For years now, every time an event occurs someone touts social media’s ability to help break the news, shape opinions and so on. Much has been made of the quality and context of social media reporting as compared to traditional journalism and editorials and the effects and impact of social distribution for information. The cost-benefits will continue to be the argument of pundits from both sides and the honest facts will probably lie somewhere in the middle as each resource has its merits and faults.
Technology played, and continues to play, a pivotal role in the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. Nearly every aspect of the situation was touched by some kind of newer technology and there are any number of case studies that could be made out of the experience with technology throughout the ordeal and a great many key learning we should be aware of as a society. Well, that is after we have a better educational understanding of what breaking the law entails, what equality and respect really mean, what a rape is… and so on. In that alone we’ve a long way to go.
My focus on the technology is not to take anything away from the victim. She experienced a series of events I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemies and she unfortunately continues to be haunted by it in the vile being spewed by those who seek to re-victimize her. I wish her the best in her recovery and that she will be able to overcome the perils forcefully laid out in front of her. She is the only one who received a life sentence and one can only hope it doesn’t hold her ultimate life success back.
I picked up a lot of the references here from the steubenvillefacts.squarespace.com website, the New York Times and other investigative major media coverage, and the local paper the Herald-Star connect as I was putting together my thoughts on this.
The Flash Mob Revised
Much of the coverage of flash mobs occurs these days when an entertainment troupe faux-sponteniously performs for an unsuspecting crowd. Unfortunately, flash mobs actually have a much different root despite what Bill Wasik might have convinced people of with his adaptation of them for marketing stunts. The phenomenon of organizing inpromptu teenage gatherings easily dates to the proliferation of pagers making invitation dissemination easier, building on the telephone chain methodology. The use spread from small parties to large public gatherings and in recent more times via SMS and other mobile messages to full on wildings and continues to evolve as a way for quick summonsing of large groups with little advance notice.
In the case of Steubenville the series of parties occurring through the course of the evening seemed to have been organized, at least in part, by using this kind of technology based system of communication. It might not appear on face value to be the “traditional” definition of a fun flash mobs but the way the teens were tipped off on the status of different parties in order to move as large groups between them or how smaller groups were able to converge upon the victim in her inebriated state to witness the acts follow the same precept of a flash mob mentality.
Although technology doesn’t create mob behavior it facilitates certain aspects of it. Despite the many generations of behavioral studies of mob mentality revised insights are necessary to understand how and why mob behaviors are influenced by the onset of these changing technologies. It will only be then we can properly educate our teens and understand better ourselves as adults how to avoid these types of incidents and mitigate their overall risks but not reacting blindly to such invites.
The Documentation Age
The advent of digital photography forever changed the way we see our world and the encapsulation of it within our communications devices continues to redefine it while the ability to easily share it en masse produced a new form of consumption. We can now capture anything and everything happening around us documenting our world with a new and unprecedented breathe.
The Steubenville case however highlights a number of attributes of this new ability to document that cannot continue to go under-addressed.
First is that privacy is very much an illusion. It seems like something out of a classic spy thriller that your every action or interaction could be recorded but the reality is it can is probably is being done right now (and not by some sinister Orwellian type government program either). Technology fuels voyeuristic nature of the human condition by allowing anything to be recorded as still photography, as audio, as video by anyone who wants to capture it with little effort. At Steubenville and in many cases across the country by all ages of people (inappropriate) behaviors are captured effortlessly, for better or worse, but rarely without consequences to all involved.
Related to the recording is then the subsequent distribution. The simplicity of replicating and distributing these photos and videos, particularly instantly, is now the norm. Although it may provide us with endless joy of baby pictures and cute animals it also means things never meant for public consumption are easily put on public display. Just as there are definitely things that are appropriate or inappropriate to take pictures of or record, there are similarly distinctions on what you should be sharing, how and with whom.
Understanding the ramifications of how technology preserves and disseminates the documentation of our lives is important to all. The power it holds can provide tremendous goods but there are also ways it can propagate untold damage as well. The perception that digital documentation is not as tangible as its physical counterparts only undermines the need for greater understanding of it to breed responsibility.
