, around 9:30pm, well after the teams broke for dinner. Based on the timestamp, the guy who had been fired posted to Hacker News around lunchtime, no later than 2:00pm on Monday. This means I didn't write the blog post to get him fired. I wrote it to express my thoughts on my experience the day before.

It wasn't until someone on social media told me to check a link to Hacker News that I saw he posted he had been fired. I read his posting and a few of the comments, and then I left a comment saying I didn't agree with his company firing him, and that it didn't help him or the company to do so, and that I hoped they would hire him back on. Unfortunately, my comment was quickly downvoted; thus, it didn't appear to new people reading the forum posting, and this concerned me.

Comments began appearing on Hacker News throwing allegations and describing me with very negative descriptions. The word "feminist" was used several times, though I've stated multiple times online I do not identify as a feminist. It became an angry mob, with each description of me even worse than the one before, until I had been drawn as non-human, a creature only capable of hate and harm.

At first, I was unaware of what was happening. Corey Leigh and others tried to leave logic-based comments and reason with the increasingly unreasonable commenters. It spilled out onto the Internet to the forums of 4chan and onto Twitter via a semi-planned semi-chaos attack from 4chan participants. It escalated quickly, based on false information, specifically the cause and effect: I did not get the guy fired; his own behaviour, which his employer considered another strike on his already written-up employee file, caused his employer to make the decision to fire him. Shooting the messenger, me, did not change this.

I didn't write the blog post hoping to get him fired. I wrote the blog post to express my thoughts about what I had experienced the day before. This has been my M.O. for several years, and it's how most people who run blogs operate: You experience something that generates strong feelings; you wrote a blog post. Pretty straightforward.

So far, everything was pretty much normal as far as how tech nerds operate: That includes myself and everyone working in tech, including the guy.

What happened next is what turned it from a local, Bay Area conference issue into an international meltdown, which unfortunately destroyed a lot of goodwill that had been established in the tech community.

Near midnight, I checked my web traffic, as I always did after posting, and saw an unusually high amount of visitors coming from a site called 4chan. I decided it would be best to setup Cloudflare on my site to withstand any potential DDoS attacks. I contacted my hosting company as well to give them a heads up. My site was targeted and attacked but it stayed up. I tweeted my proactive measures the next morning.

When I visited 4chan for the first time in my life that week, I was horrified and speechless by what I saw. There were hundreds of threads on 4chan focused on hate, sexism, and racism. I went to a section called /b/, which is where Google Analytics said the traffic was coming from, and saw discussions that made my skin crawl. The people on this site were discussing ways to harm, harass, and humiliate me and the other women they were targeting. I began taking screenshots because the things being said were incredibly violent, dangerous, and potentially illegal (not sure if it's against the law to order and send pizzas to a police precinct, but it's probably not a good idea).

Just a day later, I would be doxx'd: My personal information about where I lived, my contact information, and more were publicly released onto sites like 4chan with active encouragement to contact, threaten, and harass me. The messaging began to change from simply being angry at me and calling me names to discussions about getting me fired. The obsessive and relentless nature of the people participating in these discussions was again, unsettling.

I could go on but I think we all know what happened next: I was publicly fired online.

But Jon doesn't talk about that in the article at all. I question, and we should all question, why a man losing his job due to his own life choices is a more important story to tell than a woman who, within 72 hours, became the target of a massive, organized harassment campaign that ended in her public firing. We need to ask why the man continues to enjoy anonymity yet a woman is threatened with physical, psychological, and economic violence for refusing to be silent about harassment that is illegal in all 50 states.

Most importantly, we need to ask why Jon Ronson decided, after benefiting for months on my free labor as he asked me time and time again to provide all sorts of information (including the name of the guy who is portrayed as the main subject of the article), to not tell my story.

Ronson reports that Adria told him: "I cried a lot during this time, journaled, and escaped by watching movies. SendGrid [her employer] threw me under the bus. I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone."

Adria told him a lot of things, on the record, for a story that she did not expect would turn out this way. Why did she go on record? Adria again:

It turns out Ronson, like many journalists and media people, manipulated the truth to get information. Ronson positioned himself as a supporter that understood why I had reported the guy at the conference. Ronson talked about his frustration with sexism, yet in the NYTimes article, that topic is just lightly grazed, thus no real discussion occurs, robbing the reader of having better insight as to why sexism is pervasive and problematic in tech culture.

