My Defamation 2.0 Experience
Today, past defamatory allegations based on an anonymous smear letter which distorted and misrepresented early online comments and writings of mine, were resurrected by Fox News. I want to say definitively: I do not defend nor support acts of sexual violence against children and have never defended pedophilia in any way. Any claims to the contrary are false and a deliberate distortion of my views. Any repetition of those claims is, at best, reckless and irresponsible.
I’ve remained silent on these issues until now, so not to give credence and visibility to these falsehoods. But now, it seems obvious to me that the issue may be regularly revived, and therefore, I want to set the record straight. The experience of being defamed in this fashion has been highly traumatic and distressing to me. Fortunately, I have the strong support of my employer and my loved ones as I deal with this event in my life, and I’m grateful for all the expressions of support I’ve already received, also from within the Wikipedia community. The Wikimedia Foundation has also published a blog statement of support: I am grateful for that too.
My name is Erik Moeller. I’ve been a Wikipedia volunteer editor and software developer since 2001. In 2006, I was elected by its volunteer community to the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization which operates it; in 2007, I was reelected, and in 2008, I relocated from Berlin, Germany to San Francisco to join the Wikimedia Foundation staff as Deputy Director.
In May 2008, an anonymous defamer circulated a smear letter about me to various blogs, which resulted in a series of posts written by Owen Thomas for Gawker Media that defamed me as a “defender of pedophilia”. These posts did not attract much attention until April 2010, when Larry Sanger re-circulated reference to them as part of a false accusation that Wikimedia knowingly distributed illegal child pornography. This in turn resulted in a Fox News story, “Wikipedia Distributing Child Porn, Co-Founder Tells FBI”, which is prompting me to write this response. I am also now represented by a lawyer, and intend to take legal action.
Prior to joining the Wikimedia Foundation staff, I worked as a journalist (from 1996 to 2005), public speaker, software engineer, and project manager. I wrote a book titled “Die heimliche Medienrevolution” (“The secret media revolution”) published in 2004 and published in a revised second edition 2006.
I wrote my first article for a magazine in 1996, at the age of 17, a piece about artificial intelligence. Journalism was a good way to make a bit of a living, and it also was my way of thinking through complex issues that I was interested in at the time. In addition to many technical and scientific topics, I wrote extensively about censorship, copyright law and file sharing, privacy, religion, and sexuality. Not all of my writings were published professionally: At age 20 I co-founded a secular humanist weblog called “Der Humanist”. In the following years, I also launched a blog called infoAnarchy, and wrote many stories for a community weblog called Kuro5hin.org. As a Wikipedia editor, I made nearly 7,000 edits to a large variety of articles, on topics ranging from technology to history to popular culture.
Most of my published articles are in German, and a list of many can be found on my personal homepage.
As Deputy Director, I represent the Executive Director, Sue Gardner, in her absence or on delegated projects, and oversee the development of Wikimedia’s product strategy — that is: how does the Wikimedia Foundation use technology to serve its mission, to bring free knowledge to every person on the planet. I am proud of my work: I think the Wikimedia Foundation makes the world a better place, and I am happy to be part of that.
The beginning of the campaign
Two years ago, a Silicon Valley gossip blog operated by Gawker Media, called Valleywag, began a smear campaign against Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation which runs it. Following attacks focused on the personal life of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, in May 2008 the blog ran a series of posts by Owen Thomas which defamed me by calling me a “defender of pedophilia”, deriving its claims from articles and comments I wrote in 2000 and 2001, mixed with malicious fabrications and insinuations.
The defamatory claims which originated in that blog were repeated in a small number of other blogs without deeper reflection. They were not picked up by mainstream media at the time.
The defamation campaign by Gawker was deeply hurtful to me. At the time, I also met with an attorney specializing in defamation, who assessed the claims and confirmed his opinion that they constituted legal defamation, but who also made it clear that trying to have the posts taken down would be very expensive and time-consuming. It was also obvious that any legal action would serve to amplify the visibility of the original posts, and would drive traffic to Valleywag.
