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Managing Weinstein’s Reputation

Ask a Scientist with Francesca Giardini

Former film producer Harvey Weinstein was recently found guilty of committing criminal sex acts and rape. His case sparked the #metoo movement all over the world. The first official accounts of Weinstein’s deeds were revealed in October 2017. However, rumours about his behaviour were known for years. How is it possible that nobody spoke up all those years? We asked Francesca Giardini, Assistant Professor in Sociology at the University of Groningen to answer all our questions in our programme Ask a Scientist: Who Knew About Weinstein?

Giardini’s research focuses on reputation and gossip. From this perspective, she introduces the evening with a talk about the function of gossip and rumours, and how these affect someone’s reputation. In our society gossip is often considered to be bad, but it actually fulfills an important role in how we interact as humans. It can be an effective tool in uncovering information about individuals and it can be used to enforce group norms. For example, person A can be ‘controlled’ by the group through gossip from person B. If the gossip appears to be true, person A has to act upon it and either improve their behaviour or leave the group. Often, the reputation of person B benefits from this action. But if the gossip appears to be false, person B might lose their reputation. We see this kind of reputation management in different layers of society, not only in interpersonal contact, but also in managing business reputations. The game is quite complex, since it might be tempting to try to improve your reputation by telling lies or by withholding the truth. One example of this is how some companies try to improve their online reputation by hiring people to write good reviews. When these stories come out, the companies see their initial gain vanish rapidly.

So, gossipers gain power through gossip. First, however, there has to be decided whether something is a rumour or gossip. Rumours are often unverified, and are often about topics significant to the participants. That doesn’t mean they are untrue, rumours simply have a weak basis or a lack of evidence. Gossip on the other hand is social talk about individuals that are not present and must be seen in the context of building group solidarity. The effectiveness of gossip depends on the interdependence between the gossip senders and the object. This could easily be related to the Weinstein case. Harvey Weinstein had a powerful position in the movie industry, he had important connections and he had money. That activates a range of rights and obligations, including the fact that people helped him to uphold his reputation and refrained people who knew things from speaking up. There were also external factors that play a role in how successful gossip about Weinstein would become. The Hollywood industry is known to be very competitive, so negative gossip about a famous producer could offer an advantage to the competitors in the field. Negative gossip about someone with Weinstein’s status could as such be seen as a lie to damage his reputation in favour of others.

After Giardini’s talk, the audience is welcome to ask questions. Someone asks when exactly gossip can make power collapse. According to Giardini researchers are not able to predict that. It depends on many factors. For instance, the NGO Save the Children was accused of human trafficking when trying to help refugees from Northern Africa. This gossip did them a lot of harm and they lost donations, even though the formal investigation wasn’t finished. Another example is Lance Armstrong, who still manages to sell tickets for a private training tour on Mallorca at 30.000 dollar a pop, even after his reputation got badly damaged after admitting he used doping. How is it possible that a charity loses reputation so easily, while a convicted doping user is able to rebuild his reputation? The audience reacts that rumours about the use of doping are widely known within the cycling world and that Armstrong was smart in managing his reputation. Also, it might be that people still want to learn from him, even though he had used doping. The evening came to a close with an audience member asking for Giardini’s view on Weinstein’s female lawyer. Giardini responds that this was an obvious attempt of reputation management. Weinstein now presents himself as a poor, weak man in need of support from a walker. He seems harmless. The beautiful female lawyer by his side is now the one in a powerful position. She shows implicitly that there is nothing about Weinstein to be afraid of, so why should we believe the women who accuse him of sexual misconduct?

Watch Francesca Giardini's Powerpoint presentation here


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