The "Heather Marsh affair", or: The Facts behind ‘a storm in a teacup’

On the morning of November 7, I received a number of worried emails about accusations that appeared on one of the Twitter feeds of Anonymous (@YourAnonNews), which reaches 1m plus members.

In that tweet, it was said that we had published a CC-licensed work of ‘Georgie BC’, the pseudo of Heather Marsh, which ‘refused to credit her in any way’. (11:51am, Nov 06 from Web) and accusing us of stealing. This concerned a series of 3 blog posts that were edited by our collaborator Kevin Flanagan, pointing to scribd versions with excerpts of Heather’s work.

I knew these accusations could not be true, since we have been curating more than 7 years without complaint and always mention the author; and add a linkback to the source. We also spread (fb , tweet, google+), the original material separately at first; and quite often, we recommend our readers to go to the original for more, from within the blog. We have no history of appropriating other’s material without attribution. So I quickly checked, and saw that all the blog posts had all the necessary attributions. In this case, there was no linkback, but this is because these were excerpts that the author had sent herself, and these excerpts contained no meta-data. In the past, we had excerpted several of Heather Marsh’s pieces on both the p2p foundation wiki and blog, lauding her work repeatedly for pioneering insights in ‘peer governance’ (a concept she now rejects it seems).

The problem was that the excerpts had been embedded on scribd, on the p2pfoundation account, without metadata and attribution. Obviously this was an oversight, which we very quickly explained to Heather Marsh, adding that the Scribd situation would be resolved as soon as our blog contributor, who had access to the account, would wake in the European time zone.

This was communicated to HM, in a very friendly tweet, asking her what was wrong, and we expected a rectification of the earlier accusations.

This did not happen however, on the contrary. Instead of rectification, HM published the ‘proof’ that the accusations were ‘correct’, and privately sent threatening emails warning that without public apology on our part, the issue would explode. There was no rectification when my co-blogger Kevin Flanagan, in the most friendly terms, informed Heather the technical issue had been resolved as well (it took 3-4 hours, as it was 4 am for Kevin, who had access to the scribd account).

So here is the situation, HM by now knew that is was a honest mistake, that it would be rectified, and we had said so publicly and privately. She also tweeted repeatedly that we had ‘no special permission’, that ‘we pretented to have permission’ and she kept publicly accusing again and again on the attribution issue. Even though, all her articles in the blog and the wiki were attributed. Even though she knew the Scribd issue was a technical mistake in the process of being resolved, and even after it was resolved. So while we can understand the first over-reaction, to persist in the accusations even after receiving the correct information, that was and is incomprehensible to us. The whole tonality of the demand was: “submit the public apology, or else’. I stress this in the light of a later accusation by Heather that you will read in the next paragraphs.

Now on the permission issue. Even though she denied it, we quickly found the email in which we very clearly communicated not only about the publication of her excerpts, but she herself had actually chosen them. After this publication, she denied her denials, however, the tweets are there as proof both that she gave us permission, and that she had denied such before. We limited our communication to rectifcations of the record, but every time we did so, it had little effect. Is it really imaginable that Heather would have forgotten about the permission, the excerpts she sent us, etc … It stretches credibility. Re-iteration of the attribution issue, and each time a correction was tweeted, a new accusation replaced the old. For example, that we mis-attributed her writings as Georgie BC. This was true, but again, this his how the articles were signed on her blog, with no information on the real name, and as soon as we knew and emailed us about her worry that her articles were not searchable, we changed it (this was months ago). So again: Heather knew that we had curated many of her items before, with attribution; we had communicated and not just received permission, but even the choice of excerpts by her. And about 10 days ago, Heather even asked us for a job (we provided the details on how to be part of the process of recruitment, but she did not follow up). So it is not like she didn’t know us, and there had been zero sign of any trouble in the email relationship before.

So a double play was going on. In front of her own friendly audience, she kept up the fiction that we had stolen her material and harking back to the proof in Scribd, even though this was a technical oversight; in the communication with us, each correction was followed by a new unrelated accusation; plus, it got personal; my reactions were childish, an expression of narcissistic rage. I must admit I was not happy, but the feeling was not rage, but real sadness. Bear in mind that I never made personal accusations on her character, though I publicly disagreed with her actions. I think this is an important difference and an essential part of peer ethics. I also feel it is absolutely normally to protest against such heavy accusations as stealing and ‘refusing to recognize her rights’, if you know the background I just explained. The current incident should not lead to such character assassination. On my Facebook account, I was publicly accused of wanting a master-slave relationship with her as slave girl. As you can imagine, I was speechless, especially in the context of her own demand of unconditional submission! This is when I blocked her on both my personal accounts. I cannot accept to publicly discuss these types of fantasies on my personal accounts. My Facebook accounts are followed not just by activists, but also by friends and family, and I cannot indulge the discussion of such fantasies. Next, I was also accused of being sexist. Bear in mind this is coming from people who are using sexist, ageist and racist slurs, ie. that the whole of the p2p foundation is a bunch of ‘overfunded old white men’. This of course is a worrying accusation, and I duly requested feedback from our female associates (while our wiki and blog contributors are mostly male, we have numerous projects cooperating with woman collaborators (just have a quick look at our social media, or the gender balance of the conferences we have organized over the years), none of them felt this accusation justified. I am by the way advisor of the Women’s Party in the Netherlands. A cursory look at our curation will show that we have zero discrimination to points of view according to gender or race. As you may expect, p2p ethics require such an inclusive treatment. We may not achieve it all the time, but there is a constant striving to correct imbalances, to the degree possible, and within our means and capabilities. The P2P Foundation audience of course betrays its western origin, and most of our viewers come from Europe, North and South America; with more limited interest so far in Asia and Africa. More males contribute, that is a real problem, common to other communities such as free software, open hardware, etc … It is not something we wish for or engineer, on the contrary, we would love to change it. But to repeat, the only other old white male I directly work with, and we’re both 56, is the co-author of my Dutch-language book. Few other people fit that description. One more thing about being ‘publicly’ overfunded. The P2P Foundation receives no public funding, zero so far; For the first seven years of our existence, we conducted a few emergency donation drives from our sympathizers. The people who know me know that I have lived years without health insurance, have no money for medical emergencies and chronic conditions; really most of the people who work with us are precarious materially. It is more than likely that Heather has more income. At the end of 2013, researchers associated with our network will participate in a EU funded ‘p2p-value’ research project, they will be paid for the contracted work; other researchers have been working on a liquid democracy project in Germany; and in 2012, the P2P Cooperative contracted with Orange. All these contracts funded real work by associated individuals, not the Foundation, and only represented a moderate dint in the overall precariousness of most of our associates. I have asked my colleague James Burke to make our last five years of accounts available.

