Illustration by Katie Taylor for Rolling Stone AU/NZ. Created on iPad Pro using Apple Pencil (second generation)
‘Trial By Social Media’ Dilutes The #MeToo Movement… An Investigation
Australian acts Hands Like Houses and Carla Geneve have both experienced what is being called ‘trial by social media’, a complex by-product of music’s #MeToo movement.
Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault allegations and features comments from people who have been accused of sexual assault. If you are reading this and you are a survivor, you may be triggered by what follows. Please prioritise your wellbeing and know that support is available to you. To speak to someone, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
We can all agree that any allegations of sexual assault need to be taken seriously. Allegations overlooked by both society and our legal system have devastating psychological, emotional and financial impacts, both immediate and long-term. Personally, I know many women who are survivors; I have been using the platforms I have access to to tell their stories for over five years. I am constantly inspired by their bravery and courage and will continue to advocate for those beneath the glass ceiling. I also know that finding the truth can be incredibly hard, and sometimes the search for the truth happens in the unregulated court of public opinion.
When I speak to one member of alt-rock band Hands Like Houses, he tells me he has a file on his laptop named ‘evidence’. It’s filled with direct message and email screenshots, a PDF document named ‘chronology of events’, court documents, and media coverage links.
The band member started adding documents and files to this ‘evidence’ folder in 2019.
In August last year, a woman involved took to Instagram Stories where she said: “Whilst in a telephone conference for court, for somebody who is trying to silence me from speaking out about the fact that they sexually assaulted me before my son was conceived… I’ve tried to seek counselling. This person is very much still in my life and I will never be able to not have them in my life. I don’t have a choice.
“I have to just have a frank one-on-one conversation with them about my experience. I don’t think that that was their intention, to assault me […]. If you support the band Hands Like Houses, don’t. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Social media has been a powerful and effective tool in moving the Australian music industry’s #MeToo movement in the right direction. Prior to the emergence of the hashtag in 2017 and 2018, unacknowledged accounts of sexual assault were shared in hushed voices (usually between women) at conferences, concerts and gatherings. These people had waited patiently for music industry abusers and enablers of note to be held accountable, for the movement to hit home soil and to finally give the survivors’ justice. But at the time, our industry only enjoyed a handful of small wins: including the creation of the #MeNoMore Open Letter and the launch of the now defunct NOW Australia.
All that changed with the creation of Beneath The Glass Ceiling in late 2020. The anonymously-run Instagram page began posting accounts of sexual harassment and assault in the Australian music industry. People were talking, and louder now. At the request of those directly affected, Beneath The Glass Ceiling shared insider knowledge with journalists and police alike, resulting in a watershed moment for the industry that is still flowing.
When Rolling Stone Australia speaks to the accused band member at his home in Canberra, he is shaking. He’s on the verge of tears as he describes how the public accusation of sexual assault led to months of ‘trial by social media’, and took him from being labelled ‘Billboard-charting musician’ to ‘disgraced perpetrator’.
“I’m just completely not the same person,” he says over a video call. “And I never thought I’d have an event in my life that would completely change who I am […] I feel everything and nothing at the same time,” he adds. “I’m like, numb going through things, but at the same time I’m in the worst pain that I’ve ever felt.”
The accused told Rolling Stone he “wholeheartedly” denies the allegation against him, but that he understands why a person would turn to social media with these kinds of accusations.
“I’ve been talking to the police for six months now about this situation […] I was getting no resolution there. I’m trying to go through the proper channels […] The system is completely broken on both sides.
“I truly don’t think there’s compassion on either end,” he continues. “There’s probably not enough compassion shown by the police for victims. Not enough compassion shown against accused people like me on the other side. And then obviously the legal system… it’s like you’re trying to get a resolution and some closure, but that cost becomes a huge emotional, financial cost; so I can understand why some people aren’t wanting to come forward.”
Editor’s note: The aforementioned accuser declined to be interviewed for this article and has threatened legal action.
