Social Media and the Steubenville Rape Case

March 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

In response to yesterday’s Steubenville rape trial verdict, Time‘s Adam Cohen wrote an article about the role that social media played in the conviction. As he explains, social media (defined very broadly here, including text messages) ultimately won the case, since typically these sorts of situations come down to a he said-she said configuration, making it difficult to know what actually happened. This is in no small part due to the fact (and this is a slight departure from Cohen’s argument) that he-said she-said arrangements often favor the accused, or at the very least place the burden of proof on the accuser. Which ultimately is the same difference.

In the Steubenville case, however, this was not one person’s word against another person’s word. This was an accusation supported by an astonishing amount of archived, verifiable data. There was no question that rape had occurred. There was no question that the accused (and others) were guilty. So…hurray?

Not exactly. As Cohen explains:

But the influence of social media on sex-crime cases is, not surprisingly, a double-edge sword. We live today in a digital echo chamber, in which the most private of moments may be captured in text, photograph and video, and put online. The victim of a sexual assault can be victimized a second time when images and rumors about her ricochet across her peer group — and a third time when they find a global audience on the Internet.

Worse still for victims, the Internet never forgets. Memories fade and newspaper articles get thrown out. But images like the Instagram photograph and the 12-minute video live forever online. Years from now, anyone who is curious about the Steubenville rape will be able to bring the worst aspects of the story to life with a few mouse clicks.

In other words, yes, having evidence is great for the prosecution; the fact that these kids shared (and re-shared) those images guaranteed that the guilty parties would be held accountable. On the other hand, the fact that these kids shared (and re-shared) those images guarantees that the victim will never truly be able to escape her experiences — even if she’s able to maintain relative anonymity, which she almost assuredly will not, because…it’s the internet, and more than that it’s America. Some asshole TV producer or news editor will want to slap a price tag on her tears, in the hopes of “going viral,” because some people are terrible. So it would be a stretch to call this a “win.” Nobody wins here. But a small amount of justice was done, and that is better than the alternative. Still — let’s hold our applause for social media, it takes away as much as it gives.


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