Steubenville-Style Internet Vigilantism Caused All Kinds of Problems

Despite the fact that the Steubenville rape trial is over and the boys involved have been sentenced and are incarcerated, the story's hold on the national conversation about rape culture continues to dominate, whether it's through Serena Williams or anyone less famous than that. People still have opinions, and as Ariel Levy argues in this week's New Yorker, they had opinions while it was happening. There were so many points of view, in fact, that those stories may have altered the national perception of the case and its outcome.

“In the months since the rape case became a national story, it has been difficult to distinguish between virtual and physical reality in Steubenville,” writes Levy in her piece, which mulls over how the details of the case got warped in the media and at what cost. For one, Levy argues that internet vigilantes like the group Anonymous disseminated a lot of incorrect information:

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 [blogger Alexandria] Goddard’s intercession, the police would have happily let everyone go. None of that is true.

The assertion that the case would have ended the way it did with or without Goodard is a hard one to get behind. Perhaps it's the recollection of the many women who are sexually assaulted in the United States every year that don't get the justice they deserve, but it seems highly unlikely that this case would have broken through when thousands a year don't. Through prosecutor Jane Hanlin's eyes, however, Goodard and other "bloggers" are presented as fame whores who didn't do enough to protect the privacy of the victim they were writing about and also got the facts wrong:

“Here comes Goddard, here come the bloggers, and we’re sitting here watching this, knowing that we can’t respond,” she said, because the case was still open. But by the norms of social media there is little difference between confidentiality and obfuscation; if something isn’t broadcast, it must be furtive. “If you do anything to say, ‘Wait until we get to the truth,’ you are ‘pro-rape’— whatever that means,” Hanlin said. “You are part of a conspiracy, a cover-up.”

Hanlin also believes Goodard has hurt feminism, a point Levy doesn't refute:

"...because, but for her, that young girl would not have endured nearly the exposure that happened throughout the country. What the bloggers did was make sure that five hundred million people saw those pictures of her. I wouldn’t want that picture to be seen by one person.” Because the girl’s name was leaked, her identity on the Internet is linked to the worst experience of her life. The way information moves online is unpredictable, though. If a college-admissions officer or a potential employer Googled her, the search window might suggest the related terms “Twitter” and “soccer,” or it might suggest “drunk” and “victim.” Much of the time, a search for images turns up the photograph of Mays and Richmond carrying the girl, her hair dragging beneath her on the ground.

Levy also puts a light "bad feminist" label on Goodard, describing her as a woman whose "brand of women’s liberation is one in which individual scores are settled with habanero sauce or Internet sleuthing—and, if necessary, by demeaning another woman":

But Goddard’s manner has sometimes been discordant with her newfound status as a voice for women. She frequently refers to Jane Hanlin—a trim, blond, conventionally pretty woman—as “Gravy Legs,” because “gravy spreads easily,” she explained, with a giggle. “My roommate says, ‘You are a catalyst for change,’” Goddard told me. “She’s right. I cause change. Look at Steubenville right now."

For her part, Hanlin calls the rape "atrocious." But she also distinguishes between what has been confirmed to have happened to the victim – that she was raped by the hands of her peers – with rumors on the internet, which credited the Steubenville football team with events as extreme as "brutally" gangraping her while the whole team watched:

“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.” She added, “There is a better explanation than that everybody here is evil all the time: intoxicated teen-agers are the world’s worst thinkers."

Throughout her piece, Levy both asserts the clear dominance of rape culture – it "is not an empty term or an imaginary phenomenon" – while also perhaps being too subtle with her distinctions about how it works. Take this passage, where she describes one of the defense's lawyers as trying to paint the victim as both a party girl and one that knew what she was doing:

Madison pursued a peculiar defense strategy: trying to establish that the victim was a dissolute, habitual drinker— “a party girl,” he said—and also that she was sober enough to give consent.

That's not really peculiar at all; it's basically status quo for how any attorney tries to paint a rape victim: that she was "asking for it", that she's a lush who should have known what she was getting herself into. That is every rape case. That is rape culture.

Levy's overall argument doesn't get derailed much by these discordant representations of the good justice system versus the bad internet. As social media takes over, things do get complicated. Everyone has an opinion or a perspective and when those tools are put into the hands of people who aren't experts, who weren't there, who have differing motives, that can become even more powerful. But no matter what the outcome, it's difficult to believe that things would be better off if we didn't ever get the information these tools are giving us: without the documentation of the horrible things the Steubenville victim went through, Levy probably never would have interviewed one of the rapists and let his words speak for themselves, as if in contrast to those "bloggers" who had their own agendas. Speaking with Ma’lik Richmond, who is currently in a juvenile detention center, Levy writes:

Asked if he had violated a code by fooling around with someone his friend had been involved with, he shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that: community property.”

You don't need to be a blogger to realize that what Richmond is saying is rape culture in a nutshell, but without them, you might not have ever heard him say it in the first place.

Trial by Twitter [New Yorker]

Image by Jim Cooke; Photos via AP