Opinion: The truth doesn’t seem to matter very much in UCD revenge porn saga

Narrative that university awash with misogyny persists despite debunking of story

Students on UCD campus in Belfield. The college could find no evidencea of Facebook group chat in which up to 200 male students circulated and rated naked photos of women they’d had sex with. Photograph: Frank Miller

After a storm of media coverage about the possibility of a so-called revenge porn ring targeting women students at University College Dublin, it is now all but certain the group never existed at all.

The report in university newspaper the College Tribune alleged the existence of a private Facebook group chat in which up to 200 male students had circulated and rated explicit photographs of women with whom they had had sexual relations. The women involved had not consented to have their images shared.

The report, however, did not draw from a single confirmed witness to such behaviour. Instead, as revealed by an investigation into the allegations by the university, it based its explosive claim on an unidentified student, “Sarah”, who had heard about, but not seen, anonymous claims about such a group on a smartphone app.

The best “evidence” the university found was of an undated, anonymous and contextless comment on the app purporting to be from a student: “I don’t even partake in what’s happening, I personally only have sent 3 photos and a story or 2.”

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It would be dismaying enough for a student newspaper to be unwilling or unable to see the gross irresponsibility of publishing such damaging allegations without a sliver of compelling evidence. But it has been even more disturbing to witness the wider reaction of people desperate to elevate their preferred narrative about sexual misconduct above the truth.

In one of numerous similar responses to UCD’s debunking of the allegations, the Twitter account of the university’s medical school remarked: “That #UCD200 was untrue isn’t the point. Enough folk believed it possible. We need zero tolerance of bullying, harassment.”

On another website, Her.ie, a writer similarly wrote that it “really doesn’t matter” if the allegations are true, echoing a blogger and student who opined: “We cannot act like it is hearsay, because this happens to women every day of their lives.”

Reality subsumed

How can the truth of an allegation not be “the point” or literal hearsay not be treated as such, except in a moral universe where reality is subsumed in service of a certain cause, however noble?

The thinking appears to be that the falsity of allegations against people or institutions is not the primary concern as long as some people and some institutions, somewhere, are guilty. Sexual violence and misconduct are clearly a problem; but if the overwhelming probability is that a group of people has been smeared without basis, should that not be the primary focus of our concern – or at least a focus of it?

Who, having been falsely accused of a horrible crime, would be content to have those around him respond with a lecture about how horrible crime does in fact exist?

Suspicion cast

Luckily for the male students of UCD’s School of Agriculture and Food Science, pinned as the the supposed sexual predators, the

College Tribune

report did not extend to naming individuals. But with suspicion cast over 200 people at just one of the some four dozen schools at the university, students must surely have felt personally targeted.

One might also expect students at an institution of higher learning to recognise truth as a good in and of itself. A narrative – in this case that UCD is awash with sexism and misogyny – should emerge from the facts, not the other way around.

Other students and users of social media have simply refused to believe the findings of the university’s investigation, blasting it as inadequate. They have argued that the perpetrators probably deleted the evidence of their misdeeds. But these complaints elide the glaring, banal reality: there was never any compelling evidence in the first place.

And when the university subsequently reached out for victims and direct witnesses, not one of either came forward. With no evidence to draw from, only ideological conviction can sustain the belief that such a group lurked among the student population.

These reactions are representative of a broader debasement of the public discourse where, too often, facts come second to a preferred narrative – a “greater truth”. To minimise the false labelling of people as sexual predators is exceedingly dangerous and a disturbing indication of ideology supplanting clear judgment.

John Power is a freelance journalist