Commentary Violence

How Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good for Sexual Assault Victims

Bridgette Dunlap

Women don’t need to be avenged by "white knights." We need the knowledge and the legal resources to vindicate our rights ourselves.

A recent New York Times Magazine article by Emily Bazelon asks whether activists involved with Anonymous—the “loose collective of agitators, hackers and pranksters”—are Internet saviors, “or just a different kind of curse.”

I am emphatically in the “they’re a curse” camp, and, at the risk of getting doxed, I’m going to argue that others with feminist and progressive commitments should be too.

The typical “white knight” campaign begins with an Anonymous activist determining from a news account that an alleged victim of sexual assault has been denied justice by the corruption and complacency of law enforcement. They then bring a storm of media attention and threats down on the accused, police, prosecutors, and the towns in which they live.

Anonymous is often credited with having helped to bring rapists to justice in the Maryville, Steubenville, and Rehtaeh Parsons cases despite a track record of making investigations already in progress more difficult, falsely accusing innocent people, and making other women collateral damage.

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Until reading Bazelon’s article, I was under the impression that Anonymous might have turned up some useful evidence in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, who killed herself after pictures of her alleged rape were sent around by her peers. But it turns out, according to Bazelon, that Anonymous accused a person who some of its own activists had cleared of wrongdoing. And the evidence that turned the case around was not something Anonymous found, but rather a Facebook message one of the accused sent to Parsons’ mother, Leah Parsons, apologizing and implicating others.

Leah Parsons was ambivalent about “OpJustice4Rehtaeh,” but she was clear in an interview that she wanted the justice system, not the public, going after the boys who allegedly raped her daughter. Bazelon reports that Parsons’ rejection of Anonymous’ vigilante tactics came as an unexpected blow to Anonymous activists—I expect because it didn’t occur to them that they might not know what is best for a survivor or her family.

A similar dynamic was evident with Steubenville, when Anonymous turned a case the victim might have preferred be prosecuted quietly into a national story, in which multiple media outlets inadvertently disclosed her name. Anonymous dispensed endless unfounded rumors that were repeated by reputable news outlets with meager caveats. They accused an innocent teen of giving the high school girl in Steubenville a roofie, though toxicology reports showed otherwise, and released nude pictures of women found in the hacked email of another Anonymous target, thus victimizing more women.

But Anonymous’ most famous contribution to the case was the release of a video in which an apparently drunk and/or high student goes on a disgusting rant about Jane Doe being “so raped” in response to a video of her he has just viewed. It’s awful, and ultimately there was little reason to spread it around: The kid was not involved with the assault, and prosecutors already had the video before Anonymous made this further indignity against the victim go viral.

Anonymous acknowledged the harm it caused in Steubenville when launching #OpMaryville, assuring us that “efforts have been made to limit the amount of collateral damage in this operation.” They launched the campaign five minutes after reading one article about the contested reasons prosecutors dropped charges in the alleged rape of Daisy Coleman. The cybermob descended on Maryville, calling for the prosecutor in the case to lose his job, publicizing the names of the sheriff’s family members, harassing parents of the accused, and branding Maryville a “lawless hellhole.”

Anonymous was triumphant when a special prosecutor was appointed to reopen the investigation. However, the special prosecutor, a woman and a Democrat known as a strong advocate for sexual assault survivors, reached the same conclusion as the original white, male Republican prosecutor did: There wasn’t enough evidence for sexual assault charges, only misdemeanor child endangerment for leaving an intoxicated minor outside in the cold.

When accused of corruption, the original prosecutor explained he’d dropped the case due to lack of evidence and the Colemans’ refusal to cooperate. He first dropped the felony sexual assault charge because he couldn’t prove it, but tried to move forward with the misdemeanor, which carries a possible one-year sentence. The Colemans admit that they stopped cooperating after the felony charge was dropped, pleading the Fifth and failing to sign their depositions. The only thing that changed after the wrath of Anonymous coming to Maryville (besides the difficult level of attention Daisy experienced) was the Colemans’ willingness to cooperate on the misdemeanor charge, to which the accused ultimately plead guilty.

