Last week, Bright Eyes musician Conor Oberst filed a lawsuit for libel against a reported "anonymous commenter" who posted on various websites that he raped her. But Joanie Faircloth was not anonymous—she left the original comments under her name, and her commenter account was linked to her Facebook. Her broad social-media presence left quite a record, too, and now it will be used to discredit her. It turns out the Internet is not a vacuum, and what we say can have very real consequences.
On her now-deleted Tumblr account, Faircloth clarified that she had not made her allegations anonymously.
"[T]he term 'anonymous commenter' was being thrown around a lot, as if I was some troll just trying to get a rise out of people. I wanted people to know that is not the case and for them not to be able to use that as a reason to discount my experience or avoid putting any real thought into the situation."
Not being anonymous also made her legally accountable for her statements. Oberst is suing Faircloth, a 27-year-old North Carolina resident, for $1 million in damages to his "reputation, standing in the community, shame, mortification, hurt feelings, embarrassment, and humiliation."
"Mr. Oberst gave Ms. Faircloth ample opportunity to retract her allegations prior to filing this lawsuit," Oberst's attorney Martin Singer tells Jezebel. "It was only when those requests for a retraction went unanswered that [he] had no other choice but to file this lawsuit in order to clear his name."
But clearing his name might be a tall order considering that the burden of proof is entirely on Oberst. Not only must he prove that Faircloth's statements damaged his reputation, he also has to prove that he didn't rape her and that she lied about it because she intended to harm him. Proving malice could be tricky: Why would she want to hurt Oberst? And why would someone lie about being sexually assaulted? What could be gained from that? Nothing, really.
Oberst's complaint implies that a different set of questions can be raised—about Faircloth's credibility and the veracity of her claims—from her long trail of online activity. According to court documents, she has a history of "catfishing"—posing as a boy online, even passing herself off as a cancer patient. And while none of that has anything to do with rape allegations, Oberst's legal team is making use of these details in order to tear down both Faircloth and her side of the story.
In December 2013, Faircloth left a series of comments on an xoJane "It Happened to Me" essay about a woman who had been abused by her rock star boyfriend. Faircloth alleged that Oberst had raped her 10 years ago on her 16th birthday after going to a Bright Eyes concert. She got to meet him, she said, because his brother, Matt Oberst, had been her seventh- and eight-grade English teacher.
"Conor definitely took advantage of my teenage crush on him. At first, I was flattered when he was playing with my hair and had his hand on my leg. It was like my dream come true at that point. But then he clearly wanted to go further and I made it very clear and told him I was a virgin and wasn't prepared to change that right then but he didn't stop. It was a really fucked up way to realize that people you idolize and look up to so much can be shitty, terrible people […] Conor took a lot from me including my virginity, my dignity and self esteem."
The comments section on xoJane is powered by Disqus, a commenting service for websites that uses a network platform. Users can follow one another and their profiles can be linked to their Facebook, Twitter or other social networking accounts. So initially Faircloth's Disqus profile clearly identified who she was. However, upon realizing this she deleted the profile, which changed her xoJane comments to appear as though they were posted by "Anonymous."
Eventually, Faircloth's comments were removed entirely from xoJane, but not before they were archived and disseminated by thousands of people on Tumblr.
The increasing interest in her allegations prompted Faircloth to create her own Tumblr account, xoJaneCommenter, to expand her statements and answer questions from followers. The Tumblr has since been deleted, but not before posts were archived by Absolute Punk and BuzzFeed. In them, Faircloth admits that she never realized that her allegations would spread so quickly and considered xoJane a "safe community" where she could share stories with "one or two other commenters."
But nothing on the Internet is "safe," nor are conversations privileged to certain individuals. That Faircloth's deleted communications—both on xoJane and Tumblr—were almost immediately archived by others is evidence of that. Her story spread like wildfire through social media and was eventually covered by the mainstream media.
By the time Oberst issued a statement denying the allegations, it was seemingly too late. People believed he was a rapist. Even his die-hard fans were conflicted. (A moderator of one of his fan sites chose, initially, to believe Faircloth, befriending her online and posting about the allegations exclusively. Another fan site, OberstingWithConor, shut down altogether.) The day before Oberst's suit was filed, Desaparecidos cancelled their upcoming tour in Australia.
But in the same way that the Internet gave life to Faircloth's allegations, it has the potential to discredit them.
Because Faircloth's Facebook account lists her birthday (January 25, 1987), it was pretty easy for even the most amateur of Google sleuths to find out that Bright Eyes had not played a show in North Carolina on January 25, 2003. When pressed about this, Faircloth, via Tumblr, said that she had gotten the year wrong. It was her 15th birthday in 2002. But the band hadn't played on her birthday in 2002, either. She then said that it wasn't a Bright Eyes show, it was a Desaparecidos show.
Desaparecidos, one of Oberst's side projects, did play a show in North Carolina on January 25, 2002, with Oberst's brother Matt's band Sorry About Dresden. Matt Oberst is also a middle school teacher in North Carolina, as Faircloth had originally said. So the revised version of her story checks out.
