This week America observed Valentine’s Day. A day that is about honoring the person we admire most in the romantic tradition of courtly love.
But if you’re a young woman using ‘Lulu,’ chances are that the guy you’ve trashed online didn't rush over with chocolates and roses.
Seventeen years ago, while working as a cub reporter on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case for the tabloids, I learned how powerful and hurtful words can be.
Knowing all too well that tabloid audiences are typically female, it didn’t take long for my editors to falsely accuse JonBenet’s father, John Ramsey, of sexually molesting and brutally murdering his 6-year old daughter.
After all, men make easy targets nowadays as ‘chauvinist pigs’ and ‘sexual predators.’
But John did not sexually abuse or murder his daughter. He was a loving father who adored his little girl.
The false accusations against John Ramsey coincided with the birth of Internet chat rooms, and I quickly realized the danger of how online users can spread lies like wildfire.
Seventeen years later, as an investigative journalist and practicing lawyer, I thought I’d seen every form of defamation imaginable.
But I was proven wrong when I read about “Lulu” in the New York Times, an invasive new app that encourages women as young as 17 to literally, as the Huffington Post described, “review men like restaurants,” including their performance in bed while awarding points for sex-drive.
Lulu, which now has millions of female users, allows women to anonymously and non-consensually use men’s photographs to build profiles and rate them from 1-10 while leaving revealing, often times stinging hash tags to describe them.
Trashing people with anonymous sources?
Taking people’s photos without their consent for publication?
As a former tabloid reporter, that sounded all too familiar.
One Huffington Post blogger, a mother concerned about her sons’ privacy called Lulu, “A parent’s and all boys’ worst nightmare,” and Forbes contributor Kelly Clay says, “Not only does it encourage young women to destroy other young men for the sake of revenge and in the heat of heartbreak, it will undoubtedly have a long term impact on the lives of these men.”
It’s hard to imagine that Lulu’s CEO, Alexandra Chong actually believes what she’s doing isn’t wrong. As a former tabloid journalist, I immediately saw Ms. Chong for what she really is—a trashy tabloid publisher whose cheap, classless, heartless drive for profit has left her without concern for the dignity, feelings and rights of the human beings whose lives will be impacted by what she publishes.
Like I said—as a former tabloid reporter—it was all too familiar.
I was relieved to learn that I was not listed on Lulu because I would have found that to be an unthinkable violation of my privacy. I also couldn’t imagine that any of the women I’d dated would have the tawdry vindictiveness to publish details about our relationship online.
But I remain concerned about the impact Lulu could have on young men. We’ve all encountered the kinds of bullies like the characters portrayed in the SNL satire, “Mean Girls.”
Now, Ms. Chong has given every self-absorbed, narcissistic female bully an official outlet to ridicule the boys they want to make fun of with no way of filtering what is true and what is a lie.
Instead of encouraging women to be thoughtful and reflective about the mistakes both people have made in a past relationship, Lulu does the opposite by creating a one-sided platform where women are invited to indulge in their vindictiveness by unilaterally shifting blame to the men they’ve dated.
Even female journalists have criticized the site as “creepy” because the profiles are non-consensual and many of the ratings about men are shallowly based on how much money they’re willing to spend on their dates.
Imagine how you might feel if one of these targets turns out to be your son, brother, friend or new partner?
You’d probably feel the way John Ramsey felt when he saw the false tabloid stories my editors were publishing about how he supposedly abused his little girl—powerless.
But power is a big part of the Lulu culture.
The founders of Lulu audaciously say they are promoting “female empowerment,” prostituting the feminist culture for profit. Spokeswoman Deborah Singer told me in an e-mail that, “We see empowerment as having the opportunity to share experiences in a safe environment and getting information to make smarter decisions…”
There is a difference however between empowerment of oneself and seeking power over others. Manipulating public perception about another person to impact their future relationships is an undeniably a form of having power over another.
In a stunning act of hubris, Ms. Chong even admits that the site’s threat of negative feedback can be used to control men’s actions.
“Should a man not do well in a particular category, then they can change their behavior,” Ms. Chong proudly told Buzzfeed.
I couldn’t imagine feminists would approve of Lulu’s claim to be “empowering women,” especially since Lulu’s rating system promoted the objectification of men, so I called Susan Mottet, President of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women to see what she thought.
“This website doesn't really turn the tables on men the way the founders suggest it does,” she told me after researching it online. “It uses categories to rate men based on outdated stereotypes apropos of Sandra Dee from the movie "Grease," asking women to rate men on their ability to commit, whether he always pays for dinner, and whether he has a car. It is appalling that they would suggest that empowering women to act like superficial, boy-crazy twits promotes feminism in any way. If it doesn't mean that women are treated as equals at work, at home, and in public spaces, it isn't feminism.”
In this world, there is good and there is evil. The tabloids are evil because, like Lulu, they profit from hurting people, and I was wrong to work for them.
I can only hope that in time, Ms. Chong matures and figures out what I did so that she tries to make the world a better place instead of a worse one by misusing the power that words have.
Because what John Ramsey told me in my days as a tabloid journalist was very accurate: “It hurts whenever anyone… says something that isn’t true.”
Contrary to whatever Alexandra Chong may think, men are human beings with feelings. They do not deserve to be objectified or manipulated with bullying anymore than women. To disregard those feelings by creating a forum where vindictive women can lie about their character demonstrates a lack of honor, accountability, and common decency.
It would behoove Ms. Chong to take a moment to reflect this Valentine’s Day and remember that healthy relationships are built upon a foundation of trust with a partner who is not carrying the baggage of bitterness from the past.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is an investigative journalist currently reporting on the Russian Federation.