It was a sickening crime that fit an all-too-familiar storyline. Young men who turned a night of partying into an ugly sexual assault. A culture in which high school football players are treated like gods and act as if no rules apply. And an innocent young woman who was abused by people she thought were friends and then humiliated.
But what made the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case — which ended today with guilty verdicts against Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond — different and what made it feel cutting edge is the pervasive role the Internet played. It is a whole new kind of crime when teen sexual assault meets social media and goes blaringly, glaringly public.
There was, to begin with, the Instagram photo of the two Steubenville High School football players holding their 16-year-old victim over a basement floor, one by her arms, one by her legs. The image, which was endlessly reblogged, has a chilling quality because we know what happened next. The young men penetrated the inebriated young woman with their fingers, which in Ohio constitutes rape. (Mays, 17, and Richmond, 16, were tried as juveniles; they could face detention until they turn 21.)
There was the now infamous 12-minute video from the night of the assault. In it, a former classmate of the young men can be seen mocking the victim, laughingly referring to her as “dead” and repeatedly joking about sexual assault. And there was nearly one more video: a classmate of the attackers testified that he took a video of part of the actual assault with his cell phone but later deleted it.
And then there were all of the text messages. There were messages recounting the events of the night. One the attacker allegedly wrote: “I’m pissed all I got was a hand job, though. I should have raped since everyone thinks I did.” And messages to the victim, including one in which one of the attackers tried to persuade her that “nothing happened.”
At the trial, social media were front and center. The prosecution introduced many text messages, including one in which the victim wrote, “I wasn’t being a slut. They were taking advantage of me.” The victim testified that she watched at least part of the 12-minute video mocking her, though she could not take more than a minute of it.
All of this documentation proved critical to a conviction. Sexual-assault trials often come down to “he said, she said” battles. Cases like the Steubenville rape, which the victim has few memories of, can be especially hard for prosecutors to win. Text messages from wrongdoers and viral photos and videos from bystanders can provide a robust record of what actually happened.
Social media can also shine a needed light on how people actually behave. When high school football players, and other young athletes, are charged with sexual assault, many people believe reflexively that they are not capable of the sort of crude and cruel behavior they are accused of. The 12-minute video and some of the other online evidence in the Steubenville case are powerful refutations of that rosy view. Anyone who sees them can understand precisely how the attack happened.
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.
One thing, though, is certain: social media is not going away. New technology is on the way that will further up the ante — like Google Glass, which will allow people to constantly videotape whatever they are seeing. As shocking as the images, text messages and videos in the Steubenville case are, we should get used to them. They are likely to be the new normal — for good and for bad.