Steubenville, Social Media and the Proliferation of Digital Watchdogs

By Jaclyn Munson

 

Credit: Flickr

Credit: Flickr

There are few things more recognizably American than football. It’s been ritualized and ordained, in a way that only American football can be, and boasts a major influence on many other aspects of our culture. The NFL is also the most profitable league in the world, as reported by Forbes in 2013, when its revenue topped $9 billion. What’s also recognizably American is the leverage that kind of money brings- both on and off the field. The profitability of football culture continues to rise, sustained by the long held image of popularized jocular appeal and mass fandom. Football players are often treated as gods whose brands are vehemently protected and supported by a large system of stakeholders whose interest lie primarily in maintaining the sports status quo. They are so invested in fact, that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants the league to bring in $25 billion per year in revenue by 2027.

But there’s a darker side to football, and sports culture in general, that constantly rears its ugly head and raises questions about whether anything but monetary value is important. Hanging like a phantom limb over the cheers, jeers and rallies is the intricate involvement of rape culture in sports and the alarmingly high rate of reported cases that involve athletes. Football culture certainly didn’t create rape culture, but it is responsible for not taking it seriously within its ranks and perpetuating an environment that reinforces its sustainability. There have been several high profile cases in recent memory- in Steubenville, at the University of Missouri, Penn State, Vanderbilt University, and Florida State University-that shed light on the disturbing trend of cases that involve athletes and leave victims paying the cost of a corrupt system that took measures to protect the player’s status rather than investigate the assaults.

In April, The New York Times published an explosive examination by Walt Bogdanich into the allegations that Florida State University quarterback and Heisman winner Jameis Winston raped a fellow student in 2012. It found, devastatingly, “that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.” Bogdanich chronicles the timeline of events that spanned nearly a year and documented a shocking lack of interest and competence by authorities, as evidenced by the fact that it took 342 days to interview a key witness who allegedly saw Winston having sex with the accuser. What’s more is that the lead investigator assigned to the case, Scott Angulo, made no effort to mask the influence of football culture on how the case would be perceived by Tallahassee, home to FSU. As Bogdanich reports:

“Patricia A. Carroll, a lawyer for Mr. Winston’s accuser, said the lead investigator who handled the case, Scott Angulo, told her that because Tallahassee was a big football town, her client would be “raked over the coals” if she pursued the case.”

It’s hard to grasp the depth of how profoundly disinterested the Tallahassee police department was in executing its duty. Much like Citizens United which codified corporations as people, insinuating that exploitative systems deserve sympathy, judicial or otherwise, suggests our nation is curating a system that leverages institutionalized power against individual rights and will go so far as to define these systems as people in an effort to minimize status quo disruption. Given the unequal distribution of wealth, power and privilege in America, it’s impossible for such a system to operate fairly and objectively- and that’s kind of the point. When it comes to many of the high profile rape cases involving athletes that have made headlines over the last few years, a startling pattern of injustice for victims has been evidenced by how the status of the accused, or the larger system in which they operate, are protected by stakeholders. This not only sends the message that victims don’t matter, but that sexual assault isn’t a crime if it’s committed by certain people.

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In an effort to fill the void left by the imbalanced justice system and its proclivity to favor high status stakeholders, the proliferation of socialmedia- Twitter, in particular, has raised consciousness and proverbial fists against rape culture by trending stories and information about these kind of cases in an effort to pressure systems into doing right thing. Deric Lostutter, a Kentucky-based member of Anonymous and the subject of a Rolling Stone feature by David Kushner that labeled him “one of the most notorious members of the hacker collective,” is credited as being the driving force behind the notoriety of the Steubenville rape case. The stomach-churning crimes began in August 2012 when two high school football players raped an incapacitated 16-year-old girl publicly. The assault was documented on social media and eventually led to the sentencing of the assailants, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, the latter of whom was recently released from a juvenile detention center.

Before Mays and Richmond were convicted, Lostutter used social media to draw attention to the case. Armed with little more than his computer and a Guy Fawkes mask, he recorded a video demanding the accused and people involved in the cover-up publicly apologize to the victim and her family or risk their personal information being leaked. The video went viral, Steubenville’s booster club and football team website were eventually hacked, and Lostutter would go on to organize two high profile Occupy Steubenville rallies that mobilized a protest outside the town’s courthouse.

Months later, the web of people involved in the case continued to grow and in November 2013, four Steubenville school employees were indicted in the case with charges such as obstruction of justice.  Former volunteer coach Matthew Belardine was one of the four, and was sentenced to 10 days in jail for falsification and allowing underage drinking in his home, where Hays, Raymond and the victim attended a party.

