On Aug. 12, 2012 after a Steubenville, Ohio pre-season football party, a young girl was taken from house to house and sexually assaulted by the boys who said they would take care of her. Sexual assault is not unusual; the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that approximately one in six college-aged women are assaulted annually. The reason so few of these assaults are reported is that the cases frequently come to down to the dehumanizing, “he said, she said” paradigm that was even, on some networks, the framing device of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
What makes this story unusual is that it wasn’t a case of he said/she said. It was a case of “she said/he said/he said/he said/he said… ” The assault was essentially live tweeted by the 17-year-old guys who anticipated it, observed it, and then recounted it again after the fact until the assault had gone viral around the town of Steubenville.
A few days later, when the police seized cellphones from key suspects on the high school football field, they had 400,000 text messages to sift through. Suddenly the reality of teens with cellphones who send, on average, 128 texts a day intersected with a potential crime. It seemed like in the online realm, where bullying reigns, where it’s easy to be virtually cruel, carnal and vitriolic, that somewhere they forgot that they were now describing an actual crime being committed on a real human being.