Secondly it is that once it is created it, simply pressing delete does not make it go away. The digital artifacts remain much longer than many people understand. It isn’t just that the file remains within the devise memory even though it isn’t displayed in the Graphical User Interface, and that once sent over a network is retained on backup servers for a period of time as well, but that it is also subject to the whims of every other user that has access to it allowing images and video to take on a life of their own in perpetuity.
There’s a double edged sword of the Steubenville case further highlights the situation as the dissemination of the pictures allowed the evidence to be collected to prosecute those who performed the heinous act however, those same pictures now exist to taunt and torment the victim for many years to come.
There is a responsibility to this kind of power that all too many brandish on a whim. Realistically the education necessary to help people understand the effects of the digital age in documenting and cataloging their actions will probably never occur but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and be more aware none-the-less even beyond the singular confines of the actions captured in Ohio this time.
The internet has given everyone a voice and once again the power of such a voice changed the course of action. With the right social savvy and a little persistence anyone can affect change, for good or bad, on digital word at a time.
There are tonnes of examples now of bloggers and social media activists generating a groundswell of digital response to everything from changes in products and services, to the course of bills in the legislator to highly personalized responses to individuals or situations. However, how the tool is used though goes the other direction as there are just as many examples of bullying and online torment and justice gone awry by distributing incorrect information.
Alexandria Goddard, a lone crime blogger with a background in social media, initially followed the Steubenville incidents documenting what her independent research uncovered. Her dogged persistence produced a groundswell seeking the truth when it looked like locally the case would be forgotten. She’s an example of how such actions can help produce justice but the execution demonstrates much of the dangerous ground internet justice treads on including her breaching the privacy norms in publishing sensitive information, and adding emotional commentary to her posts to sway reader reaction, as well as in the kinds of responses her blog generated from all sides of the debate including threats on her own life, unsuccessful defamation lawsuits and a lot questionable online and cellular behavior.
Information disseminates quickly and most times takes on a life of its own within the digital realm well beyond what the original creator intended. Beyond what Ms. Goddard created there were reports of Anonymous hacking collective taking internet justice into their own hands and wreaking havoc on the local websites of anyone seeming to support the offenders and a number of other bloggers and social commentators voicing their opinion and taking actions that could be considered questionable in nature. These aren’t just words anymore, they have a profound and powerful effect on everyone they come in contact with.
Even after the case closed, when CNN commentators decided to call the defendants victims of the consequences of their crime’s punishment the blogshphere lashed out at their insensitivity. When Fox News decided to publish the name of the victim after protecting the already published identities of the guilty men the blogshphere again lashed out at their hypocracy. When some young women who didn’t agree with the result of the trial took to technology to voice their disdain in the vein of open threats they were met with an equally determined response.
It becomes an issue of balancing – just because you can say or do something doesn’t mean you should. As much good as say Ms. Goddards actions created in keeping the case alive act as a positive example, technology has equal ability to do harm and spread lies and create harassing situations. The old adage with great power comes great responsibility rings true and it is important to fully investigate all the consequences of use and foster the kind of respectful use through educational means.
the Interweb as a Place of Fact
If it is on the internet it must be true. However, we are not in search of truth, we are, in fact, in search of fact. And the fact is fact is sometimes tough to figure from fiction on the internet.
Throughout the entire Steubenville case as more and more truth came to light through the dissemination of the pictures, texts and other postings from those who were witnesses and more and more personal stories were told in regard to the situation the vast amount of unvetted information becoming available provided a false sense of security to bystanders they knew the facts of the case.
Much of the internet is based on the crowdsourcing of truths and not the checking of facts and Steubenville is one example of why it is so important to do one’s due diligence before accepting something as fact just because it exists. Simply being doesn’t create fact. Technically speaking truth can be reasoned to being but fact must be proven through consistent independent observation corroborating the an unbiased outcome and although there were many sources of the truth there are very few sources of fact.
