Anonymous, Steubenville, and Administering Great Justice Online

In a Mother Jones article published earlier this week, Josh Harkinson discusses Anonymous’ crucial role in making the horrifying cases of gang rape in both Steubenville, Ohio and Halifax, Canada crest on the national radar. The publicity Anonymous brought to the Steubenville case eventually led to the prosecution of two of the perpetrators in Steubenville. However, the women responsible for directing Anonymous to these brutal cases played an instrumental role in directing the online group’s resources to publicizing the cases and putting the perpetrators on blast, a refreshing change to tired narratives of victim-blaming and shaming.

Michelle McKee, an activist from Washington, and Alexandria Goddard, an Ohio-based reporter, were both frustrated that the now-infamous events in Steubenville, Ohio, weren’t receiving national coverage despite several attempts on McKee’s part to tip off reporters to the story. Goddard, a friend of McKee’s, used Twitter and her expertise studying teen’s social media usage to cobble together the sordid commentary by members of the football team of what occurred that evening, and eventually published her findings on her blog, Prinniefied. The collection of screenshots Goddard gathered from Twitter from students who were in attendance proved vital not only in implicating the rapists but also in displaying an overwhelming endorsement of rape culture.

Meanwhile, McKee reached out to Anonymous, aware of their previous campaigns against cyberbulling. Along with KnightSec, a subgroup of Anonymous, McKee was instrumental in starting the #RollRedRoll hashtag and subsequent campaign in order to bring attention to the case and Steubenville’s silence, which clearly prioritized the football players’ prestige and careers over the psychological damage the victim, who goes by the alias Jane Doe, suffered. Using a compilation of tweets from the perpetrators and those complicit in the group rape, and information from the high school web page, Anonymous created a video officially putting Steubenville on notice.

That so many of the perpetrators’ ribald tweets were linked to their real names, without any regard to future consequences, is telling about our cultural priorities. Rapists are free to tweet and share photos detailing their acts of aggression, with the calm assurance that they won’t be penalized in any way for their actions, no matter how disgusting; all the blame will be shifted to the victim. As Elizabeth Plank, a writer for the blog PolicyMic, points out in her article on the trend of viral rape, the documentation of rape on social media is a way to once again proudly violate the victim. She writes:

The fact that rapists want others to know that they have raped suggests that violating women is a rite passage, a legitimate method to climb the social ladder of masculinity or at least the bastardized toxic masculinity that they covet). Forcefully penetrating an unconscious girl is not a source of shame, but a badge of honor in the march of toxic masculinity, passed on through cultural narrative and weak “boys will be boys” punishments. Instead of guilt, the rapists feel pride. They get to rape their victims all over again, with ever share and every nasty comment, with every “LOL” and every “what a slut.”

The most prominent mainstream media narratives for rape and sexual assault only serve to reify the dictates of viral rape, demanding to know what the woman was wearing or drinking in an attempt to re-shame her. In CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville verdict, anchors Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow were far too preoccupied with how the guilty ruling would ruin the rapists’ lives to be concerned for Jane Doe’s well-being. As of this writing, CNN still has not made any sort of apology regarding their rape apologism for the perpetrators.

As Harkinson correctly notes in his article, Anonymous is a surprising ally to the movement to combat rape culture and rape survivors, considering its genesis from 4chan. However, Anonymous’s work has resulted in legal repercussions for the rapists in Steubenville, and national attention to Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide following her group rape and subsequent relentless bullying. Their decentralized nature, broad reach, and unfettered access to resources civilians might not be able to utilize makes Anonymous a force to be reckoned with. (Their ability to quickly compile all the relevant evidence regarding Parsons’ viral rape is nothing short of remarkable.)

Aided by the work and dedication of survivors and feminists, Anonymous is taking an important step towards declaring that women will not stand for the continued proliferation of rape culture in both its online and offline manifestations.  Using new technologies not only to break stories about the effects of the cycle of rape and unrelenting harassment by peers on survivors, but also to control the narratives created about these stories is an important tool that feminists online must continue to wield to send a clear message: rapists and rape culture will no longer be tolerated.

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