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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.