The events which followed the posting of the video could be seen as a win for the accuser, particularly where the odds are often stacked against those who come forward. An allegation via social media gives a survivor autonomy over their experience. It gives them some power to have their voice heard where it otherwise may not be listened to. The downside? Our current system and society cannot always guarantee justice for either the complainant or the accused.
In late August, Hands Like Houses were the subject of a fiercely debated Facebook post on a page moderated by their former label, UNFD. Some Facebook users named the accused, one said they planned to burn their Hands Like Houses vinyl records. Others brought to attention the woman’s prior allegations of sexual abuse, racism and misogyny against members of the band Good Doogs in 2019. In 2020, an apology was issued for that accusation, noting the information shared was “categorically false”. Regardless, Good Doogs were dropped from festival lineups and radio playlists and have ceased making music as a band.
The process of ‘cancelling’ Hands Like Houses ramped up quickly late last year. On September 2 via a since-deleted post published at 11pm on the UNFD Social Club Facebook page, the label announced it had “ended its relationship with Hands Like Houses” following “serious allegations against a UNFD artist”.
Rolling Stone obtained the recording contract between Hands Like Houses and UNFD and understands the band had been out of contract with the label since July 2021 (approximately a month before the accuser made her allegation on Instagram). A representative from UNFD, who spoke to Rolling Stone on background, confirmed that the term of the band’s contract with UNFD had indeed expired before the allegation. Rolling Stone also understands UNFD had remained in conversations with the band’s former manager about recording new music together.
After multiple media outlets published the statement from UNFD, and public debate about the band reached boiling point, Hands Like Houses were encouraged to withdraw from Full Tilt music festival. The band also released a statement, noting they would be voluntarily withdrawing from all upcoming live performances and engagements. Rolling Stone understands this resulted in the band forgoing approximated six-figure payments for live appearances.
“I never thought I’d have an event in my life that would completely change who I am”
— Member of alt-rock band Hands Like Houses
Australian music’s #MeToo movement has made serious in-roads to change the entire culture of the music industry; who could forget the wins for accountability thanks to Beneath The Glass Ceiling and journalists like Nathanael Cooper, Kelly Burke, Grace Tobin, Alison Mau and Ruby Jones, or the activism of change-makers like Jaguar Jonze and Tamara Georgopoulos.
In an interview with Marie Claire, former Sony Music employee Tamara Georgopoulos says she followed the recommended process when it came to reporting her own sexual harassment while employed at Sony Music Australia.
“I went into work each day wanting to do a great job, excel in my career, and not to be sexually harassed, assaulted and bullied at my place of work,” Georgopoulos tells Rolling Stone. “The company failed to protect me when I reported this to HR, they then threatened me against speaking out. The music industry, its leaders and the current legal system then continued to silence me.”
Georgopoulos says that without social media and the support of journalists like Nathanael Cooper, Kelly Burke and Ruby Jones, the cultural changes to the music industry wouldn’t be possible.
“The positive change that we have seen in the music industry started with anonymous stories because it had to,” she says. “The industry, its leaders and the legal system have worked against us for years. We’ve never felt safe enough to speak up because we never had a platform to do so, where we could feel supported, seen and heard.”
However #MeToo doesn’t just point at the issue, it points at alleged abusers. Not only are we left with the emotion of the survivor’s experience, we are also deciphering key details ourselves within chat groups and private phone calls, or we are reading their name written in full on an ephemeral Instagram Story or within a comment thread.
“The positive change that we have seen in the music industry started with anonymous stories because it had to”
— Tamara Georgopoulos
Perth songwriter Carla Geneve knows all too well the feelings of public persecution. In July last year, Geneve was anonymously accused of “verbal, emotional and sexual abuse” via a post published on Beneath The Glass Ceiling.
“It was humiliating and confusing,” Geneve tells Rolling Stone. “I went into shock.”
The post was removed within 24 hours, and although it’s unclear why (Geneve said neither she nor anyone from her team reached out to the account) she assumes people contacted Beneath The Glass Ceiling and challenged the allegation. However, as is the case with most allegations, the rumour mill had been churning in her hometown for months beforehand.
