As soon as the Kansas City Star published a chilling report of another small town with a football player accused of rape who isn’t being prosecuted, it became inevitable that Anonymous, an Internet collective that prides itself on vigilante justice, would step in. There were initially charges of sexual assault, but they’ve since been dropped. Smelling a cover-up, Anonymous has issued a demand for an investigation to the small town that reads in part:
We have heard Daisy’s story far too often. We heard it from Steubenville, Halifax and Uttar Pradesh. In some cases, it was too late. Both Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, girls not much older than Daisy, took their own lives after the adults, the police and the school system, failed to protect them. If Maryville won’t defend these young girls, if the police are too cowardly or corrupt to do their jobs, if justice system has abandoned them, then we will have to stand for them. Mayor Jim Fall, your hands are dirty. Maryville, expect us.
It’s a threat with teeth. While it’s difficult to say if the successful prosecutions of two accused rapists in Steubenville, Ohio, were the result of Anonymous’ repeat actions around the case, it’s indisputable that Anonymous helped secure the image of Steubenville as a town that looks the other way while its football stars roam around treating rape like it’s a jolly good time. In Steubenville, as in Maryville, the town rallied around the accused rapist and treated the alleged victim like a pariah. Perhaps the possibility that Anonymous will embarrass your town around the world might cause people to think twice before they pick their allegiances in the future.
Of course, Internet vigilantism has its major downsides. During the Steubenville case, a lot of misinformation flew about wildly. Already there’s misinformation in the Anonymous press release: “How was video and medical evidence not enough to put one of these football players inside a court room?” Anonymous asks. The problem is, the cops don’t have a video. According to the Star’s report, the witnesses claim that a video was taken, but the investigation didn’t turn one up. After the Steubenville trial, this kind of lackadaisical attitude toward the truth from internet vigilantes led to a couple of articles portraying the townspeople as hapless victims of a smear campaign. (Though it would also do reporters well to be skeptical of people who claim, after the guilty verdicts, to have supported the victim all along. After all, at least one adult has already been arrested in Steubenville for his alleged role in the cover-up.)
Despite all this, it’s important that Anonymous is helping to keep the Maryville story from disappearing. Post-trial, Steubenville resident Nicole Lamantia characterized rape as a matter of just a few bad apples, complaining to reporter Katie Baker of Jezebel that the case was “about an entire town being destroyed for what two people did.” But as Emily Bazelon wrote here Tuesday, these cases are not, in fact, isolated incidents, but follow a very specific pattern: Drunken alleged assaults involving privileged athletes, followed by communities rallying around the accused rapists and demonizing the alleged victims. Whether or not Anonymous can pressure the authorities into reopening this case, they are succeeding in drawing attention to the fact that this is a pattern we need to break.
Update, Oct. 15: This post has been updated to clarify that while video evidence may exist, the cops don’t have it.