Rumors About Me in the Secular Community

 

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Caption: Meme saying “I don’t always engage with rumors about me, but when I do, I pull out all the stops” (From imgflip.com)

 

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As I wrote earlier, rumors abound in the secular community, ranging from true to half-true to mostly false to completely false, and I have been the target of some myself.

 

The situation is so problematic that in 2013, the Secular Coalition for America published an Open Letter signed by a host of major leaders of national secular leaders about “improving the tone and substance of online discussions.” The letter read, in part: “We refuse to allow the deplorable conduct of a few to debase the reasonable, appropriate, and respectful conduct of the overwhelming majority of our community,” going on to say “we can resolve to avoid mischaracterizing the positions of others, relying on rumors as the basis for our opinions, and using inappropriate tactics such as guilt by association.” Wouldn’t it be nice if people in the secular community followed the suggestions made in this Open Letter?

 

Still, despite the highly problematic behavior of some prominent members of the secular community, I am highly reluctant to call them out. While they do some ill, they also do a lot of good. I evaluate the balance of their activities, and generally do not find it worthwhile to address the situation. Moreover, I know how easy it is for our brains to accept rumors and accusations in an unquestioning manner, and I realize that the targets of accusations may have many reasons why they choose not to share their side of the story.  So unless there is abundant evidence of wrongdoing, I stay away from making statements that would damage people’s reputations.

 

Another reason I strongly avoid repeating rumors comes from research on debunking myths, for instance in a study by Christina Peter and Thomas Koch in the 2016 Science Communication. The authors found that correcting people’s misconceptions with accurate facts backfires in the long term, since if you first state the false information and then provide evidence of why it is wrong, people will tend to forget over time the evidence for why it is wrong, and start to misremember the original falsehood as true. The key mechanism here is the illusory truth effect, where the more often people are exposed to a piece of information, the more they tend to believe it is true since they are more familiar and comfortable with that information. Thus, Peter and Koch’s research suggest that many articles meant to debunk false information in the long term reinforce the myths that the article intended to dispel. This finding made me reluctant to debunk falsehoods, since people would tend to remember the exciting and gossip-worthy misinformation, and not the facts, which tend to be boring and realistic.

 

Unfortunately, as the reputation and impact of the Pro-Truth Pledge, a project I helped launch devoted to fighting lies and promoting truth and rational thinking in politics and other life areas, has grown bigger, I have been the target of a number of attacks by a secular blogger, Kevin Davis. The attacks have escalated over time, with Davis’ claims growing more extreme and deceitful (I discuss their deceitful nature below, but for now just presume that I perceived them as deceitful without necessarily accepting that they were so pending your evaluation of the evidence below in the post).

 

Having tried to reason with him, to no avail, I had to block him on Facebook as he was showing increasingly problematic behavior in spreading misinformation, to avoid having to deal with him constantly tagging me and escalating my anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, he kept spreading misinformation about me around the internet, sharing in various Facebook groups and private messages with various secular leaders and activists, as well as spreading these falsehoods in-person.

 

Now, some of you might have heard about it, and formed your impressions already. You might have previously commented elsewhere, expressing your agreement with Davis. If so, you might be prone to confirmation bias around this issue, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirming previous beliefs or theories. You might be reading this post to try to pick it apart, rather than to inform your perspective. If so, I want to ask you to try to set aside past beliefs, and consider all evidence with a neutral eye, asking yourself “What will change my mind?”

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Caption: Meme saying “What will change your mind?” (created for Intentional Insights by Jane A. Gordon)

 

If your standard of evidence is unrealistic – if you would need a miracle to appear in front of you to change your mind – please avoid reading further. You would just waste your time and energy, and have better things to do. If you have a reasonable standard of evidence, as I hope any skeptic should, please keep reading further!

 

Why Am I Writing Now?

 

I could have written in full about this earlier, but I did not want to engage with behavior that I perceived as deceptive, trolling, and defamatory. I think I should have addressed the accusations, and I apologize to anyone who has formed mistaken impressions based on Davis’ misinformation.