Her management and band had already cut ties with her despite having never spoken to anyone directly affected and she decided not to release her album last year. With the public post acting as a final nail in the ‘cancellation coffin’, Geneve decided to step away from the music industry for a while.
“It really messed up my mental health,” she says via Zoom from her home in Perth. “If I tried to book a gig, people would email the venue or the booker and tell them exactly what the [BTGC] post said.” One email to a venue accused Carla Geneve of raping 15 people.
Geneve’s home in Fremantle was targeted, her car was keyed, and she was physically threatened multiple times when she went out to gigs.
“I couldn’t go anywhere without breaking down,” she admits, noting she lost her job as a music teacher and decided to move to another suburb. “I had to have a couple of months at home and cry it out basically. I had to go back to my support networks and figure out in my brain who I was. I didn’t know who I was for a while.”
At time of writing, Carla Geneve does not know who submitted the post to Beneath The Glass Ceiling.
“It’s been months and months and I still don’t know who or what I’m being accused of,” she says. “If I’ve hurt somebody, I want to take accountability for that, I want to make it right. It’s hard to not know.”
Following the public accusation, Geneve took proactive steps to find out what the nature of the accusations were and who the post could be about. She wrote a list of every person she’d ever been intimate with and reached out to them, one by one.
“Everyone said, ‘No, I don’t know what this is about, but [our interaction] was all good’. It didn’t get me any closer to finding out who was accusing me, or what was being said about me,” says Geneve.
In her now-removed public response to the post she denied the accusations. “I say now, with all of my heart: I have not committed these awful acts,” Geneve wrote. “I am not guilty of sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, or anything detailed in the anonymous posts or emails.”
Her decision to speak to media now, months after the initial accusation, is partly to give herself a voice amidst the drone of damning criticism surrounding her, but also to shine a light on the complex issues involved in a criminal claim made via social media.
“Obviously sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation is so rife in the music industry, especially for women and non-binary people who are at risk. I take that very seriously,” she says. “So to see due process going out the window and seeing the effect it has on someone who doesn’t have a solid accusation…,” she pauses. “We have to be really careful with this power that Beneath The Glass Ceiling has and with people posting anonymously.”
“I say now, with all of my heart: I have not committed these awful acts”
— Carla Geneve
One person who has detailed the complexities around the #MeToo movement when it comes to allegations is London-based writer for The Atlantic and author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, Helen Lewis.
Lewis believes the phrase ‘Believe women’ is “a trap”.
“’Believe women’ isn’t just a terrible slogan for the #MeToo movement; it is a trap,” she wrote in a piece titled Why I’ve Never Believed in ‘Believe Women’.
“The mantra began as an attempt to redress the poor treatment of those who come forward over abuse, and the feminists who adopted it had good intentions, but its catchiness disguised its weakness: The phrase is too reductive, too essentialist, too open to misinterpretation,” Lewis wrote.
Lewis isn’t discounting the fact that when women tell us that there is a problem with sexual aggression in our society, we should believe them. However, she notes that the slogan “has become a stick with which to beat activists and politicians who care about the subject”.
“The slogan should have been ‘Don’t dismiss women’, ‘Give women a fair hearing’, or even ‘Due process is great’,” she writes.
“’Believe women’ isn’t just a terrible slogan for the #MeToo movement; it is a trap”
— Helen Lewis, Author
In a court of law however, the shortcomings of our legal system are highlighted when it comes to sexual assault. In his book System Failure: The Silencing of Rape Survivors, author and lawyer Michael Bradley notes that the legal system’s responses to rape were designed without survivors in mind.
“One in five Australian women has been the victim of a sexual assault,” Bradley writes. “For these women, there is less than a one per cent chance that their rapist has been arrested, prosecuted and convicted of the crime. These are the bare numerical facts of system failure.”
Speaking to Rolling Stone, Michael Bradley said that while a personal testimony is sufficient to take legal action, assault survivors are more and more resorting to going public with allegations in an effort to get a form of justice.
