Susan Simpson has been blogging about legal matters since she graduated from law school. For five years, she’s run her site without any disruption to her professional or personal life. Then, she tackled the murder trial against Adnan Syed, which had been launched into national fame thanks to the popularity of the podcast Serial.
That’s when, according to Simpson, people started trying to get her fired.
“People try to cause real world trouble,” she tells The Daily Beast. Simpson did not name names, but says people have been “trying to dig up rumors about me, trying to make claims about my ability to be a lawyer. They’re trying to affect my ability to write about Serial by making it uncomfortable.”
That’s not the worst of it, or at least the only form of harassment Simpson says that she has faced for blogging about Serial. “I have a photo on my blog and my Linkedin. There have been some weird responses that are sexualized about my appearance,” she says.
“They’re pretty gross, and I don’t want to give that any attention. They’re pretty crude,” Simpson says, but declines to go into further detail.
Simpson doesn’t have the same Serial-based fame as, say, the show’s host, Sarah Koenig, which makes the harassment all the more perplexing. In addition to her blog, she has been invited to the A.V. Club to speak along with a few other venues to be a Serial pundit, but who would go out of their way to wreak professional havoc on a woman who runs a legal blog about a podcast as a side project?
The answer, in this instance, is a particularly dedicated subset of Serial devotees on Reddit who dissect not only each episode but attempt to dig up evidence—or, more accurately, dirt—of their own. In the world of subreddits, /r/serialpodcast is a virulent community that not only weighs in on Adnan’s guilt or innocence but evaluates—and sometimes attacks—the lawyers, journalists, and bloggers who publicly discuss the show.
Often, women specifically bear the brunt.
Koenig is often accused of being in love with Adnan. Therefore, these accusers often argue, her lust has made her an untrustworthy reporter. Sometimes, there’s a moderated twist of claims that Koenig is “too emotional” or shows too much feeling—characteristics often negatively associated with women in positions of power.
Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of Adnan who has been featured on Serial and has been an outspoken advocate for him, has also been accused of having ulterior romantic motives behind her efforts to exonerate him. In a Reddit thread titled “Theory: Rabia is in Love with Adnan,” one user wrote Rabia “has said on many occasions that she loves him although she disguises it as a sort of familial affection, even though they are not in the slightest related.” The post gets odder suggesting Rabia has “hybristophelia [note: it’s actually spelled hybristophilia],” which is the state of being brought to sexual arousal or orgasm by knowing a partner has done something horrible like committing a crime.
“It could be a touch of that, if you can get a touch of that,” says the post. “And here I am guessing but I think a very high proportion of his support here on Reddit is from women… It certainly would explain the blind irrationality of her [Chaudry’s] position, the fundraising etc.”
To recap, Chaudry—and, by extension, any female supporter—is suspected of having a condition which leads her to become sexually aroused by criminals, and that, according to the theory, is the driving reason why she would publicly state her opinion that Adnan is innocent. It’s one of several examples of attacks at Chaudry’s opinions that are rooted in the idea that her gender is why her views are not deemed logical, sound, or trustworthy.
“I got harassed in a weird ‘What’s in it for her?’ way. And [I got] the attacks women usually do get, [about] my looks and calling me a bitch,” Chaudry tells The Daily Beast. “Even my brother and Adnan’s brothers didn’t get the same kind of ugliness that women faced.”
Chaudry actually blames some of the attacks on the way she was portrayed in the first episode of Serial. “Sarah actually called me loosey-goosey with the facts. I said he was a star runner, and she said he was on the track team, but he wasn’t a star. But he got medals,” Chaudry says. “She nitpicked on little things.”
Still, despite frustrations with Koenig’s portrayal, she is disturbed by what she sees as sexist attacks against the host. “I don’t think men get attacked for being in love with their subjects or lusting after them,” says Chaudry. “People said horrible things about Sarah. She’s a consummate professional.”
The bashing of women who wade into the complexities of Adnan’s case is not limited to those who advocate for his innocence. Natasha Vargas-Cooper interviewed Jay Wilds, the state’s key witness, and Kevin Urick, the state prosecutor who got Adnan convicted, for The Intercept. She faced a massive, almost instantaneous backlash. While some of the comments were legitimate, professional critiques of the journalism in the piece, other online remarks toed and ran well past the line.
One Redditor linked to a now deleted comment directed at Vargas-Cooper:
“You, as well as this publication, have basically relegated yourselves to that high school slut who all the guys sleep with bc they don’t have the balls to ask out the pretty girl. Tell me, was it always a goal of yours to build a name for yourself piggybacking the hardwork of a superior journalist? Or more so to attempt to discredit and disparage the very hard work you’re piggybacking via obviously disgruntled and bitter men? Men, who by all reads, selected you only ONLY bc they knew you’d bend over for them.”
Simpson noted, however, that it’s unlikely that the policing of the people on Reddit is the problem. Reddit moderators, she says, “have been good about the grossly sexualized comments” and evidence of the worst behavior, like the one above, is often deleted.
Women are hardly the only ones sticking their necks out for—or against—Adnan, but male commentators haven’t seem to have faced the same vitriol. Colin Miller, a University of South Carolina law school professor, is a popular Serial blogger at EvidenceProf, with a blog just like Simpson’s.
“I haven't gotten a single negative email. Most of the comments on the blog are positive. The negative comments seem to say I’m reaching incorrect conclusions, but nothing hostile,” he tells The Daily Beast.
When asked if he thought his sex played a role in his relatively decent online treatment, Miller was unsure. “It's a little tough for me to say,” he says.
“Not all (or even most) of the attacking comments are related to sexism, but so many of the go-to insults have a weird, gender-related vibe,” Simpson said in an email to The Daily Beast. “Rabia is ‘unlikeable’ and ‘erratic,’ I'm a ‘flitty’ new graduate who is writing a ‘hobby blog,’ Natasha is ‘unladylike’ and ‘a bit mental,’ Sarah is ‘naive,’ ‘emotional,’ and ‘not objective’ due to her ‘infatuation’ with Adnan.”
Unfortunately, women who publicly state their opinions or produce work are often faced with forms of sex-based harassment and threats. Plenty of well-written ink has been spilled on the topic, and the problem is more than just academic.
What is more baffling, though, is that this sexism has hit a sub-community devoted to a podcast devoted to a 15-year-old murder trial. Over a dozen instances of comments dub those who believe Adnan committed the murder to be “guilters,” not unlike the nomenclature behind extremist conspiracy theorists like “truthers” or “birthers.”
Sexism isn’t the primary problem with the Serial truthers. The hate and harassment speak more to the Internet’s ability to let passionate, anonymous extremists hurt others from the comfort of their computer.
People debate the ethics of Serial, with some claiming it unfairly opens a murder case and targets the family of the victim and the key witness. Serial truthers, however, go a step further, setting their sights on the average people who deign to attach their names to an opinion on a podcast. They do not speak for the majority of listeners or even most of those on Reddit, but they do speak to the disturbing vitriol and doxing that is increasingly becoming the norm on the web.