When she decided to write the story of her sexual assault, the woman who goes by "Josie" said she "went into it with the expectation that someone would find out who I was."
The piece, published by Jezebel on May 21, explained the role she played in the Columbia University allegations against student Paul Nungesser — what happened during the adjudication process, in which Nungesser was initially found guilty but later won an appeal, and why she's only "begrudgingly given anonymous interviews." Josie described taking a different path from "Carry That Weight" artist Emma Sulkowicz, who's been the focus of national media coverage since September, when she began carrying a mattress around campus until Nungesser was expelled or left Columbia. The performance piece ended when Sulkowicz and Nungesser graduated two weeks ago — around the time Josie decided to write publicly about Nungesser for the first time.
"I wrote this essay, and I sort of braced myself," Josie said. "And nothing happened."
Two days later, the real name of "Adam" — another anonymous student who filed a sexual assault complaint against Nungesser at Columbia — was published by Charles C. Johnson, a self-identified journalist and "nerd researcher" who uses racist and misogynist language to bring attention to his work and website, GotNews.com. (Johnson was recently suspended from Twitter, where he had more than 25,000 followers, for asking for donations to "take out" activist DeRay McKesson.) It wasn't the first time Johnson has published the name of an anonymous alleged victim of sexual assault. Josie feared she would be next.
"I know who Chuck Johnson is," Josie said. "And I knew if anyone was going to publish my name, it was probably going to to be him."
The following Monday was Memorial Day, and Josie was spending time with her boyfriend's family — stressed about being Johnson's next "doxx," but trying not to think about it too much. Then, in the late afternoon, she checked her work email. She had a message that was sent around 1:30 in the morning, from me, Jessica Testa, a reporter at BuzzFeed. The email said I was reaching out to Josie "because we're interested in republishing your powerful anonymous article at BuzzFeed but I just want to be sure we have your permission."
Josie — a media-savvy writer, who once "updogged" writer Cathy Young — was pissed. She didn't know how I got her name or email address, and she said she felt "betrayed." She was mad at the Jezebel writer she thought might have given it to me. She was mad at me for the "weird" request, which should have gone through Jezebel — not her directly.
The only thing is: I didn't email her.
I found out that someone emailed Josie with my name only after Erin Gloria Ryan, the Jezebel editor who published Josie's story, contacted me. I learned from Ryan that the email to Josie came from "email@example.com," an address incorporating my Twitter handle — but certainly didn't belong to me. Until that Monday night, I didn't know Josie's real name.
After reading the email, Josie — still thinking it was me — had replied right away: "How did you get my name?" That was at 6:41 p.m. on Monday. Seven hours later, there was a story on GotNews' website identifying her by name. When he published her name, Johnson said GotNews.com had obtained Josie's identity "thanks to some high level sleuthing and the contributions of ." (The sentence doesn't end.)
It turned out the anticipation of having her anonymity stripped away was worse than it actually being stripped away. (Still, Josie has asked to remain anonymous. She knows her name is out there, but she doesn't want to make it any easier for people to find it.)
Josie found Johnson's post about her "pathetic" — her name was spelled wrong and she was misidentified in a photo. More importantly, she said, "he didn't have an angle. His angle was like, 'Oh this person wanted to be anonymous. Well she's not anymore.' It wasn't like, 'Oh she has a history of this.' Or like, 'This is suspicious.' It was like: 'Here's a person.'"
Later, I asked Josie about her reaction to finding out the email wasn't from me, separate from what happened later that night.
"My stomach dropped, and I was like, 'Oh shit, it's Chuck Johnson. It's someone trying to doxx me and figure out who I am,'" Josie said. "It's disgusting to try to take advantage of someone who's in a vulnerable position."
Two days before she got the email — before he was suspended — Johnson tweeted: "Everyone has an unguarded moment. Find it & control the world."
I had emailed Johnson five days before Josie was contacted by someone claiming to be me. I was looking to report out who was responsible for the posters hanging around Columbia of Emma Sulkowicz and the words "Pretty Little Liar." There was speculation that Johnson was involved, so I asked him if he had anything to do with the posters or their complementary Twitter account @fakerape. (Johnson has also registered the domain fakeraperegistry.com.)
"I thought we were clear," Johnson replied to me. "I don't answer inquiries from a cat pornography site that doxxed an innocent man for exercising his constitutional rights." (He was referring to a BuzzFeed report from December that a member of the fraternity at the heart of Rolling Stone's discredited University of Virginia story had hired a lawyer known for representing college men accused of rape.)
"Good luck on your witch hunt," Johnson wrote then. "I wish you nothing but failure."
I called Johnson on Monday, about a week after learning about the email sent to Josie. He hung up on me as soon as I explained why I was calling. Then he texted me: "As a rule I don't participate in any interviews with BuzzFeed. Cat pornographers aren't journalists." Over text message, I asked him three more times if he impersonated me using the address firstname.lastname@example.org. As before, Johnson didn't take the opportunity to deny he impersonated me using that email address. He restated his refusal to answer the question. I emailed him again to let him know this story was about to be published.
"Once again I do not answer inquiries from BuzzFeed," he replied. "I would be very careful if you accuse me of committing a crime with the lack of evidence you've presented here."
Again he did not deny the impersonation.
To be very clear, I don't know who sent the email using my name to Josie. As a reporter, I wasn't able to confirm Josie's suspicion — to connect the dots between "email@example.com" and Johnson. Josie emailed the address again a day later but never received a reply. (I emailed it Monday and also didn't get a reply.) Gmail masks IP addresses. Google can only provide information about a user "pursuant to a valid third party subpoena or other appropriate legal process."
I haven't pursued an "appropriate legal process," though this would qualify as criminal impersonation, second degree, in New York, where I live, and as a similar crime in many other states.
The law requires there be "intent to obtain a benefit or to injure or defraud another." When I told a commercial litigator who's worked on online fraud cases and used to prosecute sex crimes for the Manhattan district attorney's office about the impersonating email, she said she thought an "argument could be made that the email was sent with the intent to defraud [Josie] — certainly to convince her she was disclosing her identity for a purpose that was unintended."
If the case was taken to them and they found it actionable, prosecutors would likely begin fact-gathering with subpoenas for information about the Gmail user.
"If the person is unsophisticated, they're sending emails from their home computer," the former prosecutor said. "But sometimes very sophisticated people are doing this and they have all sorts of means of re-routing and sending the information."
The crime is a class A misdemeanor, punishable with a $1,000 fine or a year in jail. The lawyer said she couldn't imagine someone "would be subjected to that extreme a penalty, even if prosecuted." It may be a crime, but not a very serious one, particularly without threats of violence.
The lawyer urged me repeatedly to contact Manhattan prosecutors.
"I just wouldn't be comfortable knowing this is someone who knows who you are and is using it in a way that is troubling," she said. "Something about it gives me real pause. I don't want to alarm you, but you just never know."
I haven't gone that route; I only knew I wanted to approach this as a reporter first. But the only thing I've definitely learned is that being impersonated is an unusual example of a routine harassment — lobbed at both women who speak publicly about their sexual assaults, and the women who report their stories.
When I asked why she's decided to stay anonymous, Josie told me, "It's not because I have anything to hide. I've just seen what people do to women on the internet who tell their stories."
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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