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Social media double-edged sword in Steubenville rape case

Male checking his smartphone
AP file

In sentencing two high school football players to juvenile jail terms for raping a drunken girl, Judge Thomas Lipps issued a cautionary note to children and parents, urging them to reconsider "how you record things on the social media so prevalent today."

And certainly the countless texts, the photos and the tweets, not to mention a vile YouTube video that referred to the assault in the crudest terms, were regrettable and revolting — a means not only of intimidating the 16-year-old victim, but also of victimizing her over and over again.

But they also made the convictions possible and shed light on a type of case that often stays in the shadows. And, experts say, the social media component of the Steubenville case may help educate young people who remain shockingly ignorant about the definition of sexual assault.

"What happens in basements and at drunken parties used to stay there," says Ric Simmons, professor at the Ohio State Moritz College of Law. But the huge role that social media played in the Ohio case, and the vast amount of evidence it created, he says, "brings these things out into the open. People are starting to talk about it, and people are starting to realize how the law treats this kind of behavior."

Of course, teenagers on social media is not new. Nor is the use of social media by prosecutors to gather evidence.

But the Ohio case, in which Trent Mays and Ma'Lik Richmond were found guilty of raping their victim twice with their hands, first in a car and then in a basement, attracted attention not only because of the crime's callousness, but also the shocking and equally callous manner in which it was documented.

Mays tweeted a photo of the girl naked and passed out. A friend made a video of one of the assaults, then deleted it. That YouTube video, viewed well more than a million times, showed a group of friends joking about the assault for 12 excruciating minutes.

But perhaps nothing speaks to the social media component as much as the way the victim herself gradually learned the details the next day: via text exchanges, forwarded photos, even watching the video.

"OMG please tell me this isn't (expletive) true," the girl texted a male friend.

"Imagine how horrible for the victim, waking up and hearing about what happened via text and Twitter, and then how quickly it all spread, through the school and the community," says Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. "And then it spreads nationally and internationally. We're talking about a reverberation that will last, frankly, the rest of her life."

'Extraordinary evidence trail'
And yet, says Balkam and other experts, "the social media aspect of this case is truly a double-edged sword. The video, the tweets, the texts — they provided this extraordinary evidence trail that you couldn't run away from. They allowed activists to keep hunting for more evidence, to push prosecutors. Without it, do you think the case would have been brought?"

And so, Balkam says, the Ohio case has become "a huge teaching moment" for an organization like his, which seeks to make the online world safer. He plans to use it in events for kids and their parents, like an upcoming session at a Miami middle school.

"It used to be that we tried to protect kids from accessing porn online," he says. "Now, kids themselves are creating the very content that we were trying to keep them away from." Exacerbating the situation is the focus on mobile phones to share content.

Of course, the most horrible crime was the rape. Educators and counselors say they are saddened, though not totally shocked, that some of the teens were unaware of what constitutes a sex crime. Evan Westlake, who took the video of the rape, testified: "It wasn't violent. I didn't know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it was someone forcing themselves on someone."

A sexuality educator in New York says this provides a key opportunity. "Clearly we have boys and girls who haven't had an education in sexual assault," says Kirsten deFur. "We need to teach them, for example, that consent is crucial at every step. And that if someone is drunk or unconscious, that person is unable to give consent."

Another disturbing aspect, to many, is the extent to which peer pressure appears to have affected the teens' responsibility as bystanders — either actual or virtual. What should they have done? Prosecutors are continuing to investigate people — teens, adults, coaches — who may have failed to report a crime.

'They think they're anonymous'
Teenagers interviewed by The Associated Press in several cities said they hoped they would have the strength to report their friends, but weren't sure they would. "I wouldn't know whom to report to," said Jasmine Flores, 18, a high school junior in Madison, Wis. She says many teenagers are reluctant to be tattletales.

"It's a taboo thing to do," Flores says. "If you are that person's friend, you don't want get that person in trouble."

Flores, though, is certain about one thing: What the Steubenville defendants did was terribly wrong. "I didn't think people were capable of something like that," she said. And that went for the online sharing, as well.

"They think they're anonymous," Flores said. "Or they're not even thinking. It's 'Oh, everybody needs to know about what we're doing. We're so cool. We're so awesome.' "

Flores is not shy about how much time she spends on social media. Like some other teens, she has moved on from Facebook but spends a few hours a day on Tumblr and texts hundreds of times. In the summer, that number goes up to about 1,000.

Julian Juarez, 16, of El Paso, Texas, says he uses Facebook "every day, every hour." And he often encounters unseemly content on social media. "Every day I see things that are inappropriate, like people that post pictures of themselves almost naked," he said. "They just want to be cool, I guess."

Wanting to be cool, wanted to be liked, mixed with heavy doses of alcohol: That's what struck Dana Edell, who heads SPARK, a group seeking to prevent the sexualization of girls, when she watched the Ohio YouTube video. "All those boys were egging each other on, trying to make each other laugh," she says.

Edell argues that what happened in Steubenville occurs every weekend at booze-fueled parties across the country. "What made this case unique is how it was documented," she says.

And so, as much as it's horrifying to speak of a silver lining, Edell is hoping the Ohio case has one.

"I hope it's really raising awareness of how dangerous what these boys did was, and all the other teenagers — including girls — who stood by and did nothing," she says. "The fact that there was confusion about whether what they were doing is right or wrong is tragic. And so the fact that the boys were convicted of rape and will serve time is hopefully a wake-up call. It's unfortunate that it took a tragedy to wake us up. But it's become a national conversation."

A conversation in which, at least at the trial, the victim's mother seemed to have, memorably, the last word.

"You were your own accuser," she said, "through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on."

Associated Press writers Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Kevin Wang in Madison and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.