How Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good for Sexual Assault Victims

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.

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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  • Bethlehem

    Thank you. Thank You. Thank You.

  • disqus_ok9xndxFPu

    What no one seems to understand is that Anonymous is not a monolithic force, and Anonymous does not mean anarchy. The only thing Anonymous seems to ever consistently stand for is free speech and open source access to the internet.

    There are Anonymous members who are feminists, and there are misogynists. There are men, and there are women. There are libertarians, and there are fascists, and there are communists. Anonymous could tomorrow encounter a sexual assault case that “they” handle very well and make a great difference in, or “they” could slut-shame a victim in true MRA style. The whole point of the NAME Anonymous is that the media has consistently said “anonymous hackers” as if that was a monolithic group, which is stupid.

    Lash out against white knights, but just because they are anonymous doesn’t mean they are all of Anonymous.

    • Bridgette Dunlap

      I take your point that Anonymous is not a monolith, but I’m arguing it is fair to attribute the actions of individuals to the group because that is the nature of an anonymous leaderless collective with which anyone can associate. There is no one to hold accountable for individual actions and the collective shouldn’t get away with simply distancing themselves from the individuals that very predictably use the power of the larger group to cause harm.

      • colleen2

        It helps to view ‘Anonymous’ as a new and very effective protest method rather than an organization.

        People will always protest injustice and the methods of the previous generation aren’t as effective anymore.

        As long as the ‘justice’ system treats rape and rape victims in the manner they do now then those who have been harmed by rape and those who have seen those they love harmed by rape and rapists will find it necessary to protest that and try to achieve some justice. Some of us have been trying to change the present day manner in which our ‘justice’ system treats rape and rape victims. If you don’t have a problem with the way the current system treats rape and rape victims I can fully understand why you appear to believe that the real damage was caused by speaking the truth.

        • Bridgette Dunlap

          Vigilantes in white masks responding to rape accusations outside the legal system is not a “new and very effective protest method” but a terrible part of U.S. history. (Please see the book synopsis for “Race, Rape, and Lynching” linked in the paragraph for point 1 above.) Anonymous activists haven’t managed to get anyone they’ve doxed hurt yet (so far as I know), but in country with as many guns as we have, how far off can that be?

          I do have a problem with the way our justice system works which is why I spill so many pixels trying to educate nonlawyers about it. The first step to changing a system is understanding how it works.

          It is silly to claim I believe “the real damage was caused by speaking the truth” when I went into detail about false accusations and other misinformation spread by the cybermob.

          • colleen2

            I think it’s overblown to characterize ‘anonymous’ as “vigilantes in white masks” particularly considering the utter failure of the justice system to address the Stubenville rapes or, lets face it, most of the rapes that occur in this nation. I’m always trying to educate lawyers about this failure so perhaps we are at a crossroads here. ‘Vigilante’ more accurately describes the syg laws and guys like George Zimmerman.
            The most effective thing that ‘anonymous’ did was tape those lovely boys drunk and laughing and bragging. I think everyone here understands that the gang rape that took place would never have been prosecuted had Anonymous not had the courage to stand up against such an unjust system and call it what it is. I’m sorry you find that truth “silly”

            So, I repeat, it is helpful to view Anonymous’ as a new and very effective protest method.

          • Bridgette Dunlap

            You are making up your own facts. As I explained in the piece, which I question whether you read, the case would have been prosecuted without Anonymous, but without the attention the victim didn’t want. If you are interested in what actually happened rather than mythology, you should check out Ariel Levy’s extensively reported article in the New Yorker. Jane Doe and her parents were initially reluctant to press charges, but the prosecutor got them to agree and then recommended to the AG they be charged as adults a week later. Despite this, Anonymous sent threats about killing her and raping her kids.

          • Bridgette Dunlap

            (your comment seems to be stuck in moderation maybe because of the link so I’ll reply here)

            The sources in your wiki prove my point. Jane Doe was assaulted
            August 11 and went to the police on August 14. There were arrests a week later. There was a hearing October 12 and prosecutors had tons of digital evidence. Over two months later on December 24, Anonymous activists released their “preliminary dox” and started messing with the case.

