The Steubenville rape case, from end to end, illustrated the influence, and perils, of social media on justice, on victims, and on journalism, Rachel Dissell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes for the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. Without social media, the victim, 16, may never known she was raped. Text messages, Tweets and videos were the primary forms of evidence used by investigators to identify witnesses and even the accused. They were what attracted media attention and members of the hackers group, Anonymous. And they were the key pieces of evidence that led to the guilty verdicts seven months after the incident took place.
The trial turned on whether the sex that took place was consensual, or whether the girl had been too drunk to give her consent. The basic acceptance that a sexual act had taken place was built by a patchwork of text messages from eye witnesses that described how the boys had digitally penetrated the girl, legally a form of rape. The Plain Dealer got involved after being contacted by a few citizens of Steubenville, who feared that the accused would receive preferential treatment because of their status as players on the beloved local football team. The story, and the case itself, might not have gone much further than that, until an Internet hacker collective, many of whom were part of a group that calls itself Anonymous, dug up and re-published a previously deleted 12-minute video in which a Steubenville teen repeatedly refers to the victim as a “dead body” and much worse. The hackers then went further, launching a cyber campaign to support “Jane Doe,” and organized vigils in the community to support the girl and other sexual assault survivors. By the time the trial began, a phalanx of national and local media had descended on Steubenville. About 30-40 reporters set up inside the courthouse, with another 30-40 technical staff in the parking lot.