 

What pushed me to write now is that he crossed a red line for me by engaging in cyberstalking and cyberbullying. Cyberstalking is defined on Wikipedia as “the use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, group, or organization. It may include false accusations, defamation, slander and libel. It may also include monitoring, identity theft, threats, vandalism, solicitation for sex, or gathering information that may be used to threaten, embarrass or harass… Cyberstalking is a criminal offense under various state anti-stalking, slander and harassment laws. A conviction can result in a restraining order, probation, or criminal penalties against the assailant, including jail.” Wikipedia describes cyberbullying as “identified by repeated behavior and an intent to harm,” and includes “harassing someone who has said they want no further contact,” as well as “pejorative labels” and “defamatory false accusations,” and “posting rumors about a person on the internet with the intention of bringing about hatred in others’ minds or convincing others to dislike or participate in online denigration of a target.”

 

Let me explain why I believe Davis engaged in cyberstalking and cyberbullying. I keep my Facebook mostly public, and made a public Facebook post about the anxiety I felt over people spreading slander about me. Note that I did not name any names, or reference the specific kind of slander, simply asking for support and making clear that from now on, I will block people and delete comments that are slanderous toward me and my activities. I used the term slander very deliberately, meaning that I am happy to address criticism of my activities, but not falsehoods, written or spoken, about them.

 

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For example, in response to this post, Nathan Dickey, one of the podcast hosts of “Trolling with Logic” who told me in the past that he is a personal friend of Davis, made this comment critical of my actions:

 

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I consider his sentiment and comment quite appropriate, especially given that I did make a mistake (described in the post below) in my Patreon use. I acknowledged that mistake in a previous Facebook post, as well as via Twitter and a lengthy post on Patreon. I want to learn from and acknowledge criticism, even criticism that may be mistaken in its basis because of facts that the critic may not know, as I had not previously responded in detail to Davis.

 

Unfortunately, despite me stating very clearly that slanderous comments will be deleted, Davis made a comment posting a link to his blog, which I had clearly stated earlier in the comments on his blog that I consider full of lies and thus slanderous. Moreover, he engaged in mental illness shaming, saying “mental illness is not something to hide behind.” Now, if he just made a comment similar to the one left by Dickey, it would not have been slanderous, and I would have left it up. Why would someone take the time to make that sort of comment, in a situation where I made super-clear that I would delete comments I consider slanderous immediately – so it’s not like it would make any impact on people. He knew from my original post that slanderous comments create anxiety and increase stress for me, and  the only point of this comment appears to be to inflict this emotional pain through the use of mental illness shaming. However, maybe he had some other motivations, which I was unable to discern initially. To learn, I asked him several days later on his blog post about why he posted that comment. He admitted publicly that he posted this specific comment, and that he knew I would delete it, thus taking a screen shot: so the only audience of his comment was me, and he knew it would not in any way change my mind since he knew I would delete it. This to me excluded the possibility of any other reasons than to cause me mental pain.

 

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Setting aside the rest of the accusations, which I address further in this post, I was quite confused by why he was able to comment on my post: after all, I blocked him on Facebook. So I decided to further investigate the situation, and chose to unblock him on Facebook briefly, making his public posts visible to me (which was made possible because he did not block me on Facebook). What I learned stunned me: he engaged in further mental illness shaming on his personal Facebook wall, equating my setting of personal boundaries of avoiding dealing with lies about me so as to prevent mental pain “get out of jail free card” and falsely stating that I am just seeking to use my mental illness as a “tool to evade criticism”  in a post that he made public, so that anybody can see it (and thus I feel free to share it here):

 

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As someone who is an activist in addressing the kind of mental illness stigmatization that Davis shows here, I was naturally outraged. However, the post also made me even more worried about how did Davis manage to comment on my post, and especially so quickly, as he made his post above just a bit after I made mine (mine at 1:06 PM and his at 2:39 PM). Does Facebook allow people who you blocked to see your public posts? Fortunately, that’s not the case, as Davis’ further comments revealed to me (this is all part of the thread of responses to his post above).