Many people weren’t satisfied with this, but the reported facts indicate that the prosecutors were right—they could not prove sexual assault. Acquaintance rape, the most prevalent kind of rape in the United States, is inherently difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, but in this case it would have been impossible because Matt Barnett, the accused rapist, says the sex was consensual, and Daisy Coleman cannot testify to what happened because she has no memory of it. Daisy’s friend says she wasn’t in the room to see what happened, while Matt’s friends say they took a video of Barnett and a not intoxicated Daisy kissing (which they deleted that night and police were unable to recover).  Daisy’s blood alcohol level the next morning is circumstantial evidence that she was too intoxicated to consent to sex, but the boys, who presumably would have testified, told police she drank heavily after returning from the room with Barnett.

The Missouri rape statute in place at the time requires proving the defendant did not “reasonably believe” the accuser didn’t consent or was too incapacitated. Asked if Barnett might have thought the sex was consensual, Daisy told investigators, “He was drinking too, so yeah, he could have.” Even on Daisy’s version of the facts, Barnett couldn’t be proven guilty of the felony charges. It would have be unethical for prosecutors to try.

Bringing attention to the problem of sexual assault and showing support for accusers is laudable and may bring solace to some survivors. However, as Samantha Jane Geimer, the woman Roman Polanski plead guilty to raping when she was a child, recently advised, we should refrain from jumping to conclusions about the guilt of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime and cognizant that public battles may not be in the service of survivors.

In an interview about her Times Magazine piece, Bazelon says we should judge each Anonymous “operation” individually and concludes that #OpMaryville was a good thing on balance and #OpJustice4Rehtaeh probably was as well, despite the false accusations. I think she’s wrong here. We should reject Anonymous’ actions for more fundamental reasons than individual activists’ mistakes in particular cases:

1. Anarchy is bad for women and marginalized people. The law may be inadequate and unevenly enforced, but we have fought hard to have it apply to us. We do not want to return to the days when rape accusations were handled without a trial. And we do not want to return the protection of women to the benevolence of private actors—especially not Anonymous, to whom some women (typically young, white, and pretty) are damsels in distress, while others are “land whales” or “whores.” If you’re deemed a whore, Anonymous may torment you at your darkest moment.

2. Due process matters. In a society with a wrongful conviction problem, where the poor and people of color are disproportionately targeted by the criminal law, we need to take the protections for the accused we have seriously. When Anonymous demands that accused persons apologize or face their fury, they are demanding they give up their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves. When they turn accused teens into famous rapists, they poison the jury pool, jeopardizing their right to a fair trial. You may feel in your heart he’s guilty, but the government still has to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

3. Veracity is important. The feminist activist group UltraViolet sent an email immediately after news of the Maryville plea that not only dispensed with the term “alleged,” instead calling someone cleared by two different prosecutors a rapist, but also presented disputed information as fact. The group claimed, for example, that the Colemans’ home was “literally burned down” in retaliation for their accusations although insurers determined it was an electrical fire that started in the basement. UltraViolet is by no means alone in letting outrage overwhelm accuracy. We have to be careful about taking things to be fact just because the cybermob has repeated it enough.

4. Vilifying individuals obscures systemic problems. If the accused is pure evil, we are off the hook for our failure as a society to teach young men that they can’t touch anyone without consent. If prosecutors are all corrupt, we don’t have to address the underfunding of their offices or reform inadequate laws. If suicide is the inevitable response of fragile young women to bullies, we don’t have to provide mental health resources or educate them about their rights to make it stop.

5. We should empower victims to sue civilly. Anonymous tells us that the criminal justice system is horribly corrupt—probably deterring victims of sexual assault from reporting crimes—while also perpetuating the notion that there can be no justice without a criminal conviction. But victims have more control as a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit than as a witness in a criminal one. In a civil suit, a plaintiff can seek monetary damages, which may be more useful to her than a prison sentence if she has lost wages and medical needs, and doesn’t need to prove her claims beyond a reasonable doubt. Rape is a common-law battery in every state for which you can sue in tort. As to the problem of women having their pictures distributed without permission, sometimes after the best efforts of Anonymous fail, all it takes is a call from a lawyer to make it stop. I’m all for calling out cyberbullying and revenge porn and updating criminal laws to deal with it, but much of this is already illegal.

Women don’t need to be avenged by “white knights.” We need the knowledge and the legal resources to vindicate our rights ourselves.

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