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Steubenville, Social Media and its Impact on the Criminal Justice System

The Steubenville rape trial has recently concluded. The trial that gripped the nation centered on a small-town Ohio high school party that went terribly wrong. Following a trial, two star football players were found guilty of raping a young female high school student from a nearby West Virginia high school.

There are many lessons to be learned from this case. One important lesson is the tremendous impact that social media had on initially bringing this case to light, all the way through to the evidence presented at trial that led to the conviction of the juveniles.

Text and picture messaging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram all played a critical role in examining what happened between the accused, the victim and witnesses. The Instagram picture depicted the accused holding the victim by her arms and legs over a basement floor. The cruel words and actions of the accused were unavoidable in the YouTube video. The text messages further exemplified the gruesome actions of the accused when one attacker admitted he should have done worse, and the victim was also told “nothing happened.” During the trial, Ohio state investigator Joann Gibbs spent an entire afternoon of testimony quoting text messages between the parties.

The digital documentation proved to play a key roll as to what actually happened, as sexual assault trials often come down to someone’s word against another’s. Not only did social media document the events of the case, but it also made people’s true behavior blatantly obvious. Not only are these examples and evidence of the accused’s behavior, but they also served as further trauma to the victim as they were broadcast and viewable to anyone around the world. What’s more is that all of the evidence will remain online, lingering as a haunting memory.

As the result of social media’s front and center role in this rape case, it has unfortunately cast a negative light on the town of Steubenville — that this small town in Ohio is pro-rape. The residents of Steubenville have been put on trial by the rest of the country and even internationally alongside the actual accused. Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias H. Heck, Jr. said in the Dayton Daily News that social media has an effect on the criminal justice system from all angles.

Nearly every online news story that is posted on the case allows for user comments. Facebook and twitter allow for even more commentary by everyday people. A cursory scan of social media reveals an extremely high level of emotion and national attachment to the case. An argument could be made that once the story was picked up by social media and became a trending topic, it turned it from being a local or regional story to one that received international attention. A further argument could be made that social media played a role in justice ultimately being done.

On the other hand, long before the verdict being read by Judge Thomas Lipps, the defendants were tried and convicted in the court of social media. The criminal justice system is founded upon the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” There is a very obvious contradiction. In the Steubenville case, there was no jury due to the accused being juveniles. If they were adults, could a jury be found who were not somehow influenced by the torrent of social media?

What, if anything, does this say about us as a culture? This time the social media verdict and actual verdict was aligned. Maybe next time the verdicts differ. Is this type of new, national engagement across social media platforms good no matter the outcome? 

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