We were all shocked, but not shocked at the same time. We’ve known this kind of thing has been happening for centuries. Girl raped, girl blamed. Nothing seems to protect her. Women from lower classes of society, from parts of society without easy access to police prioritization, had their pain dismissed. The young men involved just called it sex, or “training.”
Such attitudes had long roots. In the early days of serial killers, the new interstate highway system allowed easy and fast access from one area of the country to another. It provided a pathway for people to act on homicidal thoughts with reasonable ideas of escape. And they were right – at least for a decade or two. A young woman from a lower or even middle-class family who disappeared was dismissed as a runaway and deemed unworthy of investigation.
My husband and I used to play a game we called “The Forensic Files.” We would lounge around and narrate our environment like it was an episode of that show. In ominous tones, we’d observe that our dog wanted a treat on this fine, sunny day in Charlotte, North Carolina. A car pulled into a parking space in front of our apartment. A man got out, holding a cat in a carrier. He forgot to lock his car door. He entered the apartment building. We heard his steps on the staircase. But wait! A maintenance worker drove by on a lawn mower….
While amusing, our little game disguised an evil fact: The number one hobby of American women is Not Getting Murdered. Also known as true crime. It did not begin with social media, but social media gave power to its fans.
When the old law enforcement methodologies were revealed to be structurally flawed, adaptations were made. The system improved – somewhat. However, if you didn’t leave a dead body behind, much of the same old attitudes remained in the general public. The woman was not believed.
If they have a background in law enforcement, even young women will tell you that half of all rape allegations are fabricated.
“What’s that based on?” asked Justin, my husband.
“Nothing,” I told him. “It’s just considered common wisdom for cops.”
“That’s unbelievable,” he responded.
Alexandria Goddard, a true-crime blogger who grew up in Steubenville, Ohio saw a small article in the local paper there about a kidnapping and rape. She used social media to find information about the football team, and found lots of photos and videos about the rape. As reported:
What she found deeply disturbed her: photos, videos and posts mocking the victim and the assault.
"Within a few hours, it was pretty obvious I had a pretty good outline of the things that had gone on that night. ... It got uglier as the night went along, as to how many people knew what was happening and how many people didn't do anything to stop it," Goddard added.
After that, Anonymous, the nameless and faceless defenders of cats, found and published a 12-minute video of the Steubenville rape victim being mocked by boys on the football team openly referencing her rape.
This bald expression of presumption and privilege enraged women. In “Roll Red Roll,” a documentary about the crime, women who had been raped spoke into a microphone in center Steubenville about their sexual assault experiences to a thousand people. It was powerful. It was game-changing. And quite a shock to locals. The small-town power dynamics were no longer relevant. Power had shifted, and small town eyes stared at you with dull surprise in interviews with the documentarian. I have to admit that part was satisfying.
For the first time, national attention was brought to small town crimes that didn’t require a national media outlet as gatekeeper. These days, it might be easy to accept that a million YouTubers will show up on your doorstep demanding to know if you helped your son cover up the murder of his girlfriend. Believe me, it’s a new thing.
The white-hot spotlight of national attention came with power. The power of your attention could enact change. It could right the ship. It could remedy a wrong. It was thousands of eyes, looking. Just like The Observer Effect in quantum physics, the mere fact of observation changed reality. And by looking, you are a part of that change. Finally, you have some power.
The murder of a high school student led to the wrongful conviction of Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, who spent 23 years in prison. The podcast Serial brought international attention to the case and its problems: prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense counsel, and unreliable evidence.
The exposure and public pressure led the state’s attorney for Baltimore City to decide to recommend that Mr. Syed’s conviction be vacated.
Who reading thinks that would have happened without public pressure?
The millions of people who listened to the story gave power to efforts to reexamine the case. By consuming the content, we listeners brought our power into the situation. The old power dynamics were upset, such that prosecutors had to admit their errors when previously they could easily hide evidence and ignore other suspects without worry.
Shanquella Robinson was a successful businesswoman who went on vacation in Mexico with people she thought of as friends. They killed her.
Shanquella Robinson's fellow vacationers - and murderers - told her family she died of alcohol poisoning. A doctor at the scene, widely believed to have been bribed, listed that as Shanquella‘s cause of death.
The Robinson family didn’t believe it after seeing the condition of her body, and demanded answers. Then, an Instagram account Neighborhood Talk posted a video of her beating.
The justice in Shanquella Robinson’s homicide case still hasn’t arrived, although Mexican prosecutors have an arrest warrant for the woman seen attacking her in the video. They are also seeking warrants for the other people present.
If a social media influencer had not seen the video and recognized it as being related to Shanquella Robinson's death, her friends would have never been suspected. Her violent death would have been waived away as an unfortunate accident with no accountability for her traveling companions.
Now there is a basis for demanding an investigation: a video of a naked Shanquella being beaten by someone she went on a vacation with. More than that, so many people are aware that her murder cannot be ignored.
The true crime genre isn’t about prurient interest. It’s about fear and power. Fear that we may be murdered, and the power to see that justice is done. As we watch, we want to participate in a solution. Social media breaks the logjam of the mainstream media and allows anyone to ask for justice. It also upsets the local power structure that decides whose death or imprisonment is important, and whose isn’t.
The down side is the opportunists that exploit grief and fear for attention. It’s up to us to be discerning.