LAST WEEKEND, more than 1,000 people gathered in Steubenville, Ohio, a small town with a history of high school football glory, to support the victim of an alleged rape. These kinds of rallies happen from time to time, largely on college campuses. What made this one striking was the fact that many protesters were wearing Guy Fawkes masks.
Those masks are a trademark of Anonymous, the shadowy collective of hackers that has taken on Steubenville as a vigilante cause. In terms of criminal justice, this is far from ideal. But for our culture at large, it represents an unlikely glimmer of hope.
The Steubenville story began with old power dynamics, the ones that stem from a mix of athletic glory, power, and sex. At a series of parties last August, according to news reports, a 16-year-old girl, unconscious due to alcohol or drugs, was allegedly gang-raped by at least two members of the beloved Steubenville High School football team. The girl learned about the attacks the next day, the press reported, after various boys posted photos and mocking tweets — which they later deleted — on social media.
Two of the football players were charged, as juveniles, with rape. Their trial begins next month. But some locals, including a crime blogger, kept hammering at the story, claiming town officials were protecting other athletes, circling around a subgroup that is treated as untouchable. Last month, The New York Times published a long, meticulously researched account, which included a pointed threat to a reporter from the high school football coach.
Then Anonymous took up the cause.
Up to this point, Anonymous has been best known for targeting governments, corporations, and the Church of Scientology. This time, the group’s members hacked into the football team’s Web page. They posted the names of Steubenville athletes they were targeting for revenge, and published what they said were leaked accounts of the night’s events. They used their skills to dig up artifacts of social-media braggadocio, including a 12-minute video of a kid who seems — though there’s no on-camera evidence of this — to be joking about a rape that is actually taking place nearby.
When I described the Steubenville story to Tobe Berkowitz, a communications professor at Boston University, the first thing he mentioned was “Duke lacrosse,” the 2006 rape case that has become accepted shorthand for rumors and false accusations.
“The fine line between ‘joke’ and ‘incriminating’ has all but vanished,” Berkovitz said. And he’s right: There is something deeply problematic about a public shaming campaign that doesn’t have to abide by standards of journalism or legal evidence.
Anonymous members don’t have to account for what they do. They don’t have to reveal their own names or show their faces. Their webcam threats have a theatrical quality, with computerized voices and canned lines like “You have attracted the attention of the hive.” You get the sense that they’re high on their own role-playing game, thrilled at playing high-tech action heroes.
But on another level, they’re doing a cultural service, using their particular set of Internet tools to change some longstanding power dynamics. In a “revenge-of-the-nerds” sort of way, Anonymous is shifting the stigma from rape victims to rape perpetrators — and to the likes of the kid in the 12-minute video, who is infamous now, his college flooded with demands that he be expelled.
Maybe all of that attention is fair. Maybe not. There’s a legal difference — a moral one, too — between making disgusting, misogynistic jokes and standing by when a crime occurs. (Steubenville officials have posted a fact sheet, outlining their limitations as they prosecute the case.)
But the Internet doesn’t care much about legal distinctions. And these suffering athletes might at least serve as a cautionary tale. The fury that Anonymous has unleashed, after all, lays bare the problem with glorifying kids who happen to be good at throwing balls — and the problem with assuming that “unconscious” is the same thing as “consent.”
Maybe the Steubenville case will prompt kids at high school and college parties to think twice about what they do and how they act. Maybe it will prompt parents and coaches to offer some sound and pointed advice. Maybe this will mark the moment when shame starts to outweigh glory. And maybe that’s when things will actually start to change.