Sarah Jeong didn’t publish an article exposing personal information about a pseudonymous Chinese tech woman. She just supported the publication of the article and attacked the victim after the fact.
The renewed controversy speaks to shoddy ethics and reckless journalistic practices of Vice, the sensationalist hipster magazine cofounded by current alt-right hate group leader Gavin McInnes. Its March 25, 2018 about tech goddess Naomi Wu is coming under further scrutiny in the aftermath of the New York Times’s hiring of Sarah Jeong. Jeong has been a contributing editor to Vice Motherboard when the article and attacked Wu after the article was published.
The gist of the controversy over this particular article, written by Sarah Emerson, is that the writer and her editors did not respect Wu’s privacy as a Chinese female living in an authoritarian country and working in a heavily-sexist industry. Now that Jeong is under fire because of tweets she has made, Wu took the opportunity to give the controversy renewed attention.
On Friday, I argued that Jeong’s controversial tweets were not in fact racist. But the fact remains that she may have committed breaches of journalistic or social media etiquette in other ways.
Her involvement in the Vice story appears to be mostly limited to criticizing Wu after the fact. She is not listed on the byline of the article, but she enthusiastically jumped into the controversy on Twitter, as might be expected of someone who maintains such a Twitter feed.
Vice’s Reckless Journalism
The article described how Naomi “SexyCyberg” Wu creates cool gadgets while dressed in sexy attire. It links her work with the culture of Shenzhen, a fast growing tech and design hub, and relates the difficulties of working in tech as a woman.
The big problem came approximately 4,700 words in, when Emerson raised a conspiracy theory and the topic of Wu’s personal life, including her marital status. As Wu wrote on Twitter in February 2018, “Why the fuck can guys make things, do STEM[,] without people taking a crowbar to their bedroom door as if they are entitled to the details of EVERY aspect of their lives?”
Vice fancies itself as a worldly, progressive outlet, but in this case, the writers and editors involved in the article failed their cause.
The ostensible reason for asking about her personal life is that some misogynists think that she did not create the projects herself—even though she often films herself making projects. They cannot stomach the idea of a woman—especially a Chinese woman who dresses in short skirts and platform boots—being competent at tech.
But Vice author Emerson had already addressed the incident earlier in the article without raising anything related to Wu’s personal life:
In several public Twitter conversations, as well as private ones reposted by Twitter users, Dougherty implied that Wu’s SexyCyborg channel was a hoax, echoing and even linking others to the unfounded Reddit allegations. … Wu believes her criticism led Dougherty to publicly attack her, as the Shenzhen Maker Faire is licensed by Maker Media. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Dougherty admitted to going after Wu after she criticized him and the event.
Other outlets, including the LA Times and (Chinese government-owned) SixthTone, had addressed the issue without mentioning anything about her personal life. April Magazine (the “Actual Voice of Asian Women”) did a profile without mention of the Dougherty incident or her personal life.
So the excuse Vice’s editors published on April 3 that “the story we reported would be incomplete if we were to avoid these subjects” was bullshit.
Wu says that she had an agreement with Vice not to talk about her personal life. Vice denies they had an agreement. But Emerson did write that Wu had made it clear she did not want to talk about her personal life.
“Wu told me she didn’t want to discuss her marital status, but before publishing the piece, I followed up with her,” she wrote.
I hoped to discuss the Reddit conspiracy theory that claimed someone she’s in a relationship with was behind her work. Wu has spent significant energy proving these conspiracy theories false, and shutting down this harassment has inspired other women who have faced similar treatment online.
“Do you actually have time to hop on Skype to go over the Reddit conspiracy theory?” I wrote. “It would be really helpful [to] address these allegations. I saw that video where you say you’re [name redacted’s] wife—and I’d like to discuss the unfairness of assuming a woman receives help, just because her partner works/worked in a similar industry. If you don’t want to discuss this at all, I understand and won’t push. I think the Reddit conspiracy theory is vicious, but since this profile is long and comprehensive, I’d love to highlight your opinions about prototype bias, gender expectations, and racism as they relate to the rumor. Let me know how that sounds, and what you’re comfortable with.”