 

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It turns out that with his original account, Davis was unable to see or comment on my post. Fortunately, he answered himself here how he was able to leave the mental illness shaming comment with his deceitful post:

 

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So apparently Davis keeps a second account on Facebook, violating the Facebook Community Standards according to this article from Facebook itself:

 

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In other words, Davis did not come across my post through browsing his Facebook feed from his regular profile, as he is blocked from seeing and engaging with me on Facebook through his regular profile. He apparently chooses to violate the Facebook Community Standards by maintaining a second profile for cyber-stalking purposes. Such profiles are typically called “sock puppet” profiles, referring to misleading use of online identities for a variety of purposes, including to “circumvent a suspension or ban from a website.”

 

Now, this is not to say that keeping a sock puppet Facebook profile is that bad. Sure, it might get you banned from Facebook. My real concern is how he used that sock puppet profile for cyber-stalking. Namely, he had to sign out of his actual profile, get into his sock puppet profile, deliberately go to my profile page to observe my activities and read the post, and any of my other public posts – which are all publicly available except to those people who I have blocked from seeing my Facebook profile. Such actions are classical cyberstalking behavior, which crosses what is for me a red line (I fully accept that other people may feel differently). My perspective is that he took a much more problematic course of action and crossed a much more serious line (again, other people may disagree on the nature of this line) by engaging in cyberbullying behavior by leaving the mental illness shaming comment with a link to his deceitful post. He knew, as he stated earlier, that I would immediately delete the comment and that it would cause me mental pain, since I described explicitly in my original post the mental pain I experienced from lies about me, have stated clearly that I believe his post to be deceptive, and stated that I will delete any such comments – which I did.

 

His actions toward me are not a one-off incident: Davis apparently has a pattern of engaging in such cyber-stalking behavior, using his second profile to post comments that he expects will be deleted and get his profile blocked; he apparently makes such comments, to quote the official Facebook page of his Secular Voices Patheos blog, “because sometimes you just feel like riling people up,” as you can see from this screenshot. Now, let me be clear: Davis, to my knowledge and observations, is very far from the level of some more notorious cyber-stalkers. However, right now I am highly concerned about Davis going further along the path in his cyberstalking and cyberbullying behavior. I do not know whether he will attempt to continue his cyberstalking and cyberbullying behavior toward me, but he clearly maintains a sock puppet profile, and has a pattern of using it to make comments that he expects will be deleted and get him blocked. This kind of cyberstalking and cyberbullying behavior, I believe, should not be tolerated as part of the secular community. So for my own protection from potential future deterioration of his behavior, and for the sake of setting a healthy community norm, I will proceed in the rest of this post to clarify the accusations made by this individual, and give my own responses to these accusations.

 

Social Media Use: The Facts

 

Being aware of the study cited above about the backfire effect, I struggle with how to present the situation in such a way as to avoid leaving readers with the wrong impression. The study suggests that the typical way such information is presented, first describing the myth and then describing the facts countering the myth, results in people remembering the myth and not remembering the debunking of the myth. I will try to approach the situation instead by describing the reality of the situation, then the false or misleading claims or tactics used by the cyber-stalking blogger, and then going on to clarify how the claims are problematic. Hope it works better than the typical approach.

 

I use social media, especially Facebook, extensively for my activism. Social media has proven very valuable to connect with other people devoted to fighting lies and promoting rational thinking and decision-making in politics and other life areas, the focus of my activist work. Starting out on my activism several years ago, I joined a large number of groups on Facebook and other social media platforms like Google+ and Reddit that seemed to fit this set of interests, where I shared my articles and engaged in conversations about this topic. I was not as aware of netiquette as I am now, and upset some people who perceived my sharing of articles I wrote as excessive. Hearing these concerns, I scaled back my engagement with groups, not wanting to engage in behavior that some would perceive as unwelcome.

