As many college students will attest, the hangover after a night of partying can be killer. Of course, some hangovers last much longer than a few hours.
For the city of Steubenville, Ohio, the night of Aug. 11, 2012 still throbs in the town’s beleaguered temples.
This hangover, however, provides more than some pain and a few regrets. Instead, the developing situation in Steubenville is tearing the town asunder. Were it not for the tireless, if morally questionable, efforts of Internet vigilantism, this terrible tale may never have been told.
Despite the illegality of their actions, these activists should be applauded for giving a voice to a silenced victim.
Last year, an end-of-summer party hosted in honor of the Steubenville High School football team — the locally loved “Big Reds” — took a grim turn as one girl was assaulted and raped after imbibing too much alcohol that evening. The next morning, she awoke in the basement of another house, unaware of anything that had occurred after midnight.
The Internet, on the other hand, was not.
The Steubenville story, horrific as it is, would never have received so much attention had it not been for the documentation and distribution of the girl’s situation via social media. By the time she awoke, Twitter messages were flying back and forth, pictures of the girl in compromising situations were being posted and shared and a video of former Steubenville High School baseball player bragging about participating in the assault had been uploaded to Youtube.
On Aug. 22 two standout Big Red players, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, were arrested and charged with kidnapping and raping the 16 year old victim, though the former charge was later dropped. Their accomplices that evening, on the other hand, have not faced any sort of disciplinary action.
Enter the industrious vigilantes of the Internet. Within days of the assault, crime blogger and former Steubenville resident Alexandria Goddard pounced, taking screenshots of the partygoers’ posts, photos and Tweets before they had a chance to delete them. She posted them on her blog, Prinniefied.com.
This sort of vigilantism is a necessary development of the Information Age where investigations require not only knowledge and skill in finding information online, but also a willingness to tackle taboo topics.
Despite several months passing since the act and a lengthy New York Times piece published in December, little attention was paid until KnightSec, a branch of the “hacktivist” collective Anonymous, began publishing information about team boosters, the county sheriff, and what they have termed the “rape crew” responsible for the assault. They even threatened to release personal information about the involved parties on New Year’s Day if the town did not announce a formal apology before that date.
Anonymous’ info dump revealed connections between Sheriff Fred Abdalla, whom has been Jefferson County’s sheriff for 28 years and continually runs unopposed, and Head Football Coach Reno A. Saccoccia. The former allegedly “inadvertently deleted” several pieces of key evidence, while the latter apparently does not “do” the Internet and had never seen any evidence of misconduct, according the New York Times report.
Further, Anonymous alleges that the lead prosecutor for Jefferson County, Jane Hanlin, mother of a suspected “rape crew” member and athlete, was present when the victim’s family arrived to file charges and “strongly discouraged them from filing,” according to the documents released by Anonymous via LocalLeaks.
Anonymous’ accusations, if true, suggest a culture of conspiracy and cover-up within this rust belt town with little to cheer for other than their winning football team.
The information collected by Anonymous and Goddard helped bring this to the national stage and may implicate entire rungs of Steubenville’s society. On the other hand, many remain skeptical about the validity of their information. Steubenville’s local newspaper, the Herald-Star, ran a letter from a local suggesting Goddard’s blog “has lent itself to character assassination and has begun to resemble a lynch mob.”
Whatever the outcome of the case, one cannot deny the impact of Internet vigilantism, and the question it raises about justice in the age of the Internet. While KnightSec’s actions are technically illegal, the possibility that justice would have been stymied by an institutionalized indulgence of the football team validates their actions.
Had it not been for Goddard, the investigation may never have gotten off the ground, as party-goers deleted the incriminating posts. Had it not been for Anonymous, a corrupt system may have been able to protect and indulge a celebrated football team, placing them above the law. In the very least, their involvement has given the victim a much-needed voice.
This Internet vigilantism has forced a potential injustice out into the open. Perhaps in time evidence will undermine Anonymous’ conspiratorial claims; even so, their willingness to make and support those claims forces the issue into much-needed discussion. As the old saying goes, Steubenville must let justice be done, even if the heavens fall.