Wading through all of the information to draw a conclusion is not something most people are adept with, despite their beliefs otherwise. We are not conditioned to be open-minded and are socially drawn to the opinions, the truths, which we believe most align to our own interpretation. The divisions and factions that came to be on all sides of the Steubenville case were precipitated by this very phenomenon and it is precisely why a site like SteubenvilleFacts was created to just document all of the information available as a single resource. In some ways it acts as a library to the available information, albeit perceivable biased to the nature of its sponsors, better than many of the more patently partisan approaches that were independently created.
The moral to this section is the learning that fact is easily muddied by truth and there’s more than enough truth available easier than ever to access via technology. Good research, reading comprehension and reasoning skills are now more important than ever with the information overload that the internet creates. Simply taking any one piece of information without context and without verification is not enough to create justification and it is imperative that we learn better how to utilize the resources technology helps create to make actual informed decisions and educated opinions and not simply use what is convenient to reinforce a personal truth.
We need to have serious discussions on what this means not just for Steubenville but for all discourse be it in the class room or on the political soap box or in our daily conversations and should use this opportunity to do an audit of how we to research for fact and formulate opinion.
Doing the right thing
As mentioned before, there’s a voyeuristic element to society so much so that it sometimes freezes us from doing what is right because we are too busy acting on our primal urge to do what feels good. Based on the audio and the messages that were disseminated from the bystandards it seems clear they knew something questionable was occurring. The first instinct was not to call for help in Steubenville. It was not to report a crime in progress. It was not to step in and stop the assault.
It was to tweet it. It was to instagram it. It was to youtube it.
Technology has made it easier than ever to report a crime and yet this facilitation is not resulting in a dramatic decrease in these kinds of events or crime in general. Why? Because we are not accustomed to doing the right thing and are not knowledgeable enough on how technology can help us accomplish it. Particularly these teenagers, for any number of probably reasons, refused to not only embrace it at the time but refused to report it even after-the-fact.
A great lesson to come out of Steubenville is to use the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with how to operate technology to do good, particularly in the heat of the moment. Your mobile phone means you can in theory make a 911 call from anywhere, at any time without leaving the scene to locate a land line. Some jurisdictions have SMS-911 systems in place and many more will be coming on line as well as ones that support other short messaging technology. Some have native mobile applications you can download that include reporting forms while others have mobile websites with reporting mechanisms.
It behooves us all to learn not only how to use these but ethically and morally realize the vitality of using them before engaging in social documentation of situations. It could be your life that is saved next if we all were better at it.
This also is an opportunity to discuss the limited cyber resources available to both officials and parents. Much of this could have been avoided if the case were different.
This is not advocacy for spying. This is advocacy for responsible oversight.
Although there is an entire department within the New York City Police dedicated to cyber-surveillance and it has proven successful in mitigating some gang related activities most police forces lack the technology and the knowledgeable manpower to execute such operations. In many towns it may not seem like a viable use of resources but Steubenville proves that even smaller communities would benefit from better use by the Police of technology.
Similarly, parents are just as liable in this as well. Had they the wherewithal and expertise to follow their children’s activities using basic technology they could have known more about what their son or daughter was doing in the first place and mitigated some of the risk by taking actions in advance of unsupervised, underaged drinking parties and potentially experiences like the assault.
No parent and no police officer or other public official can be everywhere. Not every crime can be deterred. However, when the tools are available to create less potent situations and they are not being used that’s negligence. Steubenville is an invitation to no longer take the ignorant, reactive path to what is happening in the lives of our children, or the world around us. The information is available, it is public and it is being ignored leaving us with situations like Steubenville and worse throughout the country.
the Steubenville Stutter
A stutter occurs in such a way that the natural rhythm is interrupted by unnecessary repetitions. In repeating these same sociological mistakes again and again and more so allowing technology to increase the repetitions rather than ease them is a stutter. The natural rhythm of progress is interrupted by our insistence in repeating the obvious error of our ways and in the case of Steubenville a number of these stutters occurred and reoccurred and reoccurred. Not only were the lessons not learned to mitigate the incident but then throughout the course of the investigation and trial and not after-the-fact we, as a society, continue to stutter along, tripping over our own now obvious mistakes unable, or unwilling, to find a natural rhythm. One can only hope, perhaps, we improve upon even just one of the above ideas or the many, many others I didn’t even get to in this diatribe to become better humans.