            The assertion that the media attention that Jane Doe didn’t
            want had anything to do with the subsequent charges for the attempted cover-up is pure speculation. It’s possible, but it is also possible prosecutors would have brought those cases anyway because (1) they don’t appreciate being lied to, (2) they already had all the evidence, and (3) prosecutors like convictions!

            Unlike Anonymous, it is not fair to treat “the justice system” as a monolith because it is made up of different individuals who do different things for which they can be held at least somewhat accountable because they do their work under their real names. Some prosecutors are good at their jobs and some are not. Some prosecutors are women. Given the statistics, some prosecutors are victims of rape.

            I suspect you were not aware that the prosecutor received threats or that she did her job because you get your information from the mob and didn’t think of her as a person with a story. That story might involve wanting to make the system better, which is the only reason I would take a job as a prosecutor. Cybermobs regularly vilifying and threatening prosecutors and their families on the basis of bad information is the sort of thing that will deter good people from becoming prosecutors when they could take a safer, higher paying job in the private sector.

            Rape victims are also not a monolithic group. Some of them want attention for their cases and some of them do not. Some of them like the prosecutors on their cases and some do not. Some might want to press charges but be deterred by the possibility of their case becoming a national story. Some might want to go to the police but be deterred by the possibility of being forced to testify when she doesn’t want to press charges due to one of the mandatory prosecution laws some feminists advocated for when
            they got on board with “tough on crime” conservatives. Some rape
            victims believe in due process and don’t want their cases usurped by strangers taking it upon themselves to punish the accused. Some victims don’t want a trial or any attention but are forced into it by a parent (see the Geimer article). Some want both a criminal and a civil case, others want only restorative justice.

            The targets and supposed beneficiaries of these white knight ops are real people dealing with different situations. You couldn’t know the details even if you’d read more of the reporting. Acting like all prosecutors are the same and all victims are the same and all assault allegations are the same means we’ll never have enough real information to address specific problems. But doing things like advocating changes to specific state laws or funding for services for victims or better staffed prosecutors’ offices is difficult, tedious, frustrating work. It is so much easier to slander and harass people you don’t know under a fake name.

  • radicalhw

    #4, absolutely,

  • Rebecca Binns

    I am so disappointed in you, RH Reality Check. The actual reality of
    our injustice system is that 97% of rapists don’t go to jail. Rape isn’t
    difficult to prove. The laws need to be adjusted. If someone has no
    memory of sex, that isn’t sufficient consent. If someone has alcohol in
    their system, they are unable to provide consent. If someone has PTSD,
    it had to come from somewhere. This is basic shit. Consent 101. The
    problem isn’t the lack of evidence. It’s the lack of listening. Really,
    what is wrong with you?

    Wrongful conviction in general is a problem, but not when it comes to rape specifically. Most rapes aren’t even reported to start with. A
    man is more likely to win the lottery or become an NFL player than he
    is to be falsely accused of rape. Hell, a man is so much more likely to
    actually be raped than to be falsely accused of rape.

    Yes, Anonymous sucks. Yes, innocent until proven guilty is important.
    Yes, information accuracy is important. But pointing that out shouldn’t
    also come at the expense of furthering rape culture yourselves, and
    rape really isn’t that hard to prove. We need to listen to survivors
    instead of blame and disbelieve them by default.

    What this article is is pussyfooting. Pure and simple.

    • Bridgette Dunlap

      I am explaining the legal system and making an argument about how we should empower ourselves within it without undermining protections for the accused. You may not agree with my argument but why are you disappointed RHRC didn’t silence me?

      It is important for feminists to be in conversation about the unintended consequences of our actions, advocacy, or ignorance. Rape being underreported is not a justification for mobs going after anyone accused. Your claim that rape isn’t difficult to prove is completely unfounded and contradicts your assertion that laws need to be changed. There is probably nothing I can say to you if you really believe a buzzfeed list backs up your assertion that wrongful conviction for rape is not an issue, but I urge you to google “Central Park Five” anyway.

