In Bullying Cases, Bullying Stories

What Went Wrong in Steubenville Rape?

What Went Wrong in Steubenville

Here is how the story of the Steubenville Rape started…

“I hate my life,” the girl texted a friend. “Oh my God, please tell me this isn’t true.”

A sixteen year old girl from Steubenville, an Ohio Valley industrial town of about 18,500 people, woke up on August 12th, 2012, to find a stream of tweets, videos and texts that suggested something utterly awful might have taken place the night before, after a dose of raucous summer partying. In the couple of days that followed, she found out she had been sexually assaulted, when a picture of her passed out and being carried around like a rag doll became viral on the Internet and through social media.  With that, starts the sad story of the Steubenville Rape.

After partying all through the night, the drunk girl was taken to a car by a couple of sixteen year old Steubenville High school football players, in which she was digitally penetrated by one of the boys, and taken to the basement of the home of the other, where she was dragged around, and assaulted several times. She was intoxicated with alcohol, and could not remember the events of the evening. So how did she know about it? How did it become a case that circulated the web and attracted national attention? Social media!

Steubenville Rape: Re-victimization

Pictures and videos surfaced after the incident showing her in compromised positions and, in at least two images, naked. The unnamed girl was ripped to shreds online. One teen tweeted “some people deserve to be peed on” while another called the Steubenville girl “sloppy.” This character assassination on top of the physical assault she got was utterly devastating.

Thomas Wold, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says “Blaming the victim is a traditional problem that’s being amplified because it’s so easy to share and everyone is connected all of the time. All of that information is available — they were Facebook friends, they were partying, they were flirting, to feed into the usual strategies for blaming the victim.” So many times, we come across stories telling the tale of the a rape victim whose shame about the rape resulted in a worse feeling than the actual rape, and having the assault shared over social media just adds to the shame.

To victimize girls over and over again, teenagers take pictures of rapes and post them online, where they are shared at the speed of a mouse click, says Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor at Michigan State and an expert on sexual violence. “Sexual assault is a crime of power and dominance,” Campbell says. “By distributing images of the rape through social media, it’s a way of asserting dominance and power to hurt the victim over and over again.”

Steubenville Rape: Prosecution and Social Media

However, while rapists make a sick argument that “she wouldn’t let someone take her picture if she weren’t consenting to sex”, using videos or pictures as evidence that the girl was willing, content that is posted and shared online could make it easier to convict perpetrators.  Yes, social media did make it worse for the victim; on its own, it was a gravely disturbing case, made worse by the flurry of Instagrams, tweets, and a highly viewed YouTube video that occurred during the assault. After the alleged assault took place in August, the web quickly removed said images, but not before lawmakers had picked up on the situation. The basic idea that a sexual act had happened was built by a patchwork of text messages from witnesses who described how the boys had digitally penetrated the girl, which is legally a form of rape.

The high school football players, quarterback Trent Mays and wide-receiver Ma’Lik Richmond, had tweeted a photo of the girl naked and passed out. A friend made a video of one of the assaults, which was then deleted. That YouTube video, viewed well more than a million times, showed a group of friends joking about the assault for 12 disgusting minutes, “They raped her more than the Duke Lacrosse team!” “She is as dead as Trayvon Martin!” they shouted into the camera, as the girl lay unconscious, most likely in another room.

Investigators in Ohio’s forensics lab collected 17 devices, mostly mobile phones, and analyzed text messages, photos, videos and contact lists. Among the evidence was a text message in which Mays admitted that he had penetrated the girl with his hand. In other messages, he asked friends to cover for him, prosecutors said. Moreover, the evidence included a photo shared via Instagram of the two athletes, Mays and Richmond, carrying the girl out of a house by her arms and legs.

Based on this evidence, and seven months after the incident took place, the two high school football players from the small Ohio city of Steubenville were convicted of raping a drunk and unconscious 16-year-old, were sentenced to serve time in an Ohio juvenile facility and could be required to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives once they are released.  Mays was also charged with distributing child pornography for allegedly texting nude photos of the girl.

Steubenville Rape: Further convictions

According to a website dedicated to fighting online bullying, the victim kept receiving messages and tweets from Twitter users harshly criticizing her character. Even worse, two girls, aged 15 and 16, threatened to kill the victim at the centre of the rap case, and made other threats of beating her, among a swarm of other tweets related to the case. That led to having the girls charged with intimidation of a witness, a felony charge in the third degree. They also were charged with a misdemeanour count of aggravated menacing and a misdemeanour count of telecommunication harassment, according to the CNN report on the case.

