In response to the tragedy in Newtown, CT the idea was raised by news commentators and in the blogosphere that the names of people who commit heinous crimes should be de-publicized in order to deny them even a posthumous fame we believe to be a constituent of their twisted motives. It is hard to imagine, though, that even if we could instantaneously erase the names of these sociopaths, that this would really serve as a deterrent to crimes born in psyches we cannot understand in the first place.
I find myself thinking about the subjects of infamy, depravity, and justice since watching the video released last week in which teenage boys jokingly boast about an alleged multiple rape of a sixteen year-old girl in Steubenville, OH. The video was accessed and released to the public by a group or individual identified on Twitter as KnightSec, who claims alliance with the hacktivist group Anonymous. KnightSec exposed the video on the grounds that officials in Steubenville have been papering over the case because the accused assailants are members of the very popular football team in this small, working-class community. This is a familiar and easy-to-grasp narrative, one that might even be true; and although I believe KnightSec is acting in a good-faith effort to see justice done, the case in general, including the release of the video, raises some disturbing and challenging questions unique to our digital times.
According to CNN, one of the difficulties in the case, even if we give local law enforcement and prosecutors the benefit of every doubt, is that much of the evidence so far amounts to teenagers referring to criminal behavior via digital and social media. Reports indicate that even the victim herself was unconscious during the alleged assaults and cannot serve as a witness to her own abuse. There is even a report that the victim text messaged the accused saying, “I know you didn’t rape me.” Rape cases are often hard enough to prosecute, and this one appears to be complexly warped by the bizarre world of communications in which we now live — one where depraved speech is so common among certain users of social media, that it is very hard to tell who is merely presenting himself as a pig and who is referring to actual events in real life. Certainly, this would not be the first time a bunch of jocks assaulted a defenseless girl; and it would not be the first time teenagers used social media to brag about their own hideous behavior; but it also wouldn’t be the first time teenagers produced comments, photos, and videos that exaggerate or distort actual events for no other reason than that’s how some people behave in cyberspace.
Even the kid featured in the video released by KnightSec is not one of those presently accused in the alleged assault; and while I would like to see him and his friends marched out to the woodshed for their lack of humanity, it’s hard to get past the fact that in the video, he’s behaving exactly like an Internet troll. In fact, his similes are frankly so childishly dorky that what we’re watching could be the blabbering of an accomplice, a witness, or pathetically enough, a wannabe. If you think the idea of a wannabe rapist is farfetched, let’s go back to October for a moment . . .
Before Gawker outed super-troll Michael Brutsch (aka Violentacrez), the senior staff at Reddit saw no problem with the enormous volume of this man’s posts glorifying sexual assault of teenage girls. To the contrary, Brutsch was rewarded with what the Internet troll wants most — attention. And because Violentacrez yielded literally tens of thousands of followers, Reddit even rewarded Brutsch with a statuette for his popularity. Is there a connection between Brutsch and the kid in the Steubenville video? I think there is, and it comes back to the notion of infamy.
In the age of social media, attention is currency; and negative attention is not necessarily of lesser value than positive attention. Hence, this raises just one of the questions as to the value of the kind of net vigilantism, however well intentioned, conducted by KnighSec in this case. In order for there to be a video to expose, the video had to be shot in the first place and then loaded onto a storage device somewhere that could be hacked. Hence the choice by these boys to memorialize and save a record of this offensive and imbecilic monologue suggests at least an instinctive desire for attention. In this context, then, does releasing the video to the public potentially satisfy a dysfunctional wish for infamy among these kids? If we would contemplate erasing the name of the already-dead Newtown shooter, what about giving fifteen minutes of fame to this morally-bankrupt teenager, who may face no consequences of any kind in this matter? More broadly, as we shake our heads and think, “How can these kids behave like this?” are we missing subtleties in the design of our technologies that reward cruelty through mob acceptance? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that this video is not an anomaly among teenagers, and I know that misogynistic themes are very common in shadowy regions of social media that many parents may not know exist.
Of course, there is another way to look at incidents like Steubenville. Perhaps this kind of case is no more common than it was twenty years ago; and thanks to social media, we are able as a whole society to confront these incidents more frankly and to demand both justice and solutions. It is hard not to feel, though, that human depravity is lately on the rise. Perhaps this perception is an illusion itself, one borne of the constancy of our communications technology and, hence, the universal competition for attention.
We hope, of course, that officials in Ohio are able to parse the gibberish from the evidence, that the facts of this case will see justice served, and that above all, the girl in question receive whatever support, comfort, and help she needs. But whether the dumb kid in the leaked video is implicating himself in an attack or just shooting his mouth off, the confusion I believe should serve as instructive in this utopian, free-speech bonanza of the digital age — that words have a tendency to correspond to actions, if not by the speaker, then by somebody who’s listening.