Prosecuted By Social Media

Ariel Levy reflects on Internet vigilantism in light of the sexual assault of a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio last year:

In trying to determine what happened in Steubenville, the police and the public began with the same information, gathered from the same online sources: ugly tweets, the Instagram photograph, and a deeply disturbing video. But while the police commandeered phones, interviewed witnesses, and collected physical evidence from the crime scene, readers online relied on collaborative deduction. The story they produced felt archetypally right. The “hacktivists” of Anonymous were modern-day Peter Parkers—computer nerds who put on a costume and were transformed into superhero vigilantes. The girl from West Virginia stood in for every one of the world’s female victims: nameless, faceless, stripped of identity or agency. And there was a satisfying villain. Teen-age boys who play football in Steubenville—among many other places—are aggrandized and often do end up with a sense of thuggish entitlement.

In versions of the story that spread online, the girl was lured to the party and then drugged. While she was delirious, she was transported in the trunk of a car, and then a gang of football players raped her over and over again and urinated on her body while her peers watched, transfixed. The town, desperate to protect its young princes, contrived to cover up the crime. If not for Goddard’s intercession, the police would have happily let everyone go. None of that is true.

“What happened to the girl is atrocious,” Jane Hanlin told me. “But what they’re putting out there about her is worse—and false.” Nobody urinated on the victim. She was not “brutally gang-raped.” At the trial in March, Mays and Richmond were accused of putting their fingers in her vagina while she was too intoxicated to give consent. There is no evidence to support the claim that the entire football team was present when the assault occurred, or that “dozens of teens witnessed the events,” as a recent Glamour article had it. “The narrative that goes through these stories is: there are dozens of onlookers; she’s taken from party to party; she’s raped at multiple locations,” Hanlin said. “Understandably, people are outraged when they read that, because it makes it look as though there is a whole group of kids here who watched and heckled and laughed and participated. That’s not true: there are five that behaved very badly. But five is less than eighty.”