So to recap, this is the summary of the image of me and ‘the p2pfoundation’ that Heather (and associates) was spreading before a public ranging from thousands to potentially one million (the anonymous account): I (we) was stealing and refusing to recognize her authorship; I/we don’t understand Creative Commons; we pretended to have permission to publish when we didn’t have it; I am sexist; I am driven by a chidish narcissistic rage; I want her to be my slave girl; we are making money out of our curation of her freely available work; we are publicly overfunded. None of these accusations are individually true, but together they amount to a very abusive character assassination. Is this really compatible with an ethics of communication for social change agents? I think not, and if it were printed in the classic press, would be grounds for defamation. Shouldn’t someone who claims to be a radical journalist due some fact checking and due diligence before launching all these different accusations. On my side, I asked  Anonymous account to stop with the disinformation, and when Heather persisted with it, I called this action ‘a bit disgusting’. I did not attack the person, I criticized the actions, and with reason. The overreaction was understandable but wrong; but persisting and exaggerating them when informed of the real context, is altogether reprehensible.

I have since been informed by a former co-worker at Wikileaks Central that Heather Marsh has a pattern of such personal attacks and that “I should not take it personally’ and that she was personally responsible for the demise of the organisation and the destruction of the collective, though I have no way to verify this at this stage. But given the record of the p2pfoundation, which maintains a civil atmosphere of dialogue and avoids personal attacks, this contrast deserves to be known.

Here is how an alternative storyline may have looked like. After receiving an explanation and apologies, Heather Marsh could have said, ‘sorry for the over-reaction’. And that would have been quite simply, the end of the story.

So to repeat. There were overblown reactions and undue accusations. The background to these accusations was explained, but they had no effect. The facts are: the publication of the excerpts was discussed explicitly with the author, these excerpts were attributed, as they always were, except on the raw embedded Scribd file, which was an acknowledged mistake on our part. We have kept our communication to the facts, and not once attacked the personality of our accuser, zero character assassination on our side. On the other side, we have been demonized even after the facts came to light; and as documented facts were deliberately and systematically ignored.

We are not raging about this, simply sad.

Is there an explanation for this. My five cents. The original reaction was overblown, but when this became clear, it seemed impossible to recognize in front of one’s own audience, hence the escalation, in order to save face; but the facts are irrefutable and documented.

The P2P Foundation and blog always atttribute authors and add linkback wherever they are available. If you find lapses, tell us and we change them immediately, as we did in this case. There is no need to blow this up.

My own mistake is that perhaps instead of calling the Anonymous feed to account for the strong accusations which were misinformation, I should have simply ignored it. However, I believe if you launch strong accusations of theft and refusal to recognize authorship, you should do a background check first; and simple rectify when it is shown that the facts are different. You cannot keep hiding behind the documented proof of the Scribd pages, once you know the real context. Anonymous feeds have power, and with power comes responsibility. I originally believed that Anonymous had misinterpreted, and that a communication with Heather Marsh would have rectified the accusations. However, a history of the original tweet shows clearly that the information came directly from her.

So the real story is, she over-reacted, and upon learning the context, she persisted in the misinformation, not willing to recognize this mistake. All the character assassinations that were directed to my attempts to rectify the information, may say more about the author of the misinformation, than about me.

I will now leave this matter to rest, but for the record, I wanted my side of the story to be clear. If you make a mistake, you recognize it, which is what me and my associates did multiple times. The record is out there on Twitter and Facebook for all to verify.

The irony is of course that this is happening with people who should be on the same side; this makes it more deplorable. We are not the enemy. The record shows that we have broadly supported Wikileaks and Anonymous, the organizations with whom Heather seems associated. And, we have consistently supported Heather Marsh’s work. This will not stop, as we have to separate the value of ideas and insights on their own merits.



After this rectification the disinformation has continued. A YourAnonCentral tweet implied that we were publicly and overfunded. This of is course wrong. Until this very day, most of the people working for the P2P Foundation do so in precarious circumstances, and without any public funding. Our account has EUR 500 on it; all the work on the wiki and blog is done for free, with very occasional subminimum wage allowances to cover urgent precarity crises. We recently won a EU search grant; such funds go to researchers in our network for actual work on the research covered by the grant.

1 Comment The "Heather Marsh affair", or: The Facts behind ‘a storm in a teacup’

  1. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    I’m sure this behaviour of Heather has an explanation within human behavioral biology, cognitive dissonance is a very strong force, especially if you have a strong ego. To have a strong ego can be a good thing, but in this case it did not turn out well.

    Anyway, hope you get back to your good work soon, and please don’t forget to recommend the great interview with Salingaros at because of your problems:

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