  • JamieHaman

    The best thing the Steubenville case did was to help show the rape culture in this country. Anonymous did most of that. I agree women need the resources to sue civilly.
    Justice may not always require a criminal prosecution, but the simple truth is that a rapist locked up is a rapist who is not raping women. Civil suits won’t stop that. .

    • Bridgette Dunlap

      Jane Doe did not wish to be the poster girl for the fight against rape culture, it
      appears. The suggestion that dragging her case into the spotlight and
      accusing innocent people is okay because other good things came out of
      it is either denying her agency or sacrificing her wishes for what you
      or the white knights think serves the greater cause.

      Sure, maybe some good things came out of the attention that the attacks on Steubenville brought. Maybe we wouldn’t have seen the subsequent prosecutions for withholding evidence without it. But that doesn’t justify Anonymous activists substituting their judgments for those of Jane Doe and intruding on her relationship with the prosecutor.

      As to locking up rapists, they may not be able to rape women, but they can still rape–we have a horrific problem with prison rape in this country. Which brings us me to the question of what imprisonment is meant to accomplish. Traditionally the justifications have been: incapacitation, rehabilitation, deterrence, and retribution. Prisons in the U.S. don’t rehabilitate people, many of the people we have in them are not dangerous enough to need to be incapacitated, and imprisonment is an extremely expensive (and sometimes inhumane) source of retribution. There are many we might improve deterrence, one of them is making sure both potential victims and perpetrators know they have rights and obligations under tort law.

      • JamieHaman

        Jane Doe probably didn’t want to be hauled into the spotlight. Nor do I blame her, nor do I particularly applaud Anonymous for bringing her there. I do applaud the spotlight on rape culture, referring to the Steubenville case. I can’t say anything about the other case, simply because I am not familiar with it.
        We do have a rape problem in this country, in and out of jail. While I sympathize with prisoners who aren’t able to protect themselves from rapists in jail, I have a bit more sympathy for women and girls.
        Was this the best solution? Obviously not. It is however what happened.
        Civil suits simply don’t provide justice for most victims, nor preventative measures for the safety of the rest of the population. While I don’t discount it out of hand, nor do I look for it to actually protect, reduce or solve the incidences of rape.
        Personally, locking someone up for years is absolutely disgusting. It isn’t the form of justice I would choose. Costs a lot of money, and doesn’t seem to be very effective either.
        So, what other options do we have?
        Torture? No thanks.
        Caning, the way China does? Might be better, might not. It sure doesn’t look good.
        Castration for rape? Doesn’t work. The men rape with an implement then. Rape by a penis is bad enough, rape with a knife, pipe, or gun is going to be worse.
        Civil suits. Sounds good on the surface, if you can make the fine or payout big enough. Can we do that? Not a chance. Know why? Because MEN make the laws in this country at this time, and MEN in power don’t take women seriously. Plus, it still leaves rapists free to rape again.
        Tattoos on the forehead of a convicted rapist? I’d want a DNA conviction for that. I’d still want the tattooed guy off the streets.
        The biggest problem that I see that this country (and other countries), has is this: We don’t regard women as nearly as valuable as men. Until we start doing that, there is no justice for raped women.
        There is no justice for women when rape kits are put in storage. No justice when women have their insurance companies, or themselves directly billed for a rape kit.
        Until we all start insisting that men don’t rape, that the victim is not at fault, nothing is going to change by more than an incremental step at a time.
        Until the rape of women is considered a crime so heinous, until it is considered on the same level as the rape of men, any change will come very slowly.
        As long as we quietly handle rape cases, as long as we aren’t treating rape victims, male and female, as real human beings who deserve justice, as long as we aren’t publicizing the whole mess, we are doing our society a disservice, because we have been sweeping the victims and lack of prosecution under the rug. It’s time that stopped.

  • friv 2 friv 3 friv 4

    The best thing the Steubenville case did was to help show the rape
    culture in this country. Anonymous did most of that. I agree women need
    the resources to sue civilly…