 

I instead set up a Facebook page, which I learned over time is the more appropriate way of engaging with people on Facebook. Through that, I encouraged fans who like my writings and believe it is valuable for the world to promote them. Indeed, when I share my posts on Facebook, I often have a call to action asking people to share them. So now, when I publish an article, I take the time to share it to some groups myself from my Facebook page, to get things going, and my fans then share the article elsewhere. Naturally, my posts then tend to be shared, and these supporters tend to do most of this sharing. Some of them even created social media accounts explicitly for this purpose. Many of the people who tend to share my posts most tend to be from developing countries, as I make a particular effort to reach out to secular people there, something unusual for secular activists in the US. They tend to be more likely to become more intense fans and share my content more broadly, as well as become volunteers for the nonprofit I run. Some of these people have become my good friends, even though I’ve never seen them in person: I know about their lives, troubles, worries, and concerns, and support them in their struggles. Some of them the nonprofit I run hires to do part-time contract work in areas where we have no volunteers who have that capacity, such as editing videos or doing social media management, which involves managing the InIn Twitter, Facebook page, and other social media accounts. Paid work does not include sharing articles on Facebook from personal accounts, as the return on investment on that activity is pretty low and we have plenty of enthusiastic supporters who do so anyway. So even if the nonprofit had a solid financial base – which is does not – we would not pay people to engage in these activities. Those among our supporters who do so engage in article sharing on their own time due to personal enthusiasm for the content.

 

I am grateful for the willingness of those who part-time contract work to combine volunteering and working. To be clear, their volunteering is not directly related to their payments. They are welcome to decrease their volunteering due to other events, whether in their broader society or personal life. For example, John Chavez from the Philippines decreased his volunteering time recently due to the terrorist situation in Marawi, as he decided to volunteer to help address the situation there, and I supported him, while reminding him to be more diligent about clear communication around this issue to others (he did not get paid less during the time he volunteered less for InIn). Another volunteer and contractor, Shyam Soni, took time off from volunteering because he recently got married, but kept working full-time at the tasks he is paid for, and was not paid less for the time he took off. We have not had any situations where anyone permanently decreased their volunteering time, but I imagine that it would not be a problem.

 

Even more salient demonstrations of their enthusiasm for the organization comes from their willingness to donate not simply their time, but also their money, while combining that with part-time contract work. These donations are especially meaningful because the average wage of people in developing countries is much lower on average than people in developed countries. To go back to John, he permitted me to disclose this one-time gift he made to a matching fundraiser, and this separate monthly gift he made in response to a fundraising appeal. As another example, Ella Aquino made this weekly gift, permitting me to disclose it as well. I am disclosing this donation information, which I normally would keep private, to prevent any accusations of simply hiring people who want money instead of care about the nonprofit or of exploiting workers from developing countries: they would hardly make donations if they simply wanted the money or felt mistreated. Likewise, their volunteering time is not directly tied to their payments. We also hire US-based volunteers and donors for part-time work when we can’t find someone to do necessary work from developing countries: we of course prefer to hire from developing countries if possible, since paying a fair wage there is less expensive for the nonprofit, and we have a responsibility to our donors to use their money both frugally and ethically.

 

Returning back to social media use, by 2017 I had grown very busy with all of my responsibilities, and I trust these volunteers to such an extent that I gave one my password for my Facebook account to spend time sharing articles from my personal account so that I can focus on more impactful activities. That includes my service as volunteer President of Intentional Insights, the nonprofit running the Pro-Truth Pledge and other projects devoted to spreading rational thinking, which involves coordinating hundreds of volunteers to promote its mission – in addition to fundraising to support its work. I also work a full-time job as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State University. I also spend my time working on my forthcoming book, The Alternative to Alternative Facts: Fighting Post-Truth Politics With Behavioral Science. Finally, I spend a lot of time publishing and doing media appearances in a range of venues, both mainstream and secular. I also delegated to volunteers the roles of managing various social media venues that I used to do, such as the Facebook groups for Intentional Insights supporters and Pro-Truth Pledge Advocates.

 

Social Media Use: The Myths

 

