Cyber-bullying warning in the Steubenville tragedy

The social media fallout from the heavily publicised US rape case has highlighted how easily social media interaction turning into cyber-bullying.

On February 13 two male high school students from Steubenville, Ohio will face a juvenile court over the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl in August 2012.

The case has attracted media attention around the world in recent months, largely because of the role social media played in the fallout from the alleged incident. The case is also a horrifying example of the damage cyber-bullying can cause.

To understand the significance of this case, we need to understand how the events unfolded and how the incident was reported both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere.

Social media and cyber-bullies

The two youths charged with the alleged rape are members of the Steubenville High School football team, Big Red.

In the immediate aftermath of the alleged rape, the alleged perpetrators – and many who weren't present – took to social media and posted videos, pictures and comments about the incident.

In some posts – including those that included actual videos and pictures of the incident – the victim was “tagged” so she and her online “friends” would be notified about the pictures and comments.

As Australia is all too aware, sharing negative posts through social media is a form of bullying and can lead to humiliation.

Indeed, tagging is a common cyber-bullying tactic because the person tagged cannot prevent the message, picture or video being sent to their contacts. They can remove the tag, but by then the damage is already done.

It is not the intention of social media organisations that the tagging feature be used in this way.

The crime blogger

Soon after the two males were charged crime blogger Alexandria Goddard became interested and started her own investigation. She wrote:

“What bothered me greatly was the number of bystanders (as evidenced by social media) who stood by and did nothing. The complete and utter lack of empathy of anyone that night bothered me greatly”

Goddard identified and took screen grabs of a large quantity of material posted on social media sites. On her blog, Goddard wrote:

“What normal person would even consider that posting the brutal rape of a young girl is something that should be shared with their peers? ... Do they think because they are Big Red players that the rules don't apply to them?”

Using links between the material she was able to build a comprehensive map of people who were at the alleged rape scene or who participated in the subsequent cyber-bullying of the alleged victim.

Many of the bystanders who were at the scene went to delete their posts and photos after the event only to find that Goddard had immortalised them on her blog. In doing so, she greatly raised the public profile of the case.


Members of the activist hacking collective Anonymous entered the fray in December 2012 and started trawling the internet for material related to the alleged crime and the Steubenville "Rape Crew".

Members of Anonymous proceeded to find and publish material not found or ignored by Goddard, including a 12-minute video of the incident posted on a social media site.

But they didn't stop there.

Members of Anonymous posted a list of names and photos of people they believed should be investigated and made serious allegations against Sheriff Fred Abdalla who they accused of deleting video evidence and illegal gambling activities.

By getting involved members of Anonymous acted as vigilantes and by doing so opened the door to a raft of possible negative outcomes including jeopardising the fair trial of the Big Red players.

The anonymity afforded by the internet should not be used by Anonymous to carry out illegal acts including hacking into social media accounts and computers that belong to people involved with this case, make defamatory statements and inflame matters best left to police.

That said, some may rightly argue that by getting involved the Anonymous presence will bring greater scrutiny of what happened in the aftermath of the events of August 2012.

FBI steps in

According to CBS News reported on January 9 2013 that the FBI will look into events surrounding the Steubenville case including:

Speculation about what the FBI might uncover is growing, and some of the speculation reflects negatively on the local authorities who have been accused of deleting video evidence, having ties to illegal gambling and covering up serious offences.

Lessons learnt

The Steubenville case is an example of the dangers of social media and how easily cyber-bullying can take place.  

Young people today obviously use social media to express themselves openly and occasionally. Worryingly, this includes reporting on criminal events they’re involved with directly or indirectly.

To stop social media interaction turning into cyber-bullying, schools, parents and social media companies should adopt ongoing education as a means to educate people on the dangers of cyber-bullying and what to do when it occurs.

A solid knowledge of how to be good online citizens is important for everyone, especially younger people who may have limited experience and social interaction skills.

Technical knowledge is also vital and this includes an understanding that the digital network is not secure. Nothing that is put on a social media site or anywhere else on the internet is private.

Social media companies must do more to reduce cyber-bullying by studying how their sites are being used and introducing anti-cyber-bullying features.

They could, for instance, include:

  •  Training modules
  • Warnings about cyber-bullying when tagging occurs in a youth account
  • Reminders about what to do if cyber-bullying occurs
  •  Information about how to un-tag pictures, videos and messages, and
  • Where appropriate, facilitate the automatic linking of youth accounts to parent accounts.

Australian Cyber Education Program

As mentioned, the Steubenville rape case highlights the need for urgent action to educate young Australians about the perils of the online world.

It is of some comfort then that Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently unveiled a new cyber education module called bCyberwise.

The education module will be made available to primary schools where teachers will use the module in 2013 to educate students on cyber-safety.

The move by the Australian government to support school teachers in their efforts to educate students on the benefits and dangers associated with the digital world is timely and should be applauded. But more can be done.

The Transport Accident Commission driver safety and the Quit anti-smoking television campaigns have highlighted how reality can be effectively used as part of a direct education program.

For this reason, if no other, case studies based on real-world events, such as the alleged Steubenville rape case, should be used as part of the school education program and possible future television advertising campaigns about the dangers of cyber-bullying.

The Steubenville case might be scheduled to go to court in the coming weeks but this certainly won't be the last we hear of the case.

As the case continues we’ll more than likely hear concern that the social media and the cyber-bullying that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the alleged rape will prejudice this court case? In Australia there has been similar concerns about the possibility that social media will prejudice court cases and the state and federal Attorneys-General have started to look for a solution to this problem. Is there a solution?

Hopefully we can all learn from this incident and act so as to minimise the ease with which cyber-bullying can occur and the damage it can cause; both to the legal process and to people’s lives.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University

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