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What the Conor Oberst rape allegations mean for the right to privacy

What can you legally prove about someone from her Facebook posts? Nothing.


Nico Lang

Internet Culture

Posted on May 16, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 7:29 am CDT

In January, allegations surfaced that Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst raped, a North Carolina resident named Joanie Faircloth on her 16th birthday. Originally, Faircloth posted comments about the alleged assault to a post on xoJane about a woman who had been abused by her rock star boyfriend, but the comments resurfaced on Tumblr in the form of Faircloth’s own blog, xoJaneCommenter.

Faircloth’s statements led to the threat of a countersuit from Oberst’s camp, as Oberst has a new album due out and this isn’t the kind of PR any singer wants. (The songs are currently streaming on NPR.) In a response to the suit, Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey details how the singer’s legal team has been tracking the defendant’s social media to strengthen the case against her, detailing a stream of misleading statements about the alleged incident.

In the suit, Oberst’s lawyers raise an eyebrow at Faircloth’s history of misrepresentation on the subject of her own rape, as the 27-year-old has alleged a variety of versions of the evening in question throughout the years. Faircloth claimed the show was a Bright Eyes concert, until it turned out the band wasn’t in North Carolina on January 25, 2003. She later clarified that it was a Desaparecidos show the year prior—Oberst’s side project. This did, indeed, check out.

Adding to the fuzzy timeline is Faircloth’s own history of statements about the night. In a Facebook post, Ms. Faircloth claimed that Oberst and the band pulled her on stage to sing happy birthday to her, claiming that the moment was the “best memory ever.” And in another comment posted to the social media network, the defendant remarked that she still uses the band’s music to put her 13-month-old baby to sleep every night.

The suit is filled with a lot of other dirt that’s been dragged up from Faircloth’s history, including her history of catfishing Internet users, as well as a general trend of misreporting basic facts about her life. Oberst and his lawyers believe that her pattern of social media behavior establishes her as nothing more than a “deranged fan,” according to TMZ. In the complaint, Oberst claims her allegations are “not only malicious lies, but they are an insult to the millions of actual rape victims around the world.”

That’s all well and good, and Oberst could be absolutely correct in asserting that Joanie Faircloth is just a Single White Female type, driven to menacing acts by unhealthy fixations and obsessions, and the facts certainly suggest that’s a strong possibility. This would hardly be the first time that celebrity obsession has led to superfans acting out.

In 2011, Disney channel actress and singer Selena Gomez received death threats on Twitter following photos that showed her canoodling with Justin Bieber. On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley’s stalkerish love for Jodie Foster led to the attempted shooting of Ronald Reagan. After seeing Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver—a film in which the protagonist plots to assassinate a presidential candidate—Hinckley thought the act would impress the then-19-year-old actress.

With the advent of social media breaking down the barriers between celebrities and the public, it’s possible that platforms like Facebook could be used as a tool to fuel an unhealthy relationship with those we look up to—but you can’t objectively prove that on an individual basis, especially with a tool as nebulous as someone’s Internet history. Looking at Joanie Faircloth’s Facebook evidence tells us absolutely nothing, except that she has a Facebook account.

In a Daily Dot article from this past Monday, writer Miri Mogilevsky offered a reminder that it’s impossible to diagnose someone’s mental health from following them on Twitter—because the act of receiving a person’s updates in no way makes you an expert on their psychological state. They don’t give out Ph.D.’s for being a Twitter psychologist, although that hasn’t stopped those following former PayPal executive Rakesh Agrawal’s recent tweets from suggesting that he needs therapy.

Like in the case of Agrawal, the Internet doesn’t know a thing about Joanie Faircloth’s mental state or personal history, and neither does anyone else. That’s for the court to decide.

The case might look fishy, but think about it this way: After experiencing the kind of trauma that Faircloth alleges in her comments, it’s common for those who have gone through painful events to block out or misremember even basic details. When I got in a car wreck in 2007, the policeman on duty asked me what speed I was going, in order to comb the facts for my insurance company. I had no idea. Because I wasn’t able to give him even a ballpark figure, it was easy to assign blame for the accident, simply because it made me look guilty.

What I went through that day would have been a fraction of the pain that Faircloth claims to have gone through, and if she’s telling the truth, who could blame her for mixing up her dates? If I were raped by a man I idolized, it’s not exactly the kind of thing I would mark on a calendar; it’s the kind of memory you repress as best you can, only that could surface years later when someone else’s xoJane story triggers a moment you hoped you’d forgotten.

Even aside from the psychological aspects at play, social media, in general, is a terrible way to prove almost anything about anyone, as the Internet proved in trying to track down the missing airplane or decipher the labyrinthine Beyoncé-Solange feud (that may not have even been a feud at all). Various conspiracy theories allege infidelity, marital discontent and the involvement of the Illuminati, or it could mean nothing at all.

This is the way the Internet works, where truth is often in the eye of the beholder. As Tracie Egan Morrissey reminds us in the aforementioned Jezebel post, this is the product of a culture where everything you do and say is tracked online and people have to be careful about what they share, because it’s part of a public permanent record that’s difficult to expunge. A recent EU measure suggested that our Internet histories could be scrubbed up with a simple Google redaction, but on the Internet, there’s no such thing as the right to be forgotten.

But the character of almost anyone’s digital footprint can be used as evidence against them, a means to discredit or prove them untrustworthy. Today’s youth will come of age on social media, publicly maturing at an age when they’re likely to say a number of things of which they’ll later be ashamed. Your angsty teenage years are why the untag was invented, but you can’t untag your entire adolescence. There will always be a LiveJournal somewhere to prove you were 13 and an asshole at one time, too.

Using social media as a character witness is not only a slippery slope in a legal setting, it’s also likely a test that none of us would pass. If Joanie Faircloth’s allegations are thrown out simply because social media proved that she’s a confused mess of a human being struggling to come to terms with herself and her past, we’re all pretty guilty.

Photo via wfuv/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 16, 2014, 8:00 am CDT