So now let’s get to the rumors. Apparently, because of the extensive sharing of my articles by fans, some people in the secular community accuse me of using sock puppet accounts to promote my articles. In other words, they believe that I deliberately created fake accounts on Facebook to share my posts and spend my time in this manner. I believe creating sock puppet accounts is a deceptive and unethical practice, since it creates a misleading impression of who actually makes the statement; unfortunately, it is commonly used by people, such as Russian trolls, who want to spread false information. I spend my efforts – about 50 hours a week outside of my regular job, and also donating 10% of my income – fighting deception and promoting truth-oriented behavior. I would never create sock puppets to promote my articles and other activities, as it would go against everything for which I stand, and would undermine the basis of my activism, an important source of fulfillment and meaningfulness for my life. While that is the main reason, an additional reason is that I have much more effective ways of spending my time promoting my ideas, such as securing media appearances which reach many thousands of people. For example, I already had something like 10 appearances on the show of Ethan Bearman, such as this one, in which he took the Pro-Truth Pledge; Bearman is rated the #57 talk show host in the country, and appearing on his show reaches hundreds of thousands. A third reason we can see that the accounts sharing my Facebook posts are from real people is that many self-identify themselves as coming from developing countries: as I mentioned, plenty of my more passionate fans come from there. Knowing well that the masters at such fake accounts make sure to create ones that look like real Americans from the heartland, it would be foolish for anyone to create accounts that appear to be from developing countries, as we tend to trust foreigners less than those who appear to be Americans.

 

I can imagine why some uninformed people who don’t know much about me might hold this false belief, if they see someone sharing articles I wrote extensively, or if that’s what they first heard about me. I would hope that most people in the secular community would not accept rumors as the basis of their opinions, but as I said, there’s a reason for the Open Letter I cited in the beginning of this piece. So when I first heard these rumors, I wrote a blog post on June 16, 2017 about this topic, explaining why this is a silly belief to hold. So when I was tagged in a Facebook post on July 20, 2017 about an upcoming show, and someone accused me of making such false accounts, I responded with the post I wrote.

 

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At that point, the blogger, Kevin Davis, jumped in. He had an opportunity to read my blog post, and respond there, where everyone had a chance to look at the evidence, and discuss things in the comments. Instead, he behaved as though I did not provide a thorough response to these false accusations in my blog post on the topic, which I posted in the Facebook thread before he made his response (the comments depicted here are in order of their appearance in the Facebook discussion).

 

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He asked questions and made comments in the typical trolling style of sealioning, which is “bad-faith requests for evidence, or repeated questions, the purpose of which is not clarification or elucidation, but rather an attempt to derail a discussion or to wear down the patience of one’s opponent. The troll who uses this tactic also uses fake civility and feigns offense so as to discredit their target.” The way to deal with such trolls is to set a clear personal boundary, as I did, saying that I do not wish to talk about the topic: don’t feed such trolls is my motto. He made disparaging comments in response, such as calling my approach “total crap” and so on.

 

He then moved on to a set of other accusations, a new one beyond the sock puppet thing, namely about hiring a social media marketing company to “spam” articles on Facebook groups.

 

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This showed a continued engagement in sealioning, since I clearly answered such questions in my post from over a month ago, stating the same things I described above in this post about hiring people on a part-time contract basis. Moreover, at that point, I saw that Davis clearly expressed a great deal of irrationality. He appears to make two accusations that seem diametrically opposed. If someone had the money to hire an offshore social media marketing company, then they would not be creating sock puppet accounts, since they value time more than money; if they create sock puppet accounts, then they would presumably be valuing money more than time, since they are not outsourcing this task.

 

Furthermore, it was very disheartening to observe what appears to be the implicit racism of Davis when he sees people from developing countries sharing posts and assume that they are hired to spam articles on social media just because they honestly self-identified as coming from developing countries. Again, if they wanted to fool people, as the Russian trolls so effectively did, they would simply make up fake accounts that looked like Americans. This prejudice toward people from developing countries on the part of some secular activists who held these misguided beliefs is repugnant to me, as I said in my original post long before Davis made such comments, a statement that I am including to clarify that this is a long-held belief rather than something I am using just to criticize Davis.

 

I did not wish to deal with such racism, and I unfriended him on Facebook, partly because I saw that he was engaged in sealioning behavior and that his words smacked of racism, but also were now devolving into another trolling strategy, the Gish Gallop, “the fallacious debate tactic of drowning your opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort… Although it takes a trivial amount of effort on the Galloper’s part to make each individual point before skipping on to the next (especially if they cite from a pre-concocted list of Gallop arguments), a refutation of the same Gallop may likely take much longer and require significantly more effort (per the basic principle that it’s always easier to make a mess than to clean it back up again).” He again made an accusation typical of Gish Galloping, throwing out fallacies, reminding me of this comic, which I chose not to respond with to avoid further exacerbating the matter.

