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While social media and other online forums have expanded the ways we can communicate with others the same technology also has a dark side. The possibility for anonymity on the internet has allowed many to abuse this power by making anonymous accusations against named individuals while denying the accused an ability to defend themselves. A popular form of mass sexual assault allegations called “shitlists” – often targetting specific industries or institutions – have destroyed the lives of many individuals over the last few years.
What are shitlists and why are they so dangerous?
Put simply, a shitlist is a form of online communication whereby anonymous accusers can publish a spreadsheet of people’s names, what they are being accused of, and how many anonymous people have reportedly accused them of abusive behaviour.
Recently, we have seen a wave of online accusations throughout Canada in which anonymous accounts on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook call for complainants to contact them then post screenshots of allegations they claim to have received. There is no way to verify the sources of those screenshots to ensure that a real complainant exists.
In a recent case, an Instagram account posted allegations against multiple tattoo artists, resulting in at least one man being criminally charged and many others fired from their employment.
The shitlist is most commonly associated sexual assault and rape allegations and at a minimum, demand that the people named on the list be ostracized by the community. Those who defend these types of allegations typically say that the lists are in the public interest to protect others from abuse and to make it easier for a complainant to speak out.
One of the many problems with this style of accusation is that when accusations remain anonymous it is virtually impossible for the accused to make even a general statement in their own defense. Another problem, as in the case of the tattoo artist complaints, the creator of the social media account was identified as a competitor who stood to profit from having the accused taken out of the market.
The right to due process
One of the biggest problems with shitlists is that they not only circumvent the legal system, they encourage vigilantism and allege serious criminal behaviour. Anyone in Canada who is being accused of a crime has certain legal rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Part of the proper process in a criminal allegation is that the accused are given full disclosure both of the content of the allegations and the identity of their accusers so that they can meaningfully respond to the accusations. The flagrant disregard for due process undermines the core values of our society.
What is disclosure?
One of the first things a judge will ask the accused in a criminal defense is whether they have received disclosure from the Crown. Usually disclosure is received before the accused decides how they will plead to the charge. Disclosure is vital to help an accused make an informed decision and understand the charges against them.
A disclosure package contains any evidence against the accused gathered in the course of an investigation, including the full statements of complainants and witnesses. The police summaries of those statements rarely provide an accurate view of what was said by the complainant and accusations can not be bare assertions of an assault without providing any detail.
It is not a violation of a complainant’s privacy for the accused to know the full accusation against them and a complainant’s anonymity can only truly be protected when the proper legal process is followed, which will normally result in an order for a publication ban.
This trend to vigilantism not only dangerously encourages the public to take the law into their own hands, it does not protect complainants. Those who advocate for anonymous accusations on the internet should reconsider the recklessness of their behaviour if they truly care about justice and victims of sexual assault.
Contact Neuberger today
If you are facing allegations of sexual assault or other crimes in Canada, it is important to retain a criminal lawyer as quickly has possible who can help you with your defense. For a consultation, contact the team at Neuberger and Partners today.