Is technology really a double-edged sword? The recent events that have transpired in Steubenville, Ohio would seem to suggest so.
You’re probably well aware of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case by now, especially given the massive amounts of media attention it has generated over the past few weeks. To recap, two players on Steubenville High School’s powerhouse football team, 17-year-old quarterback Trent Mays and 16-year-old wide receiver Malik Richmond, were convicted in juvenile court of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl while partying on the night of August 12. The conviction was the result of a rather speedy trial in which nearly all the evidence presented came from the social media of those involved: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and, of course, text messages.
We refer back to the double-edged sword analogy once again in discussing the positive role that technology played in this case. Put bluntly, Mays and Richmond would never have been brought to justice without technology. As we’ve come to learn, the victim had no memory of the period in which the rape occurred and had initially been convinced by Mays that he had actually taken care of her while she was unconscious. Couple that fact with the local celebrity treatment awarded to football players of Steubenville’s powerhouse program and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a cover-up. Mays and Richmond could easily have banked on their teammates to not rat them out, their coach Reno Saccoccia to “take care of it”, and Steubenville’s faithful fans to look the other way. The rape could have been buried quickly and quietly. That is, had social media not chronicled the night’s events and publicized it for all to see.
Just about all the evidence presented against Mays and Richmond was found easily through social media. An Instagram photograph depicting the unconscious victim being carried by her ankles, a YouTube video showing Mays joke about the rape, a series of tweets about the night’s events, and the text message exchanges between Mays, Richmond, the victim, and others comprised sufficient evidence to incriminate the two young football players. As journalist Laura Petrecca of USA Today notes, “Even before the rape trial of two Steubenville, Ohio teens, they had been convicted on social media.” Through their use of social media, Mays and Richmond had incriminated themselves.
In true double-edged sword fashion, there must always exist a trade-off between desired outcomes and unwanted consequences. In the Steubenville rape case, social media and technology may have brought Mays and Richmond to justice, but they also caused extensive and irreparable harm to the innocent victim. Despite her traumatic experience, the victim was confronted not with help and comforting, but rather with the cruelty of her peers littering social media. Students of Steubenville High School spared no time in sharing pictures of the unconscious girl, humiliating her with posts and tweets on Facebook and Twitter, and watching videos of Mays and others joking about the rape. Because of the “snowball effect” and largely public nature of anything posted on social networks, an event that should have been dealt with by only the few involved soon exploded beyond the town of Steubenville and into the national spotlight for millions to see. Furthermore, all of the posts and pictures of the victim will likely never be taken down completely given the notion of “the permanent record that is the Internet” described in our textbook. The victim, we can assume, will have to confront the horrific experience for years to come.
Whether it’s for the best or worst, the Steubenville rape case exemplifies a major change in the legal system spearheaded by the ever-increasing popularity and accessibility of social media. Evidence being presented in courtrooms is becoming more and more digital and can be pulled straight from one’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks. As Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz explains, “It’s the wave of the future. It’s going to change the way evidence is gathered in cases. It’s already happening.”