The Steubenville Rape Case: Social Media on Trial

Without social media, the 16-year-old victim might never have even known she was raped. Rachel Dissell explores the new frontiers of the case she covered for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Last August in Steubenville, Ohio, a 16-year-old girl woke up naked on a couch in a basement, surrounded by three teen boys. She’d been a hassle, they told her, but she shouldn’t worry. They’d taken care of her.

But in the days that followed, the girl began to discover Tweets and videos that suggested something awful may have taken place. Without social media, she may never have known she was raped.

Days later, her parents contacted the police, beginning a case that, from end to end, illustrated the influence, and perils, of social media on justice, on victims, and on journalism. Text messages, Tweets and videos were the primary forms of evidence used by investigators to identify witnesses and even the accused. They were what attracted media attention and members of the hackers group, Anonymous. And they were the key pieces of evidence that led to the guilty verdicts seven months after the incident took place. On Sunday, two Steubenville High School star football players, both 16 at the time of the incident were sentenced to serve time in an Ohio juvenile facility and could be required to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives once they are released.

The trial turned on whether the sex that took place was consensual, or whether the girl had been too drunk to give her consent. The basic acceptance that a sexual act had taken place was built by a patchwork of text messages from eye witnesses that described how the boys had digitally penetrated the girl, legally a form of rape. (Some of the high school-aged kids later testified that they didn’t even categorize such an action as sex, let alone rape.) 

While prosecutors worked, social media coverage of what was unfolding kicked into high gear. Initially, most of the attention came from a blogger who suspected that there was more to the case than was initially thought. She captured many of the appalling Tweets, and tracked down evidence online that was related to the incident then wrote it up on her site and fanned it out on social media.

The Plain Dealer, meanwhile, got involved after being contacted by a few citizens of Steubenville, who feared that the accused would receive preferential treatment because of their status as players on the beloved local football team, which draws fans from all over the region. The case seemed to divide the town between those who blamed the victim and supported the football players and those who supported the victim and thought the boys should be locked up.

The story, and the case itself, might not have gone much further than that, or another feature that appeared in The New York Times. But everything changed when an Internet hacker collective, many of whom were a sect of a group that calls itself Anonymous, dug up and re-published a previously deleted 12-minute video from early that morning, in which a just-graduated Steubenville teen repeatedly refers to the victim as a “dead body” and much worse. The hackers then went further, launching a cyber campaign to support “Jane Doe,” and organized vigils in the community to support the girl and other sexual assault survivors.

Media attention continued to build and by the time the trial began last week, a phalanx of national and local media had descended on Steubenville. About 30-40 reporters set up inside the courthouse, with another 30-40 technical staff in the parking lot. Outlets from CNN to the New York Times to al Jazeera were all present. No electronics were allowed in the courtroom, so during the short breaks in the proceedings, reporters rushed outside to get online and to Tweet. All of the journalists, myself included, were under serious pressure to get information out to the public as quickly as possible. My co-worker and I figured out a system by which I would get to the parking lot and speak everything I could into an iPhone app, from which he formulated a piece we could post online and Tweet. We figured this was the best way to be fast and still be accurate and include context, not just facts.

But I had to wonder: Was our profession getting caught up in the same sensationalized, exploitive frenzy that inspired the Steubenville-area teens to post to Twitter in the early morning hours of the rape? It was hard not to fear that our basic mission to illuminate issues, gain insight and provoke change could be being lost in the rush to get news out as quickly as possible, and the added pressures to bring hits and clicks to our web sites.


The proceedings themselves were tense and often volatile, and social media and technology played a central role, which at times had significant consequences. In one jaw-dropping incident, the victim, whose name had previously been withheld by the media, was publicly identified when a witness who agreed to have her testimony filmed used the girl’s name over and over. The video feed was live-streamed onto a number of news websites, instantly revealing the victim to the world in the midst of the trial.

Hours were spent reviewing intimate evidence from Twitter and text messages. Many of the testifying teens (some who were forced or compelled to appear) recited in monotone voices their own texts that read things like, “Don’t rape her, bro”; or “Did you fuck her?” Most contained words that would not be printed in newspapers or repeated on television news shows.

The teens had to answer questions from lawyers about how they knew the girl had been digitally penetrated by the accused in the back seat of a car. One kid said he had a clear view because the light on his iPhone camera illuminated the crime quite well. One cell phone photo taken of the girl showed her naked, on a basement floor like a rag doll, her arms wedged awkwardly underneath her body. A witness described another photo the prosecutors never recovered in which the girl was on all fours, her head drooped toward the ground with two football players towering over her as one touched her buttocks.

Even the defense seized on the victim's own use of her smartphone: She gave out her one-stroke passcode, so she wasn't that impaired, right?


Shortly after the teen boys were sentenced, one of the prosecutors talked to the media. Her boss, the state attorney general, had just given a lengthy soliloquy about morality and the cavalier attitude about drinking and sex displayed in this case. “Rape is not a recreational activity,” he quipped. 

The prosecutor was asked about the impact social media had on the case. She acknowledged that some greater good or understanding could have come from the way social media had spread the word about the case to a wider audience. "But it comes on the back of a 16-year-old girl,” she said. “That's not easy.”

Two anti-sexual violence advocates attended the trial, along with a local victim advocate. They listened to the same testimony every day. Their job wasn’t to report but to find meaningful ways to incorporate their knowledge of sexual assault into the conversation. They put out insightful daily reports that took the day’s testimony and propelled it forward. They gave a laundry list of lessons that need to be learned, including why victim-blaming is so prevalent and harmful, and questioning why bystanders didn’t feel they could stop the offense. They too got their messages out on a blog and via Twitter. In Cleveland, a rape crisis center reported that its phones were ringing with people who had not previously reported incidents and other sexual assault survivors whose emotions were triggered by the facts being reported, especially descriptions of the texts and photos.

The most important questions from this trial can't be answered by social media experts. Will teens learn to speak up when they see something wrong happening? Will they learn what it means to rape? Or will they, as one of the juvenile defendants told the judge, just learn not to document their offenses with their cell phones, and avoid liberally sharing the evidence of their crimes?

There are also no easy answers to how the traditional journalism will regard social media and its instantaneous rewards and dangers. On the one hand, the single video that Anonymous dug up may have brought more scrutiny to the case. (It was also highly misinterpreted as “new” evidence.)

But the attention also added to the emotional stress of the victim, according to her attorney and prosecutors. The subsequent interest in the case also led to the live-streaming video from the courtroom that ultimately revealed the identity of the victim without her consent.

And, the tactics used by Anonymous—including threats—had a chilling effect on witnesses’ willingness to cooperate with prosecutors. Ironically, if a judge hadn’t later given immunity to the teens, the intervention by Anonymous could have broken the spine of the prosecution’s case.

It’s hard to know if the quality of reporting on the case was enhanced by social media. I wonder if the speed of new media compromises our ability to contextualize or further illuminate the important issues this case has raised. We should make efforts not to let it distract us from concentrating on deeper reporting. Instead of moving on to the next rape with our Twitter accounts at the ready, I hope we can slow down and delve into the deeper stories like this and why they happen, ones that might make a bigger long-term impact.