How Social Media Can Become Our New Rape Whistle

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Photo: Photos: Patrick Swan/Corbis, Radius Images/Corbis

Earlier this week, on the heels of guilty verdicts in the Steubenville case of two football players who sexually assaulted a girl and broadcast it on social media, teenagers in the town of Torrington, Connecticut, were blowing up Facebook and Twitter with vile, victim-blaming comments about a 13-year-old who says she was raped by two 18-year-old football players. If we hadn’t been aware before, this week has made clear that, in the digital era, the accuser and the accused are not the only parties involved in sexual assault cases. We’re all bystanders on social networks.

Social media has been rightly hailed for bringing the Steubenville crime to light. Texts, tweets, and photos were essential to establishing that this was not a consensual act and not a “he said/she said” story. Yet paradoxically, both the Steubenville and Torrington rape cases have escalated the narrative — one that’s swirled around ever since the days of A/S/L queries in an AOL chatrooms — that the Internet is jeopardizing the privacy and safety of teens. And, in particular, teen girls.

Before it was even available in every home, let alone every purse and pocket in America, adults were worried that the Internet would enable sexual assault and stalking of naïve teens, who would log on and reveal details about themselves to older predators. As we welcomed Web 2.0 and smartphones and broadband into our lives, it became clear that their peers perhaps posed a greater risk, as social media became the place where bullying and rumor-mongering — practices as old as schoolyard itself — became easy to spread at the click of a button. The case of Amanda Todd took these fears to a horrifying extreme: The Canadian teenager was so brutally harassed after a topless photo of her made the rounds in her high school that she eventually committed suicide.

Even though the Steubenville case involved the malicious spread of information online — photos of the passed-out victim were plastered all over social media without her consent — the fact that the case ended in two rape convictions notably revealed that social media is not always negative for young women. “Cellphone videos can be forwarded to authorities, not circulated as jokes,” writes Amanda Hess at Slate. “Text messages can be used to identify rapists, not shame victims. And photos can establish central facts, not publicize humiliation.”

When issuing the Steubenville verdict, Judge Thomas Lipps warned teens to think about “how you record things on the social media so prevalent today.” Lipps, with his finger-wagging tone, is not alone in his fears about the effects of Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. As columnist Kathleen Parker writes this week in the Washington Post, “What hasn’t been addressed is the factor of social media in the events themselves.” She wonders whether our tendency to ‘gram and tweet the tiniest details has detached us from events unfolding in front of our faces, some modern form of the psychological effect that murder victim Kitty Genovese ushered in almost 60 years ago. The implication is that all of the high schoolers who tweeted and retweeted and texted the violence that was perpetrated against this girl in Ohio would have somehow been more likely to intervene in a pre-digital era. Decades of research on the Bystander Effect has shown us that’s not true, which means the Internet is once again acquitted. Bullies, killers, and rapists are the problem, not the medium by which they broadcast their crimes.

In almost every prominent news story about how the dynamics of social media play out offline, young women are set up as victims rather than agents and drivers of technology. The case has been made repeatedly that the digital era puts young women at risk in new ways — they can be stalked with smartphones, slut-shamed on instant messenger, targeted by rapists on social media. But the Internet can also be a source of power and protection — and I’m not just talking about accountability in rape cases. (A new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that 34 percent of teen girls “mostly go online using their cell phone,” compared with 24 percent of teen boys. “This is notable since boys and girls are equally likely to be smartphone owners,” the study says.) I use an app called CheckOn.Me, which notifies a select group of contacts if I fail to log in to the app after, say, meeting up with some unknown CraigsList seller about buying a chair. More generally, social media allows me a way to casually check up on friends. If I know a friend of mine was on a blind date the night before, I confess that I am slightly relieved when I see a new tweet from her in the morning or that she’s liked something on Facebook. For all the headlines about women being creeped online, it’s easy to forget that, far more often, social media provides new ways to blow the whistle.

The Internet isn't some lawless netherworld, it’s merely a reflection of social dynamics — and yes, sometimes crimes — that occur in the offline world. Put another way, by Sarah Gram in an essay about teen girls and selfies, “Do we honestly think that by ceasing to take and post selfies, the bodies of young women would cease to be spectacles?” If we didn’t have Instagram pictures and tweets about it, the rape that occurred in Steubenville wouldn’t be any less real. It just would have been less documented. I agree with Judge Lipps that we should all think about how we’re using social media: Rather than just recognizing its potential to hurt and expose, start appreciating how it enables us to help keep each other safe.