Ariel Levy’s new piece in The New Yorker about the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case has a lot of smart things to say about rape culture, rumor-mongering, and the sometimes iffy motives that are often behind the actions of people deemed “heroes.” But when it comes to the central premise of the article—that the online vigilantes who shaped the media coverage of this case negatively impacted the course of justice—I walked away unpersuaded. After all, Levy’s own extensive reporting suggests that exactly the right outcomes were reached, with the two young men who were guilty of rape facing jail time and legal consequences for two young women who threatened the victim online. No one was railroaded unfairly, and at the end of the day, it’s hard to escape the fact that the victim in this case saw more justice than do most victims, whose rapists never see a day of jail time.
Left without an unjust verdict to point to, Levy instead focuses on the extralegal results of the online vigilantism, particularly the way that all sorts of bad information and rumor-mongering grew up around the case.
In versions of the story that spread online, the girl was lured to the party and then drugged. While she was delirious, she was transported in the trunk of a car, and then a gang of football players raped her over and over again and urinated on her body while her peers watched, transfixed. The town, desperate to protect its young princes, contrived to cover up the crime. If not for Goddard’s intercession, the police would have happily let everyone go. None of that is true.
Some of the untrue rumors spread to the mass media, frustrating prosecutors who felt they were subject to unfair levels of scrutiny and the suspicion that they just wanted the whole thing to go away. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t follow that the problem is technological. Crime is a rich source of rumor-mongering and distortion, where each person who passes along a tale tends to exaggerate it and distort it some more, until it loses all resemblance to the original event. If anything, the copy/paste nature of the Internet or the reliance on links instead of retellings probably reduces the number of variations of a story as it passes from person to person. A reporter who gauges community thought on a crime by interviewing residents directly is probably going to get just as inaccurate a recounting as a reporter who reads the same person posting about it in an online forum.
Compare this story, for instance, to the mid-’80s panic over the supposed Satanists running day cares. Unlike the Steubenville case, no crime was ever actually committed, but unfortunately, a bunch of innocent people around the country were sent to prison. There was no Internet in those days, but somehow rumors of all sorts of wild happenings flew from city to city and were even picked up by mainstream media sources, giving validity to fears that were utterly unfounded. No advanced technology was necessary to spread this madness, and in fact the lack of the Internet may have contributed to the relative inability of skeptics to fight back.
It’s natural to be concerned that the Internet’s ability to disseminate rumors and lies is a problem, but even without computers, people tend to spread untrue gossip with remarkable ease. No one likes seeing false information proliferate around high profile cases, but when it happens, the guilty party is human nature, not new-fangled technologies.