Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Rehtaeh Parsons lived and died. Photo: Brian Burke on Flickr, via CC
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The UnSlut Project: Why we should have cared about Rehtaeh Parsons, and why we didn’t

We are horrified and disgusted by the reaction to the rape and death of Rehtaeh Parsons, but we aren’t surprised.

Three years ago in Nova Scotia, four teenage boys raped a 15-year-old girl as she vomited out a window, far too drunk to give consent. They documented the attack with a photograph, which they shared widely. They were never charged with rape and a year and a half later, the girl ended her own life. On 15 January, the young man who was photographed raping Rehtaeh faced one charge of distributing child pornography and, like his friend who took the photo, was sentenced to 12 months of probation and told to apologise to Rehtaeh’s parents. Across the continent, reporters and commentators have reacted with horror and disgust, but let’s be honest: we’re not surprised.

The girl’s name was Rehtaeh Parsons. I can tell you that because I’m writing in the United States. A court order issued at the end of September prevents the publication of her name in Canada, a ban that, as her father Glen put it, “came across as insulting, it came across as too little too late”. Halifax reporter Hilary Beaumont started the hashtag #youknowhername in place of “Rehtaeh” because, a year and a half after her death, most of us do know her name. 

I never met Rehtaeh. But as I write this, a wallet-sized photo of her – the last school photo she ever took – sits in its 2x3 frame on the corner of my desk. Her father gave it to me at the end of my visit to Nova Scotia this past spring, where I spent a week interviewing people who knew Rehtaeh for Slut: A Documentary Film. All I know about Rehtaeh I learned from him, over mugs of coffee upstairs at a café in downtown Halifax, and from her mother, Leah, while one of the family’s dogs snored on the couch next to us, and, of course, from the many, many news stories I have watched and read from the opposite end of the continent.

The widespread coverage of Rehtaeh’s death and the circumstances leading up to it has brought to light the details of this insane, unfair tragedy. But the coverage only started after her death.

Before she died, we didn’t care. The only attention Rehtaeh got was from her classmates, including the very boys who raped her, as they ostracised and harassed her for being a “slut”. For a year and a half she suffered, transferring schools multiple times, eventually turning to drugs as she fell into depression. Her parents did their best to help her, even admitting her to an in-patient hospital program for treatment, but Rehtaeh was deeply changed by the rape and the “slut” shaming that followed.

It was during that time that we should have cared. It was during that time that we should have reached out to support her, should have taken her allegations seriously, should have pressured the Halifax police to investigate the events that traumatised her so deeply. It was during that time that she needed help, and we failed her.

As I said, I never met Rehtaeh. And you might not even have heard of her before this week. So how could we have failed her, if we didn’t even know her?

We failed her because what happened to her didn’t happen in a vacuum. She lived and died in this world, in North America, where 1 in 4 people will be sexually assaulted. Where otherwise kind, well-meaning people roll their eyes at rape victims’ stories and ask, “Well, what did she expect?” Where an estimated 90 per cent of sexual assault survivors do not report to the police, and where fewer than half of those who do come forward, including Rehtaeh, see the report lead to a criminal charge. This is our world, our culture, and our responsibility. Rehtaeh’s death and its aftermath have made headlines, but her story isn’t unique.

In pointing this out, I don’t mean to erase Rehtaeh’s individuality. She was a beautiful, gifted girl, shy at first but silly with her friends and family. She loved crows, maths, and her little sisters.

We can’t undo what happened to Rehtaeh. But we can work to prevent it from happening to another girl. We can’t prevent Rehtaeh’s rape, but we can educate the boys in our lives about consent, decency, and respect. We can’t delete the photo that was shared, but we can refuse to look at or share explicit photos that we know were stolen or snapped without consent. We can’t support Rehtaeh through the trauma of rape and ongoing humiliation, but we can listen to and validate sexual assault survivors without judging them for being alone with boys, drinking too much, or doing any of the countless other things that are so often twisted around to blame victims for the crime committed against them.

The other option is to do nothing, to wait for another girl’s death to make headlines, and to wonder, again, how something like this could have happened.

Learn more and contribute to the crowd-funding campaign to finish Slut: A Documentary Film. Through Rehtaeh's story and the stories of four North American women who overcame sexual shaming in various forms, the film explores how we can work on individual, community, and cultural levels toward a world where sexual assault victims get the support they need and where the word "slut" doesn't even make sense as an insult. Watch the pitch:

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?