Christie Blatchford has for the past year been covering what she refers to as “the first case in Canada of alleged criminal harassment-via-Twitter.” She has published a series of articles and videos documenting the proceedings against Gregory Alan Elliott, a Toronto man accused of harassing activists Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly.
Full disclosure: I am friends with both Guthrie and Reilly. I saw some of the alleged harassment take place on twitter and have also been present for some of the court proceedings. So while my view is biased, my relationship with them does mean that I am more familiar with the case than most of Blatchford’s readers. And I know the people who are relying on Blatchford to produce an honest record of the trial are not being offered a full picture.
Blatchford is certainly entitled to her opinion. After all, that’s what the National Post‘s “Full Comment” section is: opinions. But she frequently presents her opinions as objective realities, and couches them in rhetoric that any reasonable person would understand could incite a violent reaction. Her most recent column reflects both of these tropes and is both inaccurate and dangerous.
Blatchford’s latest dispatch – which has also been by far the most shared and read – describes the charges as the product of nothing more than hurt feelings over a difference of opinion. She writes: “Indeed, Elliott’s chief sin appears to have been that he dared to disagree with the two young feminists and political activists.” She also laments that the ruling (which will not take place until October 6th) will have “an enormous potential fallout for free speech online.” She says that the plaintiffs “didn’t behave as though they were remotely frightened or intimidated,” and instead posits that instead of being victims of harassment, they were two savvy young women gleefully bent on taking an innocent man down.
Now, let’s get a few facts straight: Elliott is not on trial for having a difference of opinion with someone. He is on trial for criminal harassment. He tried repeatedly to contact Guthrie even after she had explicitly asked him to leave them alone. He monitored Guthrie’s movements via Twitter, shadowed events she attended, and flooded any hashtag she participated in. He made it clear that he was following her every move by publicly commenting on her tweets, even after she had blocked him. He sent messages to people who interacted with her online, making it clear that he was observing everything she did.
Elliot, as the Toronto Star reported, is further charged with breaking a peace bond for doing these things.
Whether all of that constitutes criminal harrassment or not is what the court will determine. But you wouldn’t know it from Blatchford’s latest article, in which none of these facts are mentioned.
Not only has Blatchford misreported the events that led up to Elliott being charged, she has also framed the case, I believe, in such a way as to guarantee harassment for the women involved. She uses specific terms and themes – “free speech online,” “shrill and uber-sensitive” women, feminists who want to silence men – that act as a sort of Bat Signal for the dregs of the internet.
Blatchford is savvy enough to know how to create click-bait that generates hits both from misogynist trolls as well as from those who vehemently disagree with her. It’s a smart business plan, but one that has had unfortunate, and foresseable consequences for Elliott’s alleged victims. Ever since the publication of Blatchford’s latest article, Guthrie and Reilly have been inundated with vile, explicit threats. Their inboxes and twitter are full of men explaining in detail how they plan to rape and kill them. And as more and more people share Blatchford’s posts – reality star Joe Rogan recently tweeted Blatchford’s video on the subject to his 1.6 million followers – the harder and faster the threats come.
Indeed, after Rogan mobilized his mob, Guthrie was flamed wherever she has been mentioned. A CANADALAND video featuring Guthrie had no comments more recent than one year old. Then, four days ago, it was flooded with comments like these:
Because the verdict in this case is not expected until October 6th, neither Reilly nor Guthrie can speak out about what is happening. They cannot correct Blatchford’s misrepresentation of the case, they cannot refute any of the untrue assertions about them that are flying around twitter, they cannot make any kind of comment on what is being said about them. Blatchford knew this. The fact that Blatchford used her platform to go after two women who are unable to defend themselves is what makes her piece especially unethical. She is basically offering internet trolls a free shot.
Christie Blatchford isn’t personally responsible for the threats being made against Reilly and Guthrie, but it seems obvious to me that she knew her writing would incite them. In fact, just over a year ago she wrote about the various threats Guthrie had received, saying:
“There isn’t a female writer, in the world probably, who isn’t routinely inundated with this sort of misogynist hate mail, usually focussing on our body parts and appearance. Social media has only made a cruel old world more so, for everyone, but the viciousness of the communications my female colleagues and I receive, particularly when we dare to take a contrarian view of something, is stunning. While I am inured to it, it enrages me that Ms. Guthrie, just 29 and such a bold spirit, should feel it too.”
It seems odd that someone who was so enraged about the frighteningly common threats outspoken women receive would be so irresponsible in her coverage of two of these women.
This type of material isn’t new territory for Blatchford – she frequently tries to peddle anti-feminist sentiments as some kind of bold new stance – and many people would argue that the best thing for those who disagree with her can do is to ignore her. It’s the classic ‘don’t feed the trolls’ tactic, which cites that if you don’t engage bullies, eventually they’ll get bored and go away.
Unfortunately, in this case ignoring Blatchford also means ignoring the fact that her writing has a very real impact for Guthrie and Reilly. In her first article about this case, Blatchford quoted one of the participants in the trial, writing, “What happens on the Internet has consequences off the Internet.”
It would be wise of her to remember those words, especially when those consequences are hitting two women who can’t hit back.