The Steubenville trial is over, but what drove a group of teenagers to “live-blog” a rape?

For many people, the internet doesn’t just confirm your existence: it is your existence.

When the high school American football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were arrested on suspicion of rape in Steubenville, Ohio, last August, the international media barely reacted. Locally, however, what happened on the evening of 11 August last year and early the next morning was all anyone could talk about. That night, a “rape crew” of local footballers allegedly dragged a drunk and unconscious 16-year-old girl from party to party while assaulting and urinating on her.

“Jane Doe” awoke the next day with no memory of those events. There were rumours that photographs existed of the assault and the level of gossip and conjecture prompted the crime blogger Alexandria Goddard to undertake some internet sleuthing. What she found has disgusted the world: the documentation of a horrific crime by its perpetrators and their friends, posted on the internet for anyone to see.

“The case that social media won”, the headlines proclaimed, after Mays and Richmond were handed guilty verdicts on 17 March. The media love a good Twitter hook – how things play out online is an angle that fascinates us as we try to come to terms with the technological mediation of our lives. But there was more to it. Talk of a cover-up or conspiracy is seductive. However, in this instance, it was the hero worship of the local football team – now believed by most people in Steubenville to be an overblown and destructive force in the town – that bred a culture of silence surrounding the rape. Many of the teenagers who were present that night refused to talk to the police and the victim found herself alienated from her classmates, threatened, disparaged online and under immense pressure to retract the allegations.

That a survivor of a sexual assault should be subjected to public shaming and mockery is sadly unsurprising; victim-blaming is a common occurrence in societies that excuse and normalise rape. Doe’s clothing, her inebriated state, her previous sexual conduct and her decision to go to the party alone were all used as “evidence” to suggest that what had happened was not rape.

The now-infamous Instagram photograph that Goddard uncovered told another story. It showed Doe unconscious, being dangled like an animal by two men holding her by her arms and legs. Since the convictions, we have learned that another photograph was taken using a mobile phone, this time showing the young woman lying naked on the floor at the party with the semen of one of the defendants on her chest. Perhaps most heartbreaking in all the evidence was the text message that Doe sent to a friend: “I wasn’t being a slut. They were taking advantage of me.” As though, looking at those pictures, you could imagine it being any other way.

More disturbing still was the knowledge that these photographs were taken at all – and the lack of shame or remorse in taking them. In the tweets and texts that surfaced, thanks to the work of Goddard and the hacker collective Anonymous, the defendants and their classmates repeatedly used the word “rape” and referred to the victim as “dead” and “sloppy”. A video has emerged in which partygoers laugh about what happened. That the young men knew the nature of their crime and could even name it yet still felt it acceptable to boast about it on the internet was the worst aspect of the case.

Anonymous claimed that its decision to publicise potential evidence was motivated by a commitment to truth and justice, but there is another possible narrative, which reflects the preferential position in the social hierarchy given to high school athletes, the popularity contests that are so dominated by egotism and machismo. Mays and Richmond may have believed themselves above the law but the computer geeks are now the ones with the power. In other words, jocks may win at sports but they will never win on the internet.

These young men and their classmates are not the first to take the decision to “live-blog” a rape and they will probably not be the last. Their actions have exposed the darker side of the sense of male entitlement that has been fostered by a whole town. They are rape culture writ large.

Internet posts, photographs and text messages made up the bulk of the evidence, so understandably the news coverage has focused on social media as the trial’s driving force. Yet to describe it as a “trial by internet” that “unfolded online” is to misunderstand the ways in which young people have come to use technology and how they perceive it. The texts and tweets were not separate from the sex crime but an extension of it. They were the crime itself.

Rather than seeing the web as a witness to their lives, standing outside the action, as many of the older generation would, younger people consider it a component of their lived experience. The internet doesn’t just confirm your existence: it is your existence. This goes some way towards explaining the teenagers’ lack of understanding as far as the permanence and public nature of the Steubenville social media updates are concerned; they were intended to be “of the moment”. Indeed, they are that moment.

At times, the internet, rather than being accessible to everyone, can instinctively feel personal. It may look as though such posts come from a need to disseminate, but the act of “sharing” is a subjective one that sends a highly individualistic message: “Here is me, doing this, now.” It is a statement of agency. Doe did not have that luxury, because those men destroyed it. While those around her snapped away and pinged their tweets out into the ether, she was nowhere. Her voice was muffled.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is one half of the Vagenda Magazine. She blogs for the New Statesman at The V Spot. 

The town of Steubenville in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.