I had no reason to believe that Valleywag would engage in a responsible dialogue: quite the opposite. And I didn’t want to increase its public profile. Therefore, I decided then that it was best to ignore the claims, rather than responding to them. It may not have been the right decision, but at the time I believed it was the best among many bad options available to me.
On April 7, 2010, Larry Sanger made public statements to the effect that Wikipedia’s media repository, Wikimedia Commons, knowingly hosts illegal child pornography, and that he had reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI. It’s a false claim related largely to some historic early 20th century drawings, as described in the summary published by the Wikipedia Signpost. The Wikimedia Foundation’s General Counsel examined the drawings and concluded that they do not violate federal laws; we have not received any communication from the FBI to the contrary, and when and if we are asked by authorities to remove images that are illegal, we will do so.
In that context, Sanger repeated the two-year-old defamatory claims about me, adding his own defamatory comment that I was “well known for [my] views in defense of pedophilia”. This resulted in some additional visibility for these claims, most notably the April 27 Fox News story “Wikipedia Distributing Child Porn, Co-Founder Tells FBI” . Moreover, two years since the original Gawker publication, the associated blog posts remain accessible and highly ranked in a Google search on my name, thanks to Gawker’s heavy search engine optimization.
At this point, I believe it’s preferable to have a full response to these defamatory claims on the record, rather than letting them go unchallenged. If you write about this situation, I would ask you to provide a reference to this response where relevant, and to avoid linking directly to the defamatory claims in question, both to avoid perpetuating the libel, and to avoid further driving page views to its publishers.
I have no problem being called out for things that I believe. Even attacking me based on things I wrote in my late teens or early twenties without giving me a chance to weigh in is, while not fair play, forgivable. But defaming me based on deliberate, malicious misconstruction of old writings, attributing claims to me which I have never made, describing me as a person who would defend sexual violence against children — that is completely beyond the pale, it is shocking, and it is unforgivable.
I’m not going to speculate about why Valleywag, Larry Sanger and Fox News would do this: your theories are probably not much different from mine.
The intent of this post is therefore the following:
to state clearly which claims are defamatory and false;
to provide further context for the defamation campaign;
to provide context for my writings on the topic of sexuality.
Nature of the defamatory claims
The key defamatory claims originally made by Gawker include:
That I am a “defender of pedophilia”:
Pedophilia is a mental disorder which causes adults to be sexually attracted to children. Pedophiles who act upon these impulses commit abhorrent acts of sexual violence against children. I have not defended pedophilia in any of my writings.
That I have argued that “non-violent child pornography does no harm”:
I have never made such an argument. This claim is apparently based on the malicious insertion of the word “child” into a heading from an article which stated “non-violent pornography does no harm”, based on an interpretation of a German-to-English machine translation. Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime, and the depiction of child sexual abuse, and the trade in such depictions, are rightly criminalized.
That I “oversee editorial operations” at Wikipedia, or otherwise control its content:
Wikimedia’s projects are governed by volunteer communities. Individual Wikimedia Foundation staff members, including myself, do not control or direct editorial changes. I am not sure why Valleywag made that claim, which it presumably knows to be false. I can only assume its goal was to amplify excitement and outrage about the story, by implying that I was personally influencing Wikipedia’s articles on controversial topics.
Gawker Media made several other insinuations and defamatory claims in its posts which are so over-the-top that they are barely worth rebutting; one post attributed an edit to the Wikipedia article about child sexual abuse to me which was made well before my first edit to it, based on an incorrect reading of the edit history. That post was completely false.
Context of the defamation campaign
As mentioned above, Gawker Media ran a series of other posts with defamatory attacks against the Wikimedia Foundation before and after its campaign against me. Most of these posts were written by managing editor Owen Thomas, who left Gawker.com in 2009 and recently joined VentureBeat.com.
Gawker Media is a multi-million dollar publishing empire comprised of several blogs. The defamatory claims about me and the Wikimedia Foundation were published in Gawker’s ValleyWag blog, which was later folded into the main Gawker.com site.
