Rape, Social Media, and Hacktivism

Guest blogger Beth Sherouse writes about how social media and online activism play a complicated role in the fight against sexual violence.

The internet and social media sites in particular have become double-edged swords in the fight to prevent sexual assault and bring perpetrators to justice. In several recent rape cases, high school and college students have posted pictures and videos of assaults on social media sites and texted pictures to their friends, which have subsequently gone viral, further violating survivors’ privacy and prompting harassment by peers that, in some cases, led victims to commit suicide.

These viral posts, and subsequent media coverage, have also brought to light the failure of school and local authorities to take sexual assault seriously and pursue justice for victims. This trend is a bit of a Catch-22, writes journalist Ann Freidman:

“For decades, the challenge facing anti-rape activists was to take what is often an intensely private crime—54 percent of sexual assaults are estimated to go unreported—and bring it to national attention as a pervasive crisis. Now that cases regularly crop up in which photos and videos of sexual assaults are circulated on social media, it’s becoming harder to argue that rape is anything but a public scourge. We are all bystanders. We all bear witness.

“Yet the increased attention on social media often has tragic consequences for victims. They don’t just have to grapple with the physical and psychological ramifications of being sexually violated. They have to deal with the fact that everyone else knows what happened, too.”

Hoping to increase accountability and awareness, members of activist hacker group Anonymous have criticized local authorities’ handling of several high-profile rape cases and gone outside the legal system to try to gain justice for rape survivors. In the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, case where a high school girl was sexually assaulted while drunk at a party, the attackers, two high school football players, took photos and posted them on social media sites. Following controversy over authorities’ attempts to cover up the assault and protect the assailants, Anonymous demanded a public apology from those authorities and released a video of a bystander joking about the attack. When authorities failed to convict anyone in the gang rape of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons, who ultimately committed suicide, Anonymous discovered and published the identities of her alleged attackers.

While their motives might be just, bloggers and groups like Anonymous can also complicate sexual assault cases. As Ariel Levy argues in The New Yorker this week, “By the logic of vigilantism, the need for justice supersedes the rules of a creaky bureaucracy. But that assumes that the accusations are correct.“ On the Steubenville case, Levy contends, “it has been difficult to distinguish between virtual and physical reality in Steubenville.” Levy explains that Anonymous hackers and blogger Alexandria Goddard both disseminated a significant amount of misinformation about the incident, which put local authorities in a difficult position. Levy quotes Steubenville prosecutor Jane Hanlin regarding the problems with disseminating inaccurate information:

“The narrative that goes through these stories is: there are dozens of onlookers; she’s taken from party to party; she’s raped at multiple locations,” Hanlin said.

“Understandably, people are outraged when they read that, because it makes it look as though there is a whole group of kids here who watched and heckled and laughed and participated. That’s not true: there are five that behaved very badly. But five is less than eighty.” She added, “There is a better explanation than that everybody here is evil all the time: intoxicated teen-agers are the world’s worst thinkers."

There is no clear answer when it comes to the question of whether social media and “hacktivism” have positive or negative consequences for the fight to prevent sexual assault and seek justice and healing for survivors. While viral posts further violate the privacy of survivors and force them to relive their trauma publicly, they also force the American public to look at the ugly truth of sexual assault and, in some cases, can bring justice to those survivors whom the legal system has failed.

Beth Sherouse recently earned her Ph.D. in History from the University of South Carolina. She has been a gay rights activist for 10 years and has a passion for politics, local government, and rescuing basset hounds.