Was a conspiracy theory about her personal life so important that they had to broach it without even raising the conspiracy theory? If it was so important, why did the writer and editors wait until 75 percent of the way through the article to note that some random conspiracy theory exists? If it was so important, why did they leave it at a suggestive question without details or further inquiry?
Would the article have been lacking anything if it did not include speculation about her personal life?
No, it would not. The only informational content that particular paragraph adds is to show how interested Emerson is in letting others know she is interested in gender equality. It shows off Emerson’s virtue at the expense of a real person who might suffer for it.
But it also shows off Emerson’s recklessness and that of her editors to give credence to a conspiracy theory and to make unsourced statements about the subject of an article. The article leaves the impression on readers that the subject is married to someone in the industry.
Vice’s Reliance on Conspiracy Theories
Even though the article calls the conspiracy theory “false,” the fact of even asking someone about something for which Reddit is the only source raises the status of the conspiracy theory to something of legitimate inquiry. It puts the responsibility on the subject to deny something.
All of this is compounded by the fact that Wu wants to keep her identity secret because she fears her activities might arouse harassment in both the social and political realms. She is outspoken about women’s rights in a country with a traditional conservative culture and a Communist political system. Under Xi Jinping, the country is becoming even more tightly controlled than before. Openly feminist women are arrested for passing out fliers about sexual harassment. Victims of sexual assault are coerced into silence; students involved in #MeToo have been told by university officials that they might not be allowed to graduate. Feminist conferences are held in secret. (Wu abstains from use of the word “feminism” in describing herself because “it puts people on the defensive.”)
Vice—and other outlets who cover her—take her claims of fear as legitimate reasons to protect most of her identity, referring to her by her pseudonym. But in publishing details about her personal life, Vice makes it easier for her identity to possibly be revealed.
Wu responded, after being asked about her personal life, by emailing Vice’s editors and starting a campaign against Vice and its editors on Twitter. Vice’s editors, including Motherboard editor-in-chief Jason Koebler, whom she emailed directly, did not ultimately agree not to mention her personal life (and the published article itself attests to it). Vice’s editors also claim that she was angry about their contacting others in Shenzhen for fact checking purposes. Wu then posted a video to Patreon which included Koebler’s home address. For this (violating terms by “doxxing”), Patreon shut down Wu’s Patreon page, denying her a stream of income.
Rebecca Watson, a feminist who helped defend women targeted by the Gamergate campaign, addressed the controversy here:
Jeong Jumps In
Jeong couldn’t help but attack Wu on Twitter and disclose more alleged information about Wu’s personal life. In one long thread on April 4, Jeong said,
Naomi got a pretty sensitive follow-up email giving her an opportunity to talk about her detractors and then routine fact-checking from the print magazine side. Her response was to yell people on Twitter for months, call for stalking and doxing, and then actually dox someone
I did a sanity check with a woman who’s a Chinese national. It’s not far off from Korean culture: this is a non-issue, y’all are gullible
Jeong is an American of Korean ancestry.
She claimed to have no knowledge of the decision-making process:
I don’t have special knowledge into the decision-making here. I just know it’s what I would have done if I failed to de-escalate privately.
But she was riled up enough about it to go on Twitter rants on two separate days. On April 7, she tweeted a 16-tweet rant.
Putting these two stories together, it looks like Jeong just can’t control herself on Twitter. Twitter it is terrible platform that brings out the worst in many people. My Twitter feed cannot really be described as a stream of enlightened thoughts, either. My viewpoint on her previous tweets remains unchanged—they were stupid but not racist.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s a share of blame for each party—some more than others. Jeong, however, doesn’t appear to me to be the main protagonist.