Crime, Privacy, and Today’s Culture of Digital Sharing

January 17, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Privacy, Students

A criminal act is videotaped and disseminated via social media. The video is made public only after hackers broke into private online accounts. Those in the video appeared not to understand the severity of their actions; even worse, they were minors. Who should be held accountable?

The case of alleged gang rape by high school football players, albeit small town superstars, in the postindustrial town of Steubenville, Ohio has caused school officials, reporters, parents, and many others deeply affected by this case to ask this same question. At this point in the case, two 16-year-old boys have been under house arrest after being charged with multiple crimes, including sexual assault and disseminating nude photos of a minor. Meanwhile, a video of their cohorts joking about raping the victim has gone viral, thanks to Anonymous, a vigilante-style organization that hacked the teens’ private accounts and leaked the video after students failed to come forward and apologize. Screenshots of incriminating tweets and Instagram photos are also public, courtesy of a crime blogger who made it a personal quest to bring the perpetrators to justice. And a town, built solely around the success of its football team, falls apart.

The sequence of events and people involved in the Steubenville case have created a kind of ethical maze, with a number of variables to consider and new information that has come to light since the crime occurred on August 11. However, as others have attested, what makes this crime so different is that it has taken place in a time when teens’ lives are seamlessly intertwined with social media and are deeply seeded in a culture of digital sharing—for better or worse. 

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Bill Keller links the Steubenville crimes to the issue of privacy, grappling with the moral dilemma of plundering private information in the name of justice. The anonymous leaks would not present such an issue if they hadn’t drudged forth key pieces of evidence that could be used in the forthcoming trial, and if they weren’t continual. As of yet, the hacking group has promised to continue leaking critical information until all of the alleged perpetrators have been outed. Slate writer Amanda Marcotte pointed out that, because rape culture is facilitated in part through a lack of prosecution of the perpetrators, these leaks could potentially reap positive and preventative outcomes.

Keller quoted Marcotte struggling with the issue herself:

By stepping in and holding people accountable, Anonymous stands a very good chance of taking action that actually does something to stop rape. But: This type of online vigilante justice is potentially invading the privacy of or defaming innocent Steubenville residents, and even if everything published is true, there are very serious legal limits to the Anonymous strategy.

Something else to consider is that, from the looks of it, many the students who were involved in the crimes, some of whom have self-identified as the “rape crew,” seemed less than remorseful—at least until the tweets, videos, and photos were made public. Countless websites have captured Steubenville football players making joke after joke about the incident, and only one of the students has apologized to the victim and her family.

That being said, this is just one more instance that shows us how severe the implications of social media can be, and the kind of digital footprints teens are forming through this culture of sharing—or often oversharing. However, in times like this, it is possible to appreciate the physical evidence that has arisen via social media in hopes that it might help foster a fair and just trial, which is seldom the case for victims of rape. Hopefully Steubenville will serve as a teachable moment for students and teachers alike, and also encourage students to think about not only their actions and how they affect others, but also how much of themselves they are sharing with the rest of the world.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Have you talked to your students about the events that took place in Steubenville? And in case you’re searching for ways to talk about this and impart some digital citizenship lessons, our curriculum on privacy and the digital footprint are designed to capitalize on these teachable moments and dig in to difficult topics in a smart way.