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Anonymous Is No Hero

Anonymous Is No Hero

By Cathy Young - June 9, 2013

The Steubenville, Ohio rape case that ended with the conviction of two high school athletes last March has faded from the headlines—but now, fallout from the scandal is causing a new stir in the online media.  A member of “Anonymous,” the activist hacker group that championed the victim, has gone public out of concern about his legal troubles.  Deric Lostutter, formerly known as KYAnonymous, had his home raided by the FBI last April and his computers confiscated.  Reports that he may face prison have sparked outrage in the left-wing blogosphere. “Hacker Who Exposed Steubenville Rape Case Could Spend More Time Behind Bars Than The Rapists,” proclaims a ThinkProgress.org headline.  On Slate.com, Amanda Marcotte hails Lostutter as one of the Steubenville saga’s “anonymous heroes.”

But the online vigilantes of Anonymous are no heroes—except of a false narrative—and their crusade has been far from benign.

At the center of the false narrative lies the idea that if Anonymous had not “exposed” the story, the Steubenville rapists would never have been brought to justice.  Yet by the time Anonymous got involved last December, the criminal case against the two teenagers who sexually assaulted an intoxicated girl after a school party was already well underway.  Despite allegations that the authorities had tried to protect the local football stars, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were arrested and charged with rape on August 22—six days after the victim and her parents went to the police—and on October 12 Judge Thomas Lipps ruled there was sufficient probable cause for the case to go to trial.    The claims of a “cover-up” had to do with the belief that other boys were also implicated in criminal acts; but the efforts of Anonymous have not led to any new charges, though a state grand jury on the case has been meeting since late April.

Anonymous also did not “out” the rapists, as some bloggers have suggested—their names had been mentioned in news reports at least as early as October—or even propel the story into the national media.   The group’s first post about the Steubenville rape case was made on December 23, a week after The New York Times published a 5,800-word story about it.  Indeed, a Mother Jones article which gives Lostutter credit for “turning Steubenville into a national outrage” quotes Lostutter himself as saying that he first read about the incident in the Times.

There is no doubt that Anonymous galvanized the outrage, particularly with the release of a sickening 12-minute video from the night of the crime in which Steubenville High graduate Michael Nodianos mocked “the dead girl” and joked about her rape. It should be noted that, while not even the most charitable interpretation of the video could be anything but repulsive, it was not the “confession” by a complicit eyewitness that it was widely taken to be: Nodianos was not at the house where the girl was assaulted, and his drunken rant was a response to another boy’s mention of Mays and Richmond having sexual contact with the unconscious girl.  The video was not a part of the evidence, and Nodianos was never called to testify.

Still, the release of the video—which had been known to the authorities from the start of the case but had been taken down from the Internet—was arguably a public service in that it exposed, and pilloried, some very ugly attitudes.   Unfortunately, much of what Anonymous did in the months leading up to the Steubenville trial amounted to spreading sensationalist misinformation and, in the process, targeting people who have not been credibly implicated in any wrongdoing. 

In December and January, Anonymous and an affiliated website, LocalLeaks, made numerous allegations based on hacked materials and “tips” from the Steubenville rumor mill—allegations entirely unsupported, and sometimes directly rebutted, by evidence presented at the trial three months later. They claimed that the victim was deliberately set up for rape as revenge for breaking up with a Steubenville High football player, and that another teenage girl (mentioned by name in the leaks) helped set the trap by coaxing her into attending the party.  

They claimed that the victim was drugged, kidnapped, repeatedly raped and sodomized by at least four attackers, urinated on, and finally dumped unconscious outside her parents’ home.  (In fact, she had willingly left the party with the boys and spent the night on a couch in the house of a friend of theirs.)  They claimed that Jefferson County prosecutor Jane Hanlin tried to pressure the girl and her family into dropping the charges—and that Hanlin’s teenage son, a player on the Steubenville football team, had been at the party and may have been implicated in the rape.  (Hanlin had recused herself from the case early on because of possible conflict of interest posed by her son’s football team membership.)  

In addition to alleging a massive cover-up to protect the rapists and their accomplices, Anonymous claimed that the rape itself was part of a conspiracy: the attackers supposedly belonged to a self-styled “Rape Crew” that assaulted women and took photos.  In a particularly bizarre twist, Jim Parks, the webmaster of a private fan site for the football team—which Anonymous hacked, along with Parks’s email—was accused of mentoring the “rape crew” and possibly paying the boys for photos of the assaults.   As “proof,” Anonymous touted a photo of a woman from one of Parks’s emails, supposedly resembling the victim in a sexual assault case involving two lacrosse players some 300 miles from Steubenville. 

Lostutter has now admitted that the accusations against Parks were baseless and posted an apology on his website, expressing regret for “the embarrassment” this caused Parks.  One may be forgiven for wondering if this contrition would have come about without the FBI breathing down his neck.

The “hacktivists” from Anonymous may see themselves as knights in shining armor protecting victimized women.  But the reality is that, in their zeal, they have caused real damage to innocent people.  In large part because of their crusade, a number of Steubenville residents including Hanlin were targeted for threats and cyberattacks.

They may also have hurt the legal process more than helped it.  That was, at least, the contention of Marianne Hemmeter, the state prosecutor who handled the case: after the verdict, Hemmeter told the media that Anonymous had had “a chilling effect” on witnesses and magnified the pressure on the victim.  (Ironically, her comments were quoted in an article on Atlantic.com headlined, “The Steubenville Hacker Who Helped the Victim Is the First New Head to Roll.”) 

It is extremely unlikely that Lostutter will get more jail time than the Steubenville rapists (10 years is the maximum penalty for hacking).  For now he has not even been charged, and he denies personal involvement in the hacking of Parks’s website, the offense of which the FBI was seeking evidence. 

But, however one may feel about government overreaction to arguably victimless cybercrimes such as illegal downloads, people who use their computer skills to harass and intimidate others—even when they believe it’s in a good cause—should have some fear of legal repercussions.  And, while libel is not a criminal offense, those who recklessly engage in it must surely forfeit some degree of public sympathy.

Justice for rape victims is a cause everyone can get behind.  But we would do well to remember that zealotry for noble causes can cause as much harm as rank malevolence.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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