The primary Gawker.com blog is a celebrity gossip blog, and ValleyWag applied a comparable editorial style to blogging about more or less notable figures in the Silicon Valley. That’s remarkable in and of itself: regardless of whether individuals are celebrities or not, they are now subjected to the same kind of invasive attacks that celebrities have long endured on a daily basis. Gawker bloggers were, at least at the time of the defamation campaign, rewarded according to the number of pageviews they produced: optimizing for the most sensationalized output possible. Heavy search engine optimization through massive cross-linking and syndication ensures that Gawker posts often rank at the top of relevant searches indefinitely.
Valleywag is widely derided in Silicon Valley: nobody takes it seriously. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause real damage. People are afraid of Valleywag, and generally stay quiet about it, for fear they will otherwise be targeted.
That’s presumably why technology blogger Michael Arrington asked in early 2008: When will we have our first Valleywag suicide? Not surprisingly, Arrington became a target of multiple Valleywag posts after writing the story. Indeed, before Valleywag targeted me, I wrote a post in my own blog, titled “The Rise of the Trash Blogs“, in response to the campaign against Jimmy Wales. I have no idea if Owen Thomas ever read it, and indeed, I do know that it was not the trigger for his series of posts about me.
That’s because I know I know the trigger: an anonymous e-mail smear campaign. I know that because Jimmy Wales received a tip-off from a blogger, who forwarded to Jimmy a long, rambling smear letter he had received. The e-mail called me “a man who would actually put Jimmy Wales to shame for his decrepitude”, and went into a long series of snippets from various writings, throwing in some bizarre and mean-spirited insinuations for good measure (for example, it stated that “I can only imagine why Google blocked one page of his blog” — which was, in fact, because of a temporary WordPress vulnerability –, and that it was no wonder that I had “planned on moving to the Netherlands before the Wikimedia gig took off”).
I was able to confirm that the email was sent to multiple bloggers; the only recipient who ran with it was Owen Thomas. His series of posts is almost entirely based on the original email (and probably some additional correspondence with its author).
I cannot confirm the identity of the anonymous defamer and will not speculate about it. Regardless, it’s evident that Owen Thomas had no problem copying even the most bizarre aspects of the smear letter, wrapping them under the headline “Erik Moeller, No. 2 at Wikipedia, a defender of pedophilia”, accompanied by an old photo. That initial post remains, as of this writing, result number 3 in a Google search for my name. It was also linked from the Fox News story. Again, at the time I didn’t want to dignify the Valleywag posts with a response. They were not journalism as I understand it; nobody had called me to verify facts or ask for a comment. I assumed nobody would take them seriously. And so I decided to remain silent.
My writings about sexuality
My writings about sexuality focus on the core topics of pleasure/affection, pornography, censorship, and children’s sexuality. Not a single article I published either as a journalist or as a blogger focuses on the topic of pedophilia. There’s a reason for that: I have never had any interest in the topic.
Indeed, in order to support the claim that I am a “defender of pedophilia”, the anonymous defamer had to dig deep into my writings. Nine years ago, at the age of 22, I wrote an article titled “Defending the Right to Pleasure“. The article has nothing to do with pedophilia; it doesn’t mention the issue. To find a snippet worth quoting, the defamer had to dig further into the comments section of the article, where I wrote a 3,000 word response addressing various comments.
Pulling from this long, carelessly written comment, the anonymous smear letter, followed by Gawker and later Fox News, quoted three sentences out of context: “What is my position on pedophilia, then? It’s really simple. If the child doesn’t want it [sexual contact], is neutral or ambigious [sic], it’s inappropriate.” It omitted the sentence immediately following: “This excludes most adult/child sexual contact, but only little child/child contact.”
If you read the entire piece, the context of the comment and the article are clear: They argue for a less zealous approach to policing consensual sexual relationships among young people of comparable age. From the article:
A 16-year-old girl from Oregon, a beautiful, intelligent young woman named Crystal Larkin, was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in prison for consensual sex with a 12-year-old boy. Another 16-y-o boy was sentenced to the same sentence for having sex with a 13-year-old — again, consensual, and he was imprisoned against the explicit will of the girl and both families. This is the result of the sex abuse scare coupled with the "tough on crime" scare, as these sentences are mandatory minimums.
