Last month, Jezebel ran a piece written by a woman who had filed a successful complaint against accused Columbia rapist Paul Nungesser. She chose to remain anonymous to protect herself. Days later, her identity was doxxed on the website of a well-known bumbling wannabe conservative provocateur famed for his unethical practices. How he confirmed her identity is still very fishy—and possibly illegal.
The author of “I Am Not a ‘Pretty Little Liar’” was known by the pseudonym “Josie” in a piece I’d previously written on Columbia University’s ongoing disastrous approach to sexual assault adjudication. She offered to write her anonymously bylined piece—her first extensive public statement on her disciplinary complaint against Paul Nungesser—after signs appearing on Columbia’s campus around graduation depicted sexual assault activist Emma Sulkowicz as a “liar.” Sulkowicz had begun her mattress-carrying art thesis/public awareness campaign after she was dissatisfied with the way that Columbia handled her complaint against Nungesser. (Puzzlingly, whoever was responsible for the posters also referred to Lena Dunham as a “big fat liar,” even though she has nothing to do with Columbia University or Paul Nungesser.)
Things got strange that weekend. On Memorial Day, I got a text from “Josie,” telling me that she’d gotten an email from a BuzzFeed reporter asking for permission to republish “I Am Not a Pretty Little Liar.” I assured her that I hadn’t shared her identity with anybody, and asked her who had sent it; she told me Jessica Testa had, and forwarded me the email.
I sent Jessica a terse message over Twitter, asking her why she was circumventing Jezebel’s editorial staff to ask for republishable material (as a fairly seasoned reporter, I was confused that Testa hadn’t known better); her response was: “??” I asked her if firstname.lastname@example.org was her email address; it was not. Somebody, then, had been impersonating a reporter in an attempt to get information from a sexual assault victim who had wished to remain anonymous. At 1:23 am on a holiday weekend. I told Josie not to respond to the email, but it was too late.
Once Testa and I had figured out what had happened, we both tried to determine who was behind it, and what could be done. On her writeup of the incident over at BuzzFeed News, Testa explains that after speaking to a lawyer, she learned that what the person behind “email@example.com” had done something that’s illegal in many states.
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.
So who is behind it? Because, as Testa points out, Gmail masks the IP addresses of senders, it would be impossible for either of us (or our respective company’s legal teams) to glean without the aid of a subpoenas. But Jessica, Josie, and I all have our suspicions.
Before threatening another Twitter user got him permanently banned from the social media site over Memorial Day weekend, Chuck C. Johnson had been victoriously tweeting at me that he was about to doxx “Josie.” (Because he’s been banned, his account has been deleted and the tweets no longer exist.) In the wee hours of Sunday, Fake Jessica Testa emailed Josie. On Monday morning, a reporter who had covered Sulkowicz and Columbia privately reached out to me to inform me that Chuck Johnson had indicated privately that he knew “Josie’s” identity. That afternoon, Josie responded to the fake email. That night, I received a rambling, insane email from a different throwaway email address comparing me to a character in Reservoir Dogs and stating with confidence that I am 53 years old and should not talk about smoking weed in public (I am... not 53). Mere hours later, a story on Josie’s identity ran on GotNews, Johnson’s website.
Further, Johnson’s claims about “high level sleuthing” that led to his discovery of both the identities of “Adam” and “Josie” seem to be reverse engineered, and don’t fit with the facts. Johnson claimed that he figured out who “Adam” was because he was the only member of ADP during the time of the alleged complaint who identified as “black and queer;” in fact, according to a member of ADP at the time, there were at least two others. Johnson claimed in his piece doxxing “Josie” that she was the only athlete who fit the description in my original Jezebel piece; in reality, at least one other girl in ADP at the time was an athlete. Johnson’s post even misidentified Josie in the top photo he posted with his piece doxxing her and misquotes a Facebook post by a girl he says he thought might have been “Josie.” It almost read as though he had been fed the names by somebody with a vested interest in giving Paul Nungesser’s accusers negative publicity and was seeking to construct a lie around how he got them. But he wouldn’t do that, right? Not with his long track record of correctly, carefully, and responsibly reporting facts.
When Testa reached out to Johnson to ask about the impersonation, he didn’t deny his involvement, but he didn’t confirm it, either. In typical Chuck C. Johnson fashion, his answer was the equivalent of a turd being gently laid upon the floor.
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.”
“Cat pornographers.” I’ve seen a lot of goofy shit on BuzzFeed, but never a cat pretending to enjoy reverse cowgirl.
Have you, or anybody you know, been sent a suspicious email from a “reporter” before being attacked by Chuck C. Johnson? Has he ever impersonated you in an attempt to doxx somebody else? Got any stories of him otherwise acting unethically or illegally? Get in touch.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via ABC/Batman.