Jose Canseco spent Wednesday tweeting and deleting the personal information of a woman — including her name, telephone number, and work address — at the center of an incident in which the former baseball player was apparently questioned. "He's being investigated for an alleged sexual assault, and that's it," a Las Vegas police sergeant says. So why isn't Twitter doing anything about it?
In a year when young victims of sexual assault have been shamed on social media by young people siding with accused athletes from Torrington to Steubenville, here is a six-time All-Star (albeit a very strange and estranged one), live-tweeting his self-defense to more than 510,000 Twitter followers and calling into question the judgment of a woman who appears to have accused him of a crime. Indeed, after he got off a flight to Fort Worth this evening, Canseco was up to it again:
While Canseco might have violated the laws of human decency and broke new ground — in notoriety and absurdity — in taunting an alleged assault victim, he may have only broken a few of Twitter's rules. Indeed, Twitter is as notoriously defensive of free speech as it is quick to suspend verified accounts with thousands of followers that, say, temporarily crash the stock market. And, again, this is an ongoing investigation. (A spokesperson for the Clark County DA's office confirmed in a phone call with The Atlantic Wire that no charges have been filed.) And it's not exactly neo-Nazis, and even Westboro Baptist Church still tweets hate language about major news events all day long. But Twitter also has content boundary rules that prevent the publishing or posting of "private and confidential information" or "direct, specific threats of violence." And in his initial rant Wednesday afternoon, Canseco shared private information that is my no means confidential any longer. The confessed steroid user and famous self-promoter's biggest specific threat may have been to take a polygraph about this incident on national TV, but he also brought back tremors of what happens when alleged assault victims get outed on Twitter (we've crossed out the woman's name in this case):
All of those tweets have since been deleted. So has another, which gave the woman's place of work and its address, asking the media to conduct a polygraph of the woman... at said place of work. And only one tweet referencing the woman by name remains as of this writing:
We watched as the bizarre series of tweets played out, and Canseco's account was not suspended at any time, despite multiple calls from Twitter users urging their followers to alert Twitter that Canseco abused the service. It's unclear whether or not Twitter or Canseco (or someone with access to Canseco's account) deleted the tweets among them that vanished. A representative from Twitter did not respond to multiple inquires from The Atlantic Wire on Wednesday afternoon, seeking clarity on the service's policy on the naming of alleged sexual assault victims — it is a longstanding practice in the mainstream media to withhold names, as research has shown that making them public tends to reduce the number of victims who speak out against their attackers to their families and the authorities. But if you look at recent high-profile rape cases and Twitter's Terms of Service, it's clear that Canseco may have only crossed the line in certain respects — and it's becoming more clear that the line may need to be moved.
In Torrington, Connecticut, the witholding of police investigation documents may have contributed to the Twitter shaming of two 13-year-old girls allegedly raped by a star football player and his friend. In Steubenville, Ohio, the 16-year-old victim's name was bleeped in court, but still slipped on air on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. As a guilty verdict in the Steubenville case was read and two high-school football players were found guilty, the Daily Kos caught these Twitter users using the Jane Doe victim's first name:
If you recall, two local girls were arrested for threatening Steubenville's Jane Doe on Twitter and eventually pled guilty to telecommunications harassment and were placed on six months probation. But those girls were arrested for the threats, not for releasing her name. In the U.K., where there are stricter libel and privacy laws than here in the U.S. — the BBC notes that a law there grants victims and alleged victims of rape lifelong anonymity — there is a case where people were punished and asked to pay a fine for leaking the name of a woman raped by soccer player Ched Evans, but those are a different set of rules.
We have also seen the other side of this. Back in 2012, a teenager named Savannah Dietrich violated a gag order and named her teenage rapists, who she felt received too lenient a plea bargain. By doing so, she faced a potential jail sentence for being in contempt. The boys, as Jezebel's Katie J.M. Baker noted, did eventually receive a stricter punishment and Dietrich was vindicated. Again, Dietrich was in trouble for violating the gag order which she violated on Twitter. It's hard to tell if she broke any of Twitter's rules. If anything, her case shows that Twitter is an avenue to name names, however legally serious.
If you look at Twitter's terms of service, there are those sections and policies against threats of violence and personal information, but there's nothing about naming someone who you might be facing in court, or who might be the victim of a certain crime:
Canseco appears to have broken one of those rules, by posting the phone number of the woman in question. It's not clear if tweeting the name and address of the gym where she apparently worked qualifies as her private street address. The other tweets, where Canseco calls the woman a liar and asks for the polygraph, do not seem to directly violate Twitter's TOS. "Twitter does not screen content and we do not remove potentially offensive content unless such content is a violation of our Terms of Service," Twitter's guidelines read. Though they're now deleted, the tweets which contained the photo, phone number, and work address of the woman were accessible to any of Canseco's 510,000-plus followers.
It's not crazy to think Canseco opened up an avenue of harassment. Canseco gets wildly personal on Twitter as it is, tweeting email addresses of his manager while seeking publicity. Mind you, the investigation is still ongoing. But outings like this, before any case can get underway and with the track record of professional athletes and women on social media, could have a chilling effect on the alleged victim and future victims. The special prosecutor in the Steubenville case actually said that the national attention paid to Jane Doe harmed the case when it came to witnesses — and put stress on the young girl.
Twitter loves its free speech. And people hate when Twitter even thinks about censorship. And in a sense, that free speech principle allows us to make fun of Justin Bieber or Ryan Seacrest or our sad dinners in 140 characters. It's also what allows Jose Canseco to be a jerk. We'll let you know if we hear back from Twitter.