Live-tweeting has become a staple of journalism and reporting. People post running tweets from lectures, from sports events, and from natural disasters. There has even been live-tweeting from police stings or raids, especially on sex workers — a practice that raises disturbing ethical dilemmas.
On November 6, 2011, New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof posted a series of explosive tweets to his account.
“Joining raid on brothel in Cambodia that imprisons young girls,” his first tweet announced. He then detailed the successful raid (“Girls are rescued, but still very scared. Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam”), and the tense aftermath (“Large crowd gathered outside brothel. Police seem wary of brothel owners or military friends staging attack.”)
Kristof participated in the raid along with Somaly Mam, a Cambodian trafficking survivor and anti-prostitution activist who has recently come under scrutiny for allegedly paying young women to lie about having been trafficked and raped, and for other ethical breaches. The recent questions about Mam’s work underscore Kristof’s problematic use of twitter to turn a brothel-raid into a public spectacle. In Playing the Whore, Melissa Gira Grant explains that, “it goes without saying that [Kristoff] published all of this without obtaining [the women’s] consent.”
In addition, Human Rights Watch has reported that in Cambodia “police and other authorities have unlawfully locked up sex workers, beaten and sexually abused them, and looted their money and other possessions.” Kristof enthusiastically reported that “rapes are over,” but in fact there is no reason to think that sex workers “rescued” in Cambodia are safe. They could well be in even more danger.
“The real disorder in Kristof’s blithe chirping about brothels closing is the absence of responsibility towards the people working in them: where did they go? how will they live? do they have a roof over their heads now? How can he not understand that this is just how trafficking can happen, in his own sense of the word?” [emphasis Agustín’s]
The comfortable narrative of the “good guys” swooping in to make a heroic rescue is fatally flawed. The authorities in this situation are not necessarily trustworthy, nor are they necessarily working to help the women being “rescued.” Kristoff’s twitter account of the raid simplified the plight of sex workers in order to provide a more sensational and upbeat story.
The use of live-tweeting has also been used by law-enforcement agencies. For example, Birmingham police live-tweeted a drug raid in 2011. Again though, the greatest publicity seems to focus on live-tweeting of actions taken against sex workers. In early May 2014, Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland announced that it would live-tweet a prostitution sting. The PGPD issued a press release stating: “From the ads to the arrests, we’ll show you how the PGPD is battling the oldest profession.” Though they later clarified that they would be targeting johns rather than prostitutes, a publicity photo showed police with a woman in handcuffs. The PGPD did not respond to my request to clarify whether the woman had been arrested for prostitution, or if she had given consent to have her photo used.
There was much criticism about the prospective sting, and the PGPD ultimately decided not to live-tweet the operation, saying that doing so might endanger the undercover agents involved. The PGPD said that they had announced the live-tweeting as a way to scare off johns, and when they made no arrests, they said that the tactic had worked.
Sienna Baskin, the Managing Co-Director of theSex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center,explained to me the problems she sees with live-tweeting, and with stings.
“I believe that it is unethical for a variety of reasons. Prostitution stings are usually orchestrated by undercover police officers who pose as potential clients of sex workers to “catch” them in the act of prostitution. Subjecting targeted prostitution suspects not only to arrest, but to publication of details that may jeopardize their privacy on the basis of misrepresentation is unethical, especially when such stings often result in the suspect putting him or herself in sexualized situations. The goal of these publicized and tweeted stings seems to be publicity for the law enforcement agency, and therefore the human rights and interests of the targeted sex workers are not considered.”
Baskin adds that, “the public tends to be titillated by any stories involving sex work, due to the highly stigmatized nature of sex work and of sexuality itself in our culture.” People naturally find stories about sex workers exciting and entertaining and simultaneously. As a result, journalists and police have an incentive to tweet about these topics in order to draw attention and potentially promote or market themselves. Just as Somaly Mam appears to have created sensational stories to encourage donations for her organization, so Kristoff and the PGPD may reap career benefits if they are seen as fighting the good fight. So the PGPD claimed to want to prosecute johns and rescue women in the sex trade, but instead they advertised the sting with a picture of a woman in shackles. Similarly, Kristoff’s desire for sensational images and copy seems to predominate over the ultimate safety of the women in danger.
Agustín argues that the main issue about live-tweeting of raids and stings is not necessarily the tweeting, but the action of the police. When police tweet compromising photos, they are not doing anything different in kind from their standard operating procedure. She wrote me that:
“Photos of arrested prostitutes have long been routinely posted online by police and reporters. To talk about the ethics of tweeting them and treating criminals as fair game you’d need to put it in context. There is no ‘confidentiality’ for many people either online or on police bulletin boards.”
Agustín’s point is well-taken. The ethical dilemmas that arise when tweeting about prostitution raids seem linked to the general ethical problem of treating sex workers as criminals. The excitement and sensationalism of live-tweeting is partly the reason that reports of policing and patrolling sex work is framed as titillating. It becomes about the enjoyment or satisfaction of a breathless public, rather than about the safety of the women involved. Live-tweeting prostitution raids seems like it’s more a symptom than a cause. So an end to live-tweeting in and of itself wouldn’t create a more ethical approach to sex work. But if we had a more ethical understanding of sex work, we surely wouldn’t have Nicholas Kristoff, PGPD, or anyone, live-tweeting raids.
Noah Berlatsky writes for the Atlantic, Salon, and Splice Today; he is the editor of the Hooded Utilitarian, a comics and culture blog.