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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.