Since October, advertisers have been riveted by an anonymous Instagram account called Diet Madison Avenue, which solicited reports of sexual misconduct in the ad industry and published the names of alleged harassers. But now, the account has been deleted and its creators’ names could be made public through a defamation lawsuit brought by a man who claims Diet Madison Avenue posted false allegations about him that cost him his job.
The suit has put a spotlight on the new digital forums, like Instagram accounts and Google spreadsheets, that have been used to surface allegations of harassment in the #MeToo era and have highlighted the precariousness of maintaining anonymity online.
Diet Madison Avenue, which said it was run by 17 people, urged those who worked in advertising to send their stories of harassment, promising anonymity and offering resources to victims. Through Instagram Stories, which disappear after 24 hours, the account called out agencies and published the names of more than a dozen alleged harassers. Several agencies dismissed men whose names appeared on Diet Madison Avenue.
The account’s snarky tone — photos of some the accused were manipulated so that the men appeared to have pigs’ noses — had a polarizing effect. Many people, particularly younger workers in the advertising industry, lauded the account for exposing the misdeeds of powerful men, but others said it was tantamount to trial by social media. The account had more than 20,000 followers before it was deleted last month. (Another version has since been created but it has only 1,200 followers.)
The lawsuit was brought in May by Ralph Watson, the former chief creative officer of the Boulder, Colo., office of the Crispin Porter & Bogusky advertising agency. Mr. Watson, 50, said that the agency unfairly dismissed him in February and that he had been unable to find work after Diet Madison Avenue called him a sexual “predator” and alleged that he had harassed multiple young women he worked with. The account called him an “unrepentant serial predator” and suggested that if Crispin Porter truly supported the #MeToo movement, it would fire him. Mr. Watson was dismissed for cause days later.
“Many high-level people in the industry have told him that he will never work again unless he can publicly clear his name,” said Michael Ayotte, a lawyer in Hermosa Beach, Calif., who is representing Mr. Watson. Mr. Ayotte said that there were industry peers who believed that Mr. Watson was innocent but feared there would be a backlash if they hired him, including the risk of “being seen as unsympathetic to the #MeToo movement.”
Mr. Watson said in an open letter on Mr. Ayotte’s website that he had never sexually harassed anyone but that his “career and reputation were erased overnight.” He said that his goal was to bring the operators of Diet Madison Avenue into a public forum to state their claims and evidence against him, contending that the group would not be able to do that.
The operators of Diet Madison Avenue did not respond to requests for comment through Instagram or a GoFundMe page created for its legal defense, where it has raised about $2,000 in the last month. The operators have said in the past that allegations were independently researched and supporting documents obtained before names were posted on the account.
Mr. Watson filed a separate lawsuit on Friday against Crispin Porter, which is owned by MDC Partners, for wrongful termination and other charges including age discrimination. He claimed that the agency fired him based on Diet Madison Avenue’s posts without conducting a proper investigation, specifying claims against him or naming his accusers.
In a joint statement with MDC, Crispin Porter said that it stood by its decision to “terminate Mr. Watson’s employment,” and both companies said they intended to “vigorously defend themselves and their employees” against the lawsuit brought by Mr. Watson.
The Diet Madison Avenue suit, filed in Los Angeles, named the account and a string of Jane and John Does, representing dozens of people it believed were associated with the account. Their identities could be revealed if Instagram is subpoenaed and ordered to turn over subscriber information. The court could grant the subpoena depending on how it interprets Mr. Watson’s defamation claim, said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and the author of the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.”
“What the court’s going to do in a searching way, realizing free speech and anonymous speech is on the line, is ask: Is there a real lawsuit here?” she said. If it decides that Mr. Watson has a solid defamation case based on the facts alleged in his complaint, she said, then Instagram could be subpoenaed.
Instagram could refuse to comply, but the decision is likely to come down to how the posts were phrased, said Nate Cardozo, a senior staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights organization.
“The situation where Instagram would push back would be if the statements were not actually capable of being defamation,” Mr. Cardozo said. That could include opinions, he said, like: “I’ve heard a lot of bad things about Ralph Watson and I believe the women who are accusing him.” But, he said, the posts by Diet Madison Avenue stated as fact that Mr. Watson was a predator who “targeted and groomed women.”
Instagram, which declined to comment on Mr. Watson’s suit, says online that it may share basic subscriber information when it is “indispensable to a case and not within a party’s possession upon personal service of a valid subpoena or court order.” That could include names, email addresses and I.P. addresses tied to recent logins — a significant detail given that many people appeared to be using the account. Internet service providers can then tie names to I.P. addresses. Instagram notifies account holders before sharing the data.
Ms. Citron said that the lawsuit underscored the risk of creating anonymous forums like Diet Madison Avenue rather than bringing allegations to the news media, civil rights groups or human resources departments.
“If what they’ve written is true, then they’ve got to get a lawyer and defend themselves — it’s expensive and time-consuming and they may very well not have any liability, but it’s brutal getting there,” she said. “I imagine these folks don’t have a huge amount of resources. They’re already vulnerable as it is, given they’re writing about being harassed, and they’re probably young women at work. I wish they hadn’t done it.”
There are issues for the other side, too.
“This trial is not going to be easy on the plaintiff because he’s going to be deposed and cross-examined and his H.R. history from the first day of his first job ever to now is all going to be exposed,” Mr. Cardozo said. “So he better be real sure that these are false; otherwise, suing was an absolutely terrible idea.”
Kat Gordon, the founder of the 3% Movement, which promotes the role of women in creative leadership in advertising, said that she found it implausible that the account “would concoct something totally fake and that an agency that had knowledge of this employee would just blindly fire him.” Still, she said, “if you are going to lose your job, you are entitled to know what was said about you and by whom and have a chance to defend yourself.”
There is also the question of whether messages about harassment that were sent to the account could be exposed through the lawsuit. Private parties cannot obtain such content from Instagram by law, Mr. Cardozo said, but lawyers could try to get the court to order Diet Madison Avenue to turn over that content. If the group refused to comply, then they could be held in contempt, he said.
Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the case was an interesting example of “the roles these tech companies play in facilitating people’s speech.” The decision that the court will make will be challenging, she said.
“The reason that people are making these sorts of accounts anonymously is because of the fear of reprisal that they face — that’s a key part of why we have a First Amendment right to anonymous speech,” Ms. Llansó said. “On the other hand, defamation and untrue statements that are damaging to people’s reputations are also something our laws protect against.”
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