But Oberst's complaint points to some of Faircloth's recent Facebook activity, implying they conflict with her statements of being so traumatized by such a "vicious monster" that "[e]very time [she] hear[s] his name, [she] want[s] to tell people what he did."
In January 2013, Desaparecidos announced a reunion tour, and Faircloth commented on Facebook:
"The last time I saw Desaparecidos perform at the Cat's Cradle, it was my 16th birthday and Conor pulled me up on stage and sang happy birthday. Best memory ever!"
After people pointed this comment out to her, Faircloth deleted it. But the Internet is impossible to scrub clean. When confronted about the Facebook comment, Faircloth said:
"I really looked up to the older crowd that frequented the indie scene in chapel hill. and that night since I was brought up on stage I was the coolest kid there, everyone wanted to talk to me because I "knew" Conor. sometimes that overshadows what happened later and I suppose that says something about my self esteem. Sometimes I feel stupid to feel that I was raped because so many think they would love to be in that situation."
On December 3, 2011, Faircloth posted on Facebook:
Bright Eyes puts my 13 month old out without fail. We listen every night.
On December 7, 2011, she posted on Facebook that Bright Eyes is her favorite band. The posts were deleted in January 2014, but not before Oberst was able to make note of them in his complaint. In addition, Faircloth's new Myspace page is seemingly dedicated to Oberst's bands and his label Saddle Creek Records, which conflicts with her Tumblr statements about how she's "moved on from keeping up with these bands."
And there have been other inconsistencies with how Faircloth has portrayed her life in comments sections in ways that aren't related to Oberst. Sometimes she says that she gave birth to twins at 17 that she gave up for adoption. But in 2012 she won a local contest sharing her favorite memory: teaching her twins how to walk. Another time she said it was her sister who had twins, but one died in the womb. From the looks of her ex-husband's Facebook page, he does have a boy-girl set of twins that he raises without her. Sometimes he posts snarky jokes about deadbeat mothers.
On top of the dubious Internet history, people who know her personally have come forward with their stories about getting catfished by Faircloth, who posed as a boy named "Zac" in Yahoo chats. Zac professed to be a fan of Saddle Creek bands and claimed to know Conor and Matt Oberst. He mysteriously committed suicide in 2002 just before he was supposed to meet up with other fans at a Desaparecidos show. Friends learned of the suicide from Faircloth—then known by her maiden name, Finneran—who said she was Zac's best friend. It was later discovered that Zac and Faircloth were the same person.
The girl who said she was catfished by Faircloth claimed to have attended a North Carolina Bright Eyes show with Faircloth in 2003:
[Faircloth] also told me about a time, which I think it wasn't her 16th bday or at a show, in her version it was in the classroom when [Conor] came to visit Matt, that he sang happy birthday to her.
At the show in question in 2003, it was actually a Bright Eyes show, and I was there. I skipped my prom to see Bright Eyes and Sorry About Dresden was playing, and drove from out of town to come to NC because it would probably be the only time ever I would get to see Dresden. (It was) She and I made plans to meet, and we did, she was there with her best friend M, and her boyfriend X. She introduced me to Matt Oberst, and I actually know members who play with the Bright Eyes touring band, so I hung out after the show with them. If I remember correctly, she left before I did….even if she didn't she came and left with her BOYFRIEND, who rode in the same car as she did.
Absolutely none of this information is proof that Faircloth is lying about the rape allegations. But it does serve as a reminder that the Internet is constantly documenting what we say and do online, and that we should be careful about what we share, because it's not a safe space. You never know if or when a LiveJournal account you created when you were a teenager could come reemerge later in life. For someone like Faircloth, who has been posting about her personal life on public message boards since she was 13, her Internet ghosts could easily come back to haunt her—especially if she's pissed off a wealthy, socially conscious rock star with a reputation to protect.
Emo Money, Emo Problems
In his complaint, Oberst—a self-professed feminist—rips into Faircloth:
"[Her] statements…are not only malicious lies, but they are an insult to the millions of actual rape victims around the world. Faircloth should be ashamed of herself."
According to a source close to him, Oberst is "sick" over the notion that his lawsuit could make him a poster boy for MRAs, or that he is contributing to the silencing of rape victims.
His camp approached Faircloth several times asking her to publicly retract her statements, which she evidently refused to do. Instead, Oberst alleges in court documents that Faircloth began telling people—presumably online—that Oberst offered her "hush money" to keep quiet about the sexual assault, which he says is another lie.
Oberst plans to donate the proceeds of the suit to charities benefiting the victims of violence against women. But it's not likely that, even if he wins, he'll see a dime of the $1 million. According to a GoFundMe page that was started a few weeks before Faircloth first made the rape allegations, she is strapped for cash and is having difficulty even paying for travel expenses to care for her sick toddler.
According to a source, Faircloth is now saying that she never made the comments on xoJane.