For Steubenville, social media played a dueling role as both the antagonist and protagonist. On one hand, the publicly documented evidence of the sexual assault, including text messages and pictures taken on a cell phone that were circulated on social media, helped incriminated Hays and Raymond. On the other hand, despite the national attention Lostutter brought to the case and its cover-up by flexing Anonymous’s power to swiftly mobilize the masses, his tactics have come under fire. He’s been labeled “the wrong hero,” received pushback from other members of Anonymous and had his home raided by the FBI in connection to the Steubenville football team’s website being hacked, something he’s claimed he wasn’t involved in. Now, he’s facing up to 10 years in prison for charges related to the hacking, which is a longer sentence than either Hays or Raymond received.

In August 2013, The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy published an extensive look into whether justice was served in Steubenville and explored how having a “[t]rial by Twitter” shifted the dynamics in a town that was trying to investigate the horrendous crime while making headlines across the nation. Levy writes that after the case got national coverage, it “made it difficult to distinguish between virtual and physical reality” in the small Ohio town.

This February, Bridgette Dunlap wrote for RH Reality Check that the Steubenville “op” left innocent people caught in the crosshairs of Anonymous’s campaign and “turned a case the victim might have preferred be prosecuted quietly into a national story, in which multiple media outlets inadvertently disclosed her name.” Conversely, Kushner’s Rolling Stone feature on Lostutter reported that Brandon Sadler, an Occupy Steubenville attendee and family friend of the victim relayed a message to Lostutter and others involved in the protest that,” “[s]he said she was very thankful we [had] Anonymous along,” writing further that, “She has been reading all the tweets and messages of love and support from members of Anonymous and the world and she is very grateful.””

While opinions differ on whether Anonymous helps or hurts victims of the crimes they take on, it’s clear that social media users are trying to fill a canyon of injustice left by the intersections of immoral systems. In an exclusive interview with AlterNet, Lostutter describes the importance of using these platforms to “expose the corruption around us.”

“The people of our country put so much faith in mass media. Why not harness that faith?”

There’s a lot to be said about citizens relying on alternative methods to seek justice when the systems around them fail to act. These methods, like the ones used by Anonymous, don’t necessarily exist just because the internet does. Rather, they evolved based on what the collective identified was a lack of transparency in the government and social media. As Lostutter says, “[i]t’s the goal of [A]nonymous to make a transparent government and that is only going to work with the support of the people when the people realize they are in fact anonymous, because we are the 99 percent.” This kind of mass communication can facilitate action almost immediately and at times, can be both a blessing and a curse.

In order for justice to be served, the system tasked with that responsibility needs to do its job, and not at the expense of the less powerful minority. What’s equally as pressing is that the aspects of our culture that are highly influential, like football, must pursue internal change that does more to take sexual assaults seriously and encourages informants or witnesses to speak out when they see something wrong. As activist and writer Jessica Luther discussed in her article for The Nation, “How Football Culture Can Change Rape Culture,” a method called “bystander intervention” can be a solution in preventing sexual assaults. Luther writes, “[a]t its core, bystander intervention is built around a simple idea: in order to curb sexual assault, victims need allies and advocates, and perpetrators need to know that people close to them in their communities will call out their behavior.” She uses the 2010 University of Missouri sexual assault case as an example, in which Sasha Menu Courey was allegedly raped by members of the football team and later committed suicide. Courey sent a video of the alleged assault to former team member Rolandis Woodland, whom she had dated, and he eventually aided an investigation into the case that found “[t]he University of Missouri did not investigate or tell law enforcement officials about an alleged rape” despite administrative knowledge that the incident may have occurred.

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It’s interesting to look at Twitter from an evolutionary perspective to see how malleable it truly is, being whatever it needs to be for whoever uses it. Twitter has, in a sense, become a watchdog for immorality and has viralized stories that may otherwise go unnoticed. This kind of unauthorized oversight has advantages and disadvantages, especially when mobilizing people to take the higher-ups to task confounds or disrupts the legal process, no matter how incompetent it may be.

In Dunlap’s RH Reality Check article, she argues, rightfully, that due process matters and “[w]hen Anonymous demands that accused persons apologize or face their fury, they are demanding they give up their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves. When they turn accused teens into famous rapists, they poison the jury pool, jeopardizing their right to a fair trial.”

This is all true in the eyes of the law and there’s no doubt that the justice system should first and foremost be entrusted with the authority to do its civic duty. Yet, it can also be argued that the law’s gaze tends to drift and the consistent pattern in which it does, and who’s involved when it happens, has prompted others to create well intentioned campaigns aimed at demanding accountability and responsibility. The trouble with these systems existing concurrently is that while both were created under the vision of transparency and justice, only one has the authority to convict the perpetrators- and as evidenced in many cases, it’s failing.

 

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