Ronson had been recommended by a woman which made it easier to trust him. Initially Ronson was quite persistent, contacting me several times by multiple methods. I wonder now if he had already signed a book deal at that time. He told me how important the subject was and that he had empathy for what I went through and he wanted to tell my story. Ronson talked about his success as an author and that his films had been screened at Sundance. This all seemed reasonable and believable.

When Ronson first contacted me, I felt pretty frustrated and afraid. Frustrated because I had not felt safe to continue talking about what had happened once the cyber mobs had targeted me. I saw rumors repeated and spread across social media yet I felt powerless to do anything as my goal was to diffuse the situation. At that time, I was receiving hundreds of messages a day across all social channels from harassers: email, phone, Twitter. I had changed my Facebook page to "private" and restricted all her Flickr images to "All Rights Reserved" to stop the harassers from taking images of me and attaching them to women in pornographic poses. Ronson doesn't mention this at all in the NYTimes excerpt as most of the article is focused on Justine Sacco.

So, here we have a woman who simply wants the truth known about what she has lived through, and a writer looking to snag a story so he can sell books. A perfect storm.

Early in 2014, I went to the SFO airport to meet Jon Ronson. I felt that would be a safe place to meet. We talked at a table in the food court, and I laid out details and timelines that hadn't made it into the public. Any questions Jon asked, I offered to provide proof to back it up and did so later with emails. Jon seemed supportive and encouraging. I left feeling better and certainly relieved in knowing someone now could help tell my story. Much of the media had relied on the Internet rumor mill, since I had declined all media interviews as I attempted to not add fuel to the fire and diffuse the situation.

What could be worse than someone taking what you've told them and portraying you as the aggressor? It was a sucker-punch to the gut. This is what Jon Roson's article in the NYTimes did. I simply become an agitator affecting the man's life, no more, no less.

Adria trusted Ronson to tell her story, to do it justice, only to have Ronson draw a false equivalence between her, a woman challenging inappropriate sexual jokes at a tech conference (at which everyone had signed a photo disclosure form), and the man who was making those inappropriate sexual jokes. And to draw a false equivalency between her, a woman challenging sexism in a professional space for technology workers, and Justine Sacco, a woman casually making racist jokes under her real name while employed as a senior director of corporate communications for tech company IAC.

All without mentioning that Adria Richards is a Black woman.

There is zero discussion of the power imbalance between being a white man who is exposed for making sexual jokes in a professional space, and being a Black woman who is exposed for refusing to tolerate sexual jokes in a professional space.

There is zero discussion of the differential between making a racist joke (punching down), and challenging sexist comments (punching up).

There is zero discussion of what the anonymous joke-telling man's life is like now, presumably because he is not still suffering routine harassment. One day last week, just talking to Adria on Twitter, I had to report three different account for abuse, because of racist and misogynist slurs used against her by people inserting themselves into our conversation, just to harass her.

Two years later.

In fact, the man who first called attention to Justine Sacco's tweet is quoted in Ronson's article saying he imagines she's fine now. But, years later, her life is still upended. (In fact, the story ends with Sacco's request for no further exposure, which Ronson merely reports and ignores.)

And so is Adria Richards' life. But this, too, goes unmentioned. A man was fired for violating the conduct rules in a professional space. That might feel unfair to him—because, after all, what dude ever gets fired for telling sexist jokes?—but it is actually an eminently fair consequence.

The man was re-hired by another company in a matter of weeks. The woman who reported him, though? Adria was not so lucky. After her employer Sendgrid publicly fired her, the volume of threats sharply increased. She fled her home, was forced to sell many of her belongings, and couch-surfed with friends for nearly a year—all the time, looking over her shoulder.

Adria also notes: "Before this happened to me, I had worked in tech for 15 years, had lived in San Francisco the last 3 years, and my Google search results were pretty awesome, highlighting not only my technical knowledge but my consistent contributions to the tech community through mentoring, teaching, talks, and volunteering my time to organizations building diversity." They don't look like that anymore.

And she is still being attacked. Daily. And add to that: Exploited by reporters who purport to want to tell her story, but instead tell a story where she is cast as the cause of a hapless man's downfall, and thus deserving of continued harm.

I still stand with Adria Richards.

This post was updated with minor edits I'd missed to Adria's account.

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