 

I hoped I could avoid the refutation of that Gish Gallop, and avoid revealing the sealioning and implicit racism of Davis’ behavior, but unfortunately Davis refused to let the situation die down, and made this blog post where he levelled the same sorts of accusations at me, as though I did not respond to them earlier. He also found an older blog post that described some issues with the marketing pursued by Intentional Insights, and linked to it, again making it out to look as though I did not respond to them in the same post above. Here’s a screenshot from my blog post where I clearly addressed those comments from the older blog post. In an additional example of either blogging incompetence or deliberate falsehood, Davis asked in his post:

 

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The website’s FAQs on the bottom of the front page clearly list reasons for donations, such as the one below. So Davis either demonstrated incompetence by failing to read the website or deliberately lied to make his point.

 

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I responded to Davis’ blog post with a link to my own, clarifying that I addressed this and similar concerns, and described and owned up to a number of mistakes I made in the past – referencing the older blog he linked – in my blog post a month before his. In the first example of an outright lie, meaning a deliberate intent to deceive, Davis responded “I linked to that, which didn’t explain anything.”

 

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At that point, Davis for me became a persona non grata. I do not accept liars in my life, and abhor such behavior. So I disengaged.

 

Patreon Use: The Facts

 

I have an account on Patreon, a website that allows fans to support public figures such as artists, radio show hosts, writers, activists, web comic writers, and so on for their activities. My Patreon is set up in such a way as to allow people to support my activism, and pay me per activist activity, as that is the nature of my creative efforts: addressing the irrationality in this world. That means every time I write an article, give a speech, appear on a radio show or podcast, I post on Patreon about my activity, and fans pay me per such public act of addressing the world’s problems. The terms are described very clearly in the overview of what people pay me for on Patreon.
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Ever since I learned to use the Patreon settings appropriately, all of my posts are open to the public (my last closed post was November 2016, the learning curve was a bit steep until I got some advice from fellow Patreon users). You can see this in this screenshot of my open posts, the ones available to the public (118 out of 126). Also, I make sure to describe each appearance I make in the posts on Patreon. For example, here’s the Patreon post with my appearance on the prominent radio show host Scott Sloan’s show. You should all be able to access that show, as it’s open to everyone. Anyone can check out my Patreon and get all the articles and radio shows there since Nov 2016 for free, which I clearly outline in my Patreon description. They can also get the same things if they follow my social media. As the overview states, “you are only paying if you want to support my activism, because all the articles, videos, podcasts and so on I post here are also freely available elsewhere, such as on my FB page and Twitter.”

 

I had perceived my sharing on Patreon as no different than sharing about my appearances elsewhere: via newsletter, via social media, or on websites like Patheos. I see this all as mutually beneficial activities: my supporters on Patreon get to listen to and find out about new shows, and the podcast hosts/radio shows get more of an audience, and I get financial support for my activism, a win-win situation. In no way did I think my activities were problematic, as can be seen in my answer to Chris Watson, a podcaster on whose show I appeared, when he asked me that question in a Facebook post.
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In the ensuing discussion, podcasters educated me about copyright and content ownership, and showed me that I should make sure to get permission from podcasters before posting on Patreon. As I have less knowledge about copyright and content ownership that podcasters, who make it their business, I updated my beliefs quickly based on their statements, and decided to change my approach to posting on Patreon. As a scholar, my expertise in copyright is in regard to citations in books, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know in that domain, which I appreciated learning, and freely admitting I made a mistake. In fact, I made a free post on Patreon describing my policy change, explaining my perspective and saying “I apologize to any podcast or radio show hosts I have offended, and will of course take down their show if they wish, and again, I acknowledge I was wrong on this one.” I stated that in the future, I will make sure to ask people who own the copyright on the content if they are ok with my social media manager volunteer posting their show on Patreon so that my fans can support my activism, as well as offering to put any links they wish, such as a donate page to their show in my Patreon posts.

