Washington Post Completely Botches Chaturbate Rules in Virginia Candidate Takedown

The article about Susanna Gibson, a Democrat running in a crucial legislative district, bore the telltale signs of an opposition research dump.

A general view of the Washington Post building in downtown Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
The Washington Post building in Washington, D.C., on July 13, 2022. Photo: Graeme Sloan/Sipa via AP Images

The Washington Post had a salacious tip on its hands, graciously gifted to the newspaper by an unnamed Republican operative ahead of a crucial Virginia legislative election. The paper also had a problem: The activity the tip exposed was between consenting adults. But it was also rather sensational — sex and voyeurism on the internet — so there had to be a way to get it into print. 

The map through that thicket was also provided, it appears, by the same operative. The paper framed the story around an allegation that was elegant if a little absurd: Democratic candidate Susanna Gibson, it was alleged, had violated the terms of service of the sex site Chaturbate by soliciting monetary tips for performing specific acts with her husband. According to a snippet of the terms of service quoted by the Post, Chaturbate’s policy states that “requesting or demanding specific acts for tips may result in a ban from the Platform for all parties involved.”

So it was that six of the resulting article’s first 10 paragraphs zeroed in on the claim that Chaturbate’s terms of service don’t allow performers to request tips for specific sex acts, followed by multiple examples of Gibson having done so. The message to Post readers was clear: What consenting adults do among themselves is their business, but if a candidate can’t be trusted with Chaturbate’s terms of service, how can she be trusted with public office?

The outcome of her race, meanwhile, could decide abortion policy for the state’s 8.7 million residents.

Gibson responded firmly to the article, calling it “an illegal invasion” of her privacy, “designed to humiliate” her and her family. The article, which was published on September 11, continues to reverberate within Virginia Democratic circles, with The Associated Press reporting last week that some Democrats have dismissed it as a distraction ahead of the November election, “while stopping short of fully championing her continued campaign.” The discourse, however, has neglected a crucial point: The Post’s way into the story — the claim that Gibson broke the site’s rules — was completely wrong. (The Washington Post and reporter Laura Vozzella did not respond to requests for comment.)

The write-up bore the signs of an opposition research dump. When oppo researchers of either party reach out to journalists with a pitch, the research is often contained in a slim packet, with relevant quotes from publicly available articles coupled with financial documents or other papers that form the building blocks of an article. 

The telltale sign that such a packet was provided to the Post comes in the article’s description of the moments where Gibson discusses tips. For one, it’s difficult to believe a reporter watched hours of video to find those clips. For another, the Post’s interpretation of the rules appears based on reading a clipped version of the website’s policies — the type that might be included in an opposition research file. 

A complete reading of the website’s terms of service, testimony from users of the site, and a Chaturbate official reveal that the policy applies not to performers like Gibson, but to users of the site, who are not allowed to demand performers do specific acts in exchange for a tip.

Addressing users of the website, the terms and conditions read:

You are prohibited from providing “tips” for the performance of specific acts. Requesting or demanding specific acts for tips may result in a ban from the Platform for all parties involved. Independent Broadcasters are prohibited from requesting any type of off-Platform payments; provided, however, the Platform may, from time to time, permit Independent Broadcasters to post links to wish lists. Your chosen payment method will only be billed as you specifically request.

In other words, Gibson was fully within her right to solicit tips. A spokesperson for Chaturbate declined to comment specifically on Gibson and asked that the company’s full response be treated as off the record. The Intercept did not agree to those terms. 

Asked whether the Post misrepresented Chaturbate’s rule, the company responded, “You are correct: the policy regarding tips being gratuities is for the protection of independent broadcasters and is not used against them.”

The company referred to a Twitter thread by sex worker advocate Ashley Lake, saying it had no connection to Lake and had not spoken with her, but that her characterization of the rules was accurate. 

The rule is aimed at rude and unruly users who make demands for tips, not performers accepting tips for things they themselves suggest. “You can tip but that doesn’t purchase or override consent,” Lake wrote. “If the sex worker says no and you demand otherwise, you can be banned.”

In this image taken from a video, Virginia legislative candidate Susanna Gibson addresses the Women's Summit in Virginia Beach, Va., in September of 2022. Gibson has denounced the disclosure of live videos on a pornographic website in which she and her husband engaged in sex acts. (Neil Smith via AP)

In this image taken from a video, Virginia legislative candidate Susanna Gibson addresses the Women’s Summit in Virginia Beach, Va., in September 2022.

Image: Neil Smith via AP

When Gibson affirmed that she would stay in the race, she said, “My political opponents and their Republican allies have proven they’re willing to commit a sex crime to attack me and my family because there’s no line they won’t cross to silence women when they speak up.”

Progressive Virginia Democratic operative Kamran Fareedi agrees with the decision. “It is absolutely hilarious that Republicans want to make this election a referendum on the Chaturbate terms of service,” he told The Intercept. “Voters are going to see through the transparent laundry of opposition research from the Washington Post, which failed to issue a correction that no violation occurred in the first place.”

The Republican operative cited in the Post’s story claimed not to have any connection to the campaign of Gibson’s opponent, David Owen, or other groups active in Virginia elections this year, the Post reported. (Owen told the Post that he and his team found out about the story like everyone else.) Nonetheless, Republicans invested in the race will hope for some impact from the story. 

“Voters are going to see through the transparent laundry of opposition research from the Washington Post, which failed to issue a correction that no violation occurred in the first place.”

Gibson is running for delegate in Virginia’s 57th District, a competitive swing district that holds massive implications for the upcoming November off-year state elections. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates, as well as the 40 seats in the state Senate, are up for election. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won the district by 3 points in 2021, but in 2022, voters swung in the other direction, narrowly favoring Democrats.

Youngkin, meanwhile, has advanced whatever parts of his agenda he could, signing executive orders that banned schools from teaching critical race theory and loosening Covid-19 mask restrictions against the will of several school boards. His administration has pushed anti-trans education policy, and, upon being elected, he swiftly fired former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s entire state parole board (the state now has the lowest parole rates in the country).

But the partisan split in the state legislature has staved off Youngkin from achieving the rest of his wishlist, including a 15-week ban on abortion or the repeal of carbon emission reduction laws. In the aftermath of Roe v. Wade’s overturning, and while unprecedented heat and disastrous storms leave no corner of the country untouched, Youngkin could accomplish these and more if Republicans take control of the state chambers in November.

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