There’s No Such Thing As a Happy Ending On The Internet

This week in The New Yorker, Ariel Levy travels to Steubenville, Ohio, to follow up on the rape case that became a national news story last year, thanks in part to the early digging of a local blogger named Alexandria Goddard and the hacktivist group Anonymous. Levy’s story (which, as even casual followers of the case can imagine, is not an easy read), focuses mainly on the fallout from the role social media played in the investigation. In the following months, she writes, “it has been difficult to distinguish between virtual and physical reality in Steubenville”:

In trying to determine what happened in Steubenville, the police and the public began with the same information, gathered from the same online sources: ugly tweets, the Instagram photograph, and a deeply disturbing video. But while the police commandeered phones, interviewed witnesses, and collected physical evidence from the crime scene, readers online relied on collaborative deduction. The story they produced felt archetypally right. The “hacktivists” of Anonymous were modern-day Peter Parkers — computer nerds who put on a costume and were transformed into superhero vigilantes. The girl from West Virginia stood in for every one of the world’s female victims: nameless, faceless, stripped of identity or agency. And there was a satisfying villain. Teen-age boys who play football in Steubenville — among many other places — are aggrandized and often do end up with a sense of thuggish entitlement.

In versions of the story that spread online, the girl was lured to the party and then drugged. While she was delirious, she was transported in the trunk of a car, and then a gang of football players raped her over and over again and urinated on her body while her peers watched, transfixed. The town, desperate to protect its young princes, contrived to cover up the crime. If not for Goddard’s intercession, the police would have happily let everyone go. None of that is true.

This month’s other cautionary tale about the Internet comes from the New York Times Magazine, where Jay Caspian Kang revisits Reddit’s role in naming a missing college student, Sunil Tripathi, as a possible subject in the hours after the Boston Marathon bombing. Tripathi’s body was later found in the Providence River. Kang compares journalists’ eager spread of the rumor to the Redditor’s pursuit of the “upvote”: “If you’re wondering why so many writers and journalists from such divergent backgrounds would feel the need to instantly tweet out unconfirmed information to their followers, all you have to do is think of the modern Internet reporter as some form of super Redditor — to be silent is to lose points. To be retweeted is to gain them.”

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