 

Show hosts to whom I spoke with accepted that this was the right course of action (one asked for his post to be taken down, which it was, and one asked me to have the volunteer avoid putting up a post I didn’t get to yet). The two podcast hosts on whose shows I appeared with since that time have been quite happy with me putting up their posts on my Patreon as a mutually beneficial arrangement for all (1, 2). While chagrined and embarrassed over my lack of understanding of copyright law and consequent mistaken actions, I was glad that the podcast hosts helped me correct my behavior and update my beliefs; this is the kind of behavior I would want to see of anyone else who took the Pro-Truth Pledge.

 

Patreon Use: The Myth

 

Davis chose to make a blog post about this matter, and this in itself would not be problematic if it was an accurate and honest depiction of this matter: Utah Outcasts did a podcast discussing the legalities of this matter, and I am glad that they helped others learn from my mistakes. Of course I would have preferred to avoid making the mistake in the first place, and will work harder on learning about the social norms and legalities of other domains with which I engage. The problem of Davis’ post comes from its content, which went from Davis’ previous highly problematic sealioning, Gish Galloping, and potential falsehoods to multiple instances of downright lies and misleading claims. The title forecasts the post:

 

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It already made clearly misleading claims, such as putting the word apology in quotation marks. This puts a question mark over whether an apology was made, whereas I clearly stated in my Patreon post, which I also put on my Facebook and Twitter, that “I apologize to any podcast or radio show hosts I have offended, and will of course take down their show if they wish, and again, I acknowledge I was wrong on this one.” It then goes on to – for some reason – equate my behavior with the Pro-Truth Pledge, whereas I am simply one of the founders of the project. Next, it labels my behavior as deceitful. But it gets much, much worse.

 

The crucial charge Davis levels is that I was deceiving my supporters on Patreon, and pretending to them that I was the owner of the content. For example, see his statement below:

 

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Of course, as can be seen from my Patreon overview, I made it very clear to my supporters that I was posting links from my media appearances, and that is what they paid me to do. There is no way that people can be confused about this, as I am very explicit in each Patreon post I make about where the post is from, such as the Patreon post with my appearance on Sloan’s show. It was posted on July 24, 2017, so three days before Watson’s original Facebook post bringing this issue to my attention and helping me update my beliefs, and over a week before Davis’ August 2, 2017 post. As you can see, I clearly describe that I appeared on someone else’s show, there’s no two ways to read that. So the whole premise of his blog that I am lying to my patrons is libel, which I am using in the formal legal definition of “to publish in print (including pictures), writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others.”

 

That is the biggest piece of libel in the blog, but not the only one. Another one is below.

 

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This statement lies by indicating that my Patreon is closed to the public. As I demonstrated thoroughly above, my Patreon is freely available to anyone who wants to visit it: I invite you to do so now, and check out the posts here.

 

Davis knows that both of these statements are false. He has gone thoroughly through my Patreon page, as can be seen from the screenshots he took of it for his post. For example, here is his screenshot of my policy change and apology post on Patreon, which he included in his blog post on this matter, and his commentary.

 

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His commentary is misleading, but I would not term it a lie, since I am not confident it is a deliberate intent to deceive. All show hosts whom I have spoken with since that original post have been glad to see me put up their shows on my Patreon page, as I described above in this post. Still, Davis does not know that, he is simply making a statement for which he has absolutely no evidence, and also adds a disparaging commentary in the process.

 

He also added this screenshot of the email I planned to send to show hosts, which I included in my policy change and apology post .

 

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And then added this commentary

 

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First, Davis is trying to make a clearly misleading statement by accusing me of lying – without any evidence – that I do not have a social media manager. Here is a screenshot of an email I sent her on July 26, 2017, so before any of this broke out, about a show to put up. She, by the way, is not from a developing country, but from Denmark, in case anyone is curious about her name. He also makes a misleading statement about how I use my Patreon. I say above that “My social media manager will also put it in my Patreon account, enabling my fans to support my activism.” What do people do on Patreon to support activism? This is a clear statement, and the podcasts folks to whom I showed this – the relevant people meant to understand the email I am sending them – understood this fine. Still, based on conversations with Stephanie Savage, a fellow Patheos blogger, I decided to edit it to make things unambiguously clear to people who might not know what Patreon is, and it now states “My social media manager will also put it in my Patreon account, where I have supporters who pay for each media appearance I make: the show will be freely accessible to anyone who visits my Patreon, the supporters there just wish to support my activism.”

