Yesterday, two teenage Steubenville, Ohio football players were convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl at a high school party. Starting from the night of the assault last August, their rape case was one of the most widely publicized in American history—largely because the assailants and their witnesses whipped out their cellphones to document the event in real time. In sentencing the boys to a minimum of one year in juvenile jail, Judge Thomas Lipps doled out some advice to their peers on how to avoid the same fate. He urged them “to have discussions about how you talk to your friends; how you record things on the social media so prevalent today; and how you conduct yourself when drinking is put upon you by your friends.”
That’s an unfortunate message to leave the teenagers of Steubenville, and the world that is watching. The “social media so prevalent today” did not cause a sexual assault in a small Ohio town. In fact, social media is what made the case prosecutable. Following the events of the party, news of the assault spread through the community—and later, the media—in a web of incriminating text messages, self-referential tweets, Instagrammed photos, and forwarded cellphone videos. The victim herself testified that she could only confirm she had been assaulted after she “read text messages among friends and saw a photo of herself naked, along with a video that made fun of her and the alleged attack.” Thanks to social media, this wasn’t another case of “he said, she said.” It was a case of “they all said.” As the victim’s mother told the boys, “you were your own accuser, through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on.”
Certainly, social media can be wielded as a weapon. Each classmate who “liked” an Instagram photo of the unconscious girl being dragged by her hands and feet, or tweeted to the world that she was a “whore,” participated in her victimization. But as the course of this prosecution shows, social media can be a powerfully positive tool in fighting sexual assault, too. Cellphone videos can be forwarded to authorities, not circulated as jokes. Text messages can be used to identify rapists, not shame victims. And photos can establish central facts, not publicize humiliation.
Unfortunately, Judge Lipps didn’t warn teenagers to reassess the attitudes that led to this sexual assault in their community, or the beliefs that inspired bystanders to side with the rapists over the victim. Instead, he told them to watch how they “record things.” It sounds like he’s advising teens to cover their tracks better, not to prevent rapes in the first place. Social media is a way of life. Rape doesn’t have to be. And the more teens joining a discussion about it on social media, the better.