“It’s an understandable response to the failure of the legal system to provide an adequate response,” says Bradley.
Their reasons are myriad and complex and most include a lack of faith in the legal system, the understanding of how re-traumatising that process is, and how low the probability is of a conviction.
Interestingly, Bradley said it is rare for anyone accused of sexual assault to speak out publicly as it’s in their favour if they don’t. A local case in point is Australia’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, who never said a word (other than “not guilty”) during the criminal case in which he was found guilty of child sexual assault before being ultimately acquitted on appeal.
“It is not in the interest of the accused to speak,” says Bradley. “[…] In a criminal case the accused person always has a complete right to silence. In most rape cases the accused won’t ever speak out. They won’t make a statement to the police, they won’t offer their version of events. They will simply not plead guilty so that the onus is on the prosecution to prove it beyond reasonable doubt.”
This is where the legal system often fails our rape survivors.
“In a rape case, usually the defence [establishes reasonable doubt] by attacking the credibility of the complainant,” says Bradley, “because if there’s any doubt as to whether she’s telling the truth, whether she’s mistaken, or the accused reasonably believed there was consent even when there wasn’t, then the prosecution fails.
“[…] It’s a real structural flaw in the system, because it puts all the burden on the complainant.”
“In a criminal case the accused person always has a complete right to silence. In most rape cases the accused won’t ever speak out”
— Michael Bradley, Lawyer
Perhaps the focus shouldn’t be on whether any of the parties directly involved in an accusation — or the pitchfork-wielding keyboard warriors for that matter — are right or wrong. Because right now, it’s the system that’s wrong.
When it comes to the public’s position as judge and jury on social media, it’s the law we should be placing under the microscope. And right now, the law does not work in favour of the survivor. As lawyer Michael Bradley says, “the criminal justice system is designed to provide a guarantee that unless you’re absolutely definitely guilty you will not be punished, which is completely ineffective in the context of rape because of the nature of that crime.”
In a piece written for The Industry Observer, behavioural change experts Clare Gleghorn, Dr Brendan Magee, and Zac Zawalski said the notion ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ may not apply to shedding light on important issues via social media.
“While it is true that [social media] can shine a stark light on unacceptable behaviours, the type of complex, nuanced, sensitive, and meaningful discussions that need to follow should be had in workplaces and in forums that provide safety, justice, and structure for all,” they wrote.
Social media’s place in the #MeToo movement is critical, but there are social issues we need to educate ourselves on. ‘Trial by social media’ seems to dilute the #MeToo movement entirely, one that was created to give victim-survivors a voice. The focus seems to be moved away from the victim-survivor, and the setting creates a double-edged sword.
Violent and heinous crimes and accusations are being discussed using 260 character tweets, 15-second Instagram Stories or Facebook status updates that hold little to no nuance. Social media is the Wild West when it comes to accusations. It’s open season in a public square where algorithms boost mob dynamics, and any nuance around context and truth are buried.
There are myriad reasons why a person may choose the route of ‘trial by social media’, some are detailed in this article. In fact, it is the victim’s right to choose this route. But what is important is that we, the observers of this trial, take a more sophisticated approach in how we view our role on the sidelines. Why can’t we, the public, instead strive for nuance over verdict when we see an allegation made in an algorithm-beholden space? And why can’t we challenge the flawed legal system meant to protect those involved?
Editor’s note: In this piece, it is not and never will be my intention to dismiss or minimise the experiences of survivors. I will continue to stand with and advocate for those who have been bullied, assaulted and discriminated against.
The pain and suffering of victim-survivors is real, and can be difficult to navigate. If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information, 1800RESPECT (Phone: 1800 737 732) can provide counselling 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.
Australian music industry workers can contact the Support Act Wellbeing Helpline. It is staffed by professional counsellors who offer expertise in all areas related to mental health. It is free, confidential and open to anyone in music or the arts. Call 1800 959 500, 24/7, 365 days a year.