It’s true that text messages, tweets and videos were the primary forms of evidence used by investigators to identify witnesses and even the accused, but how exactly did the case attract so much media attention?

Steubenville Rape: Blogging and Anonymous, Exposing the Ugly Crime

Alexandria Goddard, a local Steubenville blogger specialized in crime, found out about the story and used her social media gear to gather and archive shared content and posts she was concerned would be destroyed. Being focused in her work on creating social media profiles for parents interested in their kids’ Internet activity and online safety, Goddard was able to compile screenshots from the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts and pages from those she gathered were present at the party where the crime happened, as well as those who participated in the act. On her blog,, she posted everything she gathered, directing a lot of online traffic. managed to grab the attention of online hacktivist group Anonymous in December 2012, especially one of its branches, KnightSec, that focuses on sex crimes. They succeeded at hacking and releasing the twelve-minute video of the teenage boys, who were drunkenly laughing about how they raped the girl, and how “dead” she was, which was recorded on the night of the incident. A handful of Anonymous members took the initiative to identify the players. Next, they tracked down certain players’ Twitter postings and Facebook entries from around the time of the Steubenville Rape.

They created a web page “Local Leaks” as a forum for evidence, including the video and other hacked materials, regarding the case and community leaders and labelled the page “The Steubenville Files”.  Joined by a local activist group called “Occupy Steubenville” that used Guy Fawkes masks and staged large protests outside of the Steubenville courthouse, the effort to publicize the case finally caught the national media’s full attention.

Throughout the month of December and into early January, they leaked the records of 50,000 Ohio residents, staged a protest, named multiple Steubenville officials in covering up the rape’s details, and released another previously deleted video. Needless to say, the social media watchdogs successfully brought together some significant visibility to this particular crime.

Steubenville Rape: Social Media, A double-edged weapon

It’s clear that social media have played an integral role in the local grassroots action, increasing media buzz, and final prosecution. In sentencing the two high school football players to juvenile jail for their crime, Judge Thomas Lipps issued a cautionary note to children and parents, telling them to reconsider “how you record things on the social media so prevalent today.”

This brings us to conclusions; there are a few things we should make clear about this case. For one, without social media, the girl may never have known she was raped.  Second, this is a case that, from beginning to end, illustrated the influence and risk social media pose on victims. Being concerned with social media, we are glad to see how these digital platforms can help in such important matters of justice. Social media allows us to use photos, videos, and thoughts to do good; a comprehensive blog post like that one of Goddard had a bigger influence than a letter in the mail would have ever had in the past. The video, the tweets, and the texts provided an extraordinarily strong evidence trail that people couldn’t turn a blind eye to. They allowed activists to keep hunting for more evidence, to push prosecutors. Without it, the case wouldn’t have been brought to court.

However, the fact that Steubenville’s high school students immediately shared some incredibly disturbing images without even thinking of helping the assaulted girl is rather troubling. The scary speed at which the content was shared not only seriously harmed the 16 year old girl, but also the larger Ohio community as well. Such scars aren’t as easily deleted as a tweet or a YouTube video.

On the use of social media in cyber bullying and harassment, Nathan Fisk writes his insights: “In the Internet safety arena, digital dualist frames do not simply draw distinctions between online and offline social life – they are used to blame existing social problems on the social technologies that make them visible in new ways. Bullying, predation and exposure to “inappropriate content” have been seen as problems long before the widespread adoption of the Internet and information technologies by kids, and yet all of these problems appear as “new” or, at best, made worse by information technologies.”

As the Associated Press reports, “What happens in basements and at drunken parties used to stay there,” says Ric Simmons, professor at the Ohio State Moritz College of Law, but the huge role that social media played “brings these things out into the open. People are starting to talk about it, and people are starting to realize how the law treats this kind of behaviour.” The hype of the social media revolution must go hand-in-hand with the general code of respect for fellow human beings. We should take the time to think before we tweet, and take action outside of our smart phones every now and then. With great power comes great responsibility, and that’s a saying that isn’t just for retweeting.

Furthermore, while learning about the ugly tweets and the crude insults, knowing the details of the case through social media made the convictions possible and shed light on a type of case that often stays in the shadows. And, experts say, the social media component of the Steubenville case may help educate young people who remain shockingly ignorant about the definition of sexual assault.

“You were your own accuser, through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on,” the victim’s mother said Sunday to Mays, 17, and Richmond, 16, after they were judged “delinquent” — the juvenile version of being convicted.

As Time reporter Adam Cohen writes, “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 rumours 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.”


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