In other states, large groups of kids aging from 7 to 17 having sex with each other were split up into "victims" and "offenders", half of them sent to prisons, the other half to "therapy". Again, the sexual relationships were playful and non-violent. Teenagers have been imprisoned for making photos of each other while having sex — producing "child pornography".
The intent of the comment was precisely to differentiate between adult/child and child/child sexual contact. The only borderline cases are those of the type described above — statutory rape cases covering consensual sex between teens, one of whom may be a legal adult. Certainly, if I had anticipated at the time that a blog comment would be used 9 years later to defame me, I would have taken greater care to make myself absolutely clear. But, it takes deliberate malicious or sensationalist intent to construct out of this a “defense of pedophilia”, knowing the full context of the comment and blog story, which have nothing to do with pedophilia.
I have consistently defended the right of children of comparable age to engage in consensual, harmless sexual interactions with each other — what’s commonly called “playing doctor”, and also safe sex among teens. I have never defended the “right” of pedophiles to abuse children; child sexual abuse is a crime, and there is no such right. Children also don’t have the ability to consent to sexual activity with pedophiles, and such activities are sexual violence against children by definition.
All my writings (including the above comment in context) are consistent with this view. One particularly pertinent article that I wrote about the topic of children’s sexuality is called “Gefaehrliche Doktorspiele” (“Dangerous doctor games”), which describes the results of several weeks of journalistic research I had done into the criminalization and pathologization of consensual child sexual activity. Many of my views on the topic are also well-reflected by Judith Levine’s excellent book “Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex”.
Sexual violence against children, like all violence against children, is abhorrent. 9 years ago, as a 22-year-old student, I wrote about these topics with an eye to issues and questions that gave me pause — the implied consensus that children are asexual creatures, that sexuality is a switch that is flipped on with adulthood, that non-violent adult pornography is harmful to minors, etc. I didn’t believe those things then, and I don’t believe them now.
The difference between then and now is that those topics are no longer the focus of anything I write about or do. If I did write about them today, I would take greater care to reassure any reader that I, too, believe that sexual violence against children is a horrific crime inflicted upon the weakest members of society. I have always believed that, and any suggestion to the contrary is false.
Defamation in the age of the web
What’s remarkable about this entire episode is how decade-old web writings have been used against me in a blog-based smear campaign, which then, after another two years, successfully escalated into a mainstream news publication. This is an eye-opening example of how defamatory information can be spread — all going back to an anonymous smear letter distributed in 2008 — and how helpless and incompetent mainstream media can be when dealing with such challenges.
Michael Arrington proclaimed last month that “reputation is dead“. The truth is, however, that we’re in the dangerous transitional period where media, especially old media, are still received with a degree of trust that is not necessarily warranted. This defamation will probably continue to damage me and my employer. I can only appeal to you to reject a smear campaign for what it is â€“ and to let it reflect on the people who have engaged in it instead.
I want to make a few final points.
First, I am very grateful to have my employer’s support. Throughout this, the Wikimedia Foundation has supported me without wavering. I am grateful that I work for an organization that is loyal and not easily frightened. I know that’s not true of all employers, and I’m glad it’s true of mine. I do also want to explicitly say that although I voluntarily asked various people at the Wikimedia Foundation to review this post and help me ensure it’s clear, I have not been asked by the Wikimedia Foundation to submit it for approval, nor have they asked me to censor myself in any way.
I also want to explicitly express my thanks to my colleagues — Wikimedia staff and editors — for their personal support. Wikipedia is a high-visibility website, and like anything high-profile, it attracts its share of cranks, detractors and media. Wikipedia editors and staff have sometimes been stalked, publicly maligned, and threatened. I am sad for everyone who has been targeted as a result of their involvement with Wikimedia, and I am grateful for the personal messages of support that I’ve received from others, including those who have themselves been targeted.
I also want to explicitly say this: at this point, I intend this blog post to be my definitive and final comment on this issue. The entire episode has been deeply distressing and a distraction from my work. If you are a journalist who calls me for further comment, I will likely direct you here and be done with it. I have no interest in wasting my time or my employer’s time rebutting false accusations: I have work to do.