 

At that stage, I clearly saw that Davis devolved from sealioning and Gish Galloping to an ever worse trolling tactic, gaslighting. Wikipedia defines gaslighting as “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.”

 

How does one deal with such gaslighting? I wasn’t sure, and thought a mediator might help. In the comments, I challenged him to have an external mediator, for instance a fellow Patheos blogger, verify the accuracy of his post, with Davis paying a penalty if he did not check his facts before engaging in such blatant character assassination; Davis responded by rejecting the challenge, and to add insult to injury – literally – cursed me out, and deleted a similar comment with a similar challenge I left on his previous blog.

 

26

 

At the end of his post, he adds:

 

27

 

While my Patreon supporters do know exactly what they are paying for, the extensive libel coming from Davis – who has been spreading this piece of viral deception around secular forums and sending it individually to people – has indeed made some people concerned, and they indeed chose to disengage. I am now in the position of losing financial support due to demonstrable libel, and if I chose to do so, could pursue a defamation lawsuit against Davis in civil court. I can also report him for his abuse of Facebook Community Standards, for 1) having a false profile (not that bad in itself), and 2) much more problematically, using it for the purposes of cyberstalking and cyberbullying, potentially getting him kicked off Facebook. I also have the option of calling the police and pressing legal charges, given Davis’ recent cyberstalking and cyberbullying behavior, with a variety of potential penalties. I do not wish at this moment to pursue these options, as Davis has in the past demonstrated some productive activism that has benefitted the secular community; as well, I am reluctant to go through these institutional and legal routes when there are other venues remaining that would not leave a permanent record inhibiting Davis’ ability to get a job like a police record. However, I do not rule out pursue any or all of these possibilities in the future depending on whether Davis continues behaviors that fall under libel, defamation, cyberstalking, and cyberbullying.

 

Conclusion

 

I have not been willing to engage with this issue in depth before Davis has crossed the red line into criminal behavior. Looking back, I see that I should have acted sooner, as my default policy of not feeding trolls and doing only minimal engagement to point people to explanations I have written earlier did not serve me well. I know that a number of people expressed concerns to me privately and in public forums about me not responding in full sooner. I take full responsibility for the mistaken impressions that were created about my behaviors, and want to express my apologies to all who have developed mistaken beliefs about my behavior: I am sorry for that.

 

I have tried to be as accurate and careful in depicting my observations as I could in this account. It is for you, dear reader, to evaluate the evidence and come to your own conclusion. If you believe I have shared any misinformation as defined by the Pro-Truth Pledge, which I have taken, please bring it to my attention, and I will be glad to update my beliefs: I am as accountable as anyone who has taken it. Thank you for getting to the end of this long piece, which is unfortunately necessary to address the full extent of the matter as I see it. I encourage you to share this with anyone who you think might have heard about this situation or anyone you think might benefit from having knowledge about it.

 

**After-Posting Addendum: August 13, 9:55 PM Eastern**

I posted my blog on August 12 at 12:07 PM Eastern, and a couple of hours afterwards comments on both of Davis’ blog posts where he lays out his claims against me, so that people have an opportunity to see my answer to his claims. This is a screenshot of my comment on his first blog post (as you can see, I made the last two comments, with the top comment directing readers to this post, and the comment before that starting “Can you please clarify” dated 9 days ago), and a screenshot of my comment on his second blog post (as you can see, I made the last two comments there as well, with the top comment directing readers to this post and the comment before that starting “For all those interested” dated 4 days ago). Davis has not responded in the comment section to this post as of August 13, 9:48 Eastern, but his response is clear from the fact that he deleted both of the comments where I directed people to this post responding to his claims: you can see this screenshot of the comment sections of his first blog post (the top comment is my “Can you please clarify” now dated 10 days ago) and this screenshot of the comment sections of his second blog post (the top comment is my “For all those interested” now dated 5 days ago). He also banned me from commenting further on his blog posts. It is up to you, dear reader, what to make of the fact that Davis deleted my comments directing readers to this post, where I clarify my perspective and respond to his claims (the comments were quite civil and clear, as you can see from the screenshots).

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