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In early January, an anonymous poster began publishing screenshots of text and direct messages apparently involving Armie Hammer on an Instagram account dubbed HouseOfEffie. The contents were graphic and embarrassing, featuring the Social Network actor musing about cannibalistic and rape fantasies.
Soon thereafter, another equally mysterious Instagram account called deuxmoi began amplifying HouseOfEffie’s posts to its much larger following, which is close to 900,000 and includes a number of influential journalists. Given the current media ecosystem, in which social media tsunamis often spawn mainstream news coverage, it didn’t take long for reputable outlets to begin publishing stories about Hammer even though it was unclear at that time who was behind the HouseOfEffie blitz and if the messages were genuine.
For attorneys who represent the accused in the #MeToo era, Hollywood gossip purveyors like deuxmoi and the website CrazyDaysAndNights — which covers a similar terrain of celebrity sex lives, albeit with a more QAnon-esque everyone-is-a-pedophile vibe — have made their jobs far more challenging. It’s difficult to respond to an anonymous claim made alongside such fine print as “statements made on this account have not been independently confirmed” (deuxmoi) and “the site publishes rumors, conjecture … in addition to accurately reported information” (CrazyDaysAndNights). And, once it has seeped into the traditional news cycle, it can be too late to meaningfully counter.
“There is an assumption of wrong-doing just based on an accusation, even an anonymous one,” says attorney Andrew Brettler, who represents Hammer as well as Chris D’Elia and Bryan Singer.
In Hammer’s case, deuxmoi’s early involvement inflicted the greatest amount of damage. The account, which is run by an anonymous woman who works outside the entertainment industry, started posting screenshots of additional text messages that Hammer purportedly sent to other women without verifying the authenticity of those messages. Brettler says many of them were entirely fabricated.
Julie Shapiro, director of the Entertainment and Media Law Institute at LMU Loyola Law School, says celebrity rumormongering is as old as the silent picture. But the speed by which information spreads via social media in the digital era is a new concern, leaving attorneys playing whack-a-mole.
“Gossip and misinformation used against celebrities via [conduits] like deuxmoi may be true or not. The spreader of information does not care,” says Shapiro. “They simply distribute the information knowing that the more scandalous it is, the greater chance it will go viral. Is it harmful? The anonymity of the internet makes these issues difficult to control, let alone litigate.”
Despite the fact that there was no formal allegation of wrongdoing, Hammer was pushed out of Lionsgate’s Shotgun Wedding and Paramount+’s The Offer and dropped by WME in quick succession. A woman using only the first name Effie later came forward during a March news conference with her attorney, Gloria Allred, and accused Hammer of raping her in 2017. A new media feeding frenzy ensued, rehashing the Instagram messages.
That prompted Brettler to approach many of the news sites that covered Effie’s rape claim and ask them to include exculpatory text messages that might contextualize the relationship better, but the attorney found no takers. He settled for the Daily Mail, a news organization that followed the Hammer case prodigiously but is generally not considered trustworthy.
“Many media outlets don’t want to be seen as blaming the purported victim or be seen as an apologist for the accused,” Brettler adds. “Balance is key. If the press is going to report on accusations based on gossip or rumors on social media, then it needs to report both sides of the story.”
Others working in the space say the mainstream media has become increasingly averse to providing both sides of a #MeToo story, even when presented with solid evidence that the accusations are likely false.
“I have had documents that prove something helpful to my client and not helpful to the accuser,” says Shawn Holley, a former public defender who has represented a long list of Hollywood stars, “a document that is really substantive, explosive, uncontrovertibly authentic, but even still, nobody will touch it.”
Alonzo Wickers, an attorney who often represents news outlets asserting First Amendment defenses in defamation cases, says journalists who are doing proprietary reporting typically do factor in that evidence. He says, “I feel like our clients bend over backward to include any kind of exonerating emails, text messages or things like that, which the accused believes will contextualize things.”
Failing to do that can amount to defamation by omission, says entertainment litigator Jill Basinger.
“There appears to be this construct right now that we shouldn’t be allowed to evaluate a claimant’s story critically in the way we would look at anything else critically,” she explains. “And the problem now is, as soon as you say, ‘Hey, there’s evidence out there. You don’t know the whole story,’ the response is, ‘You don’t believe women,’ and nothing could be further from the truth.”
For her part, Basinger is just as likely to take on a client who is doing the accusing as one who has been accused. She is now representing Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to claim that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed her. The attorney says leaks and omissions can go both ways; Cuomo staffers leaked Boylan’s personnel file to reporters in the wake of her allegations.
Further obscuring matters is the fact that the majority of #MeToo stories that are published on mainstream sites do not feature original reporting and are simply aggregating another outlet’s work or someone’s social media postings. Aggregated stories are typically written by less-seasoned staffers and undergo little to no legal review. The trickle-down effect means that salacious allegations are amplified, and the accused’s response is an afterthought or omitted altogether.
“There’s a very big difference between journalism and news aggregation,” says Wickers. “And I’m not sure that readers are always as sensitive to that difference as they should be.”
Recent Bill Gates exposés in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal offer a stark reminder of that paradigm. Aggregated versions highlighted Gates’ inappropriate workplace conduct, which included an affair with a staffer, along with his relationship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein without providing the lengthy responses from Gates’ publicist that were published by the Times and Journal.
Ultimately, all the aggregated stories and social media postings on any given subject continue to snowball until there’s an avalanche that obscures the originating flake that started everything. Oftentimes, the damage is done — even if no civil or criminal penalties follow lurid allegations.
“People live in this world now of where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Basinger notes. “But what people don’t realize is the smoke builds upon itself. You get an anonymous post on one of those internet sites. It’s picked up by somebody else. Now there are accusations. Then a reputable paper can say, ‘Hey, it’s been widely reported.'”
This story first appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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