Reflections from Steubenville: The role of social media in prevention

As we watch the trial happenings in Steubenville, Ohio this week, I’m stuck on the role that social media played in this case. It’s disturbing to think that several bystanders elected to post jokes and videos, in real time, as the events of August 11 took place. While disturbing, it may not be surprising. Findings from a recent study out of Australia explored the intersections of emerging technologies with sexual violence. Major themes from the study indicated that there is a very real blurring in the lives of tech users between what happens online and what happens in real life.

Instead of focusing on the gross failures of tech savvy bystanders in this case, I’d like to present some ideas about how social media can be harnessed for prevention. Please note that I’m not just talking about ways that organizations can use social media, these are practical things that we as individuals operating in on- and off-line worlds can do.

Before violence: Social media users have the amazing power to prevent violence from happening in the first place right from their phones and computers. Media is no longer a one-way street, thanks the easy to use cameras and editing apps available for free from your phone. Everyday people have the power to create their own media, including social media, which raise critical questions and commentary. We’re talking critical media literacy on hyper drive here, folks. Create the media and messages that you want to see in the world. Talk back to the mainstream and to harmful social norms by being the social messenger of change. Challenge the status quo, the rape culture, and the many nuances of oppression that exist in our world. Disrupt racist Facebook posts with a “that’s not cool” comment. Tweet back at companies that push sexualized imagery in an effort to sell a product (#NotBuyingIt). So little time, so much to post! Better get started, friends!

During violence: First of all, keep in mind that sexual violence occurs along a continuum of actions and behaviors. Some of them are normalized, like rape jokes, sexual harassment or “slut shaming” (read: victim blaming). Some of these actions and behaviors are clearly violent, coercive, or abusive. I love social media-based efforts like Hollaback’s “I’ve Got Your Back” campaign that allows people, in real time, to document and call out violence and street harassment. I wish that on that August night in Steubenville one of the tweet-standers had said something like, “You’re committing a crime, I’m recording it, and it is being reported right now.” Social media can help provide the safety and distance needed to be a bystander, even if it doesn’t feel safe to physically intervene.

After violence: Holy-hold-systems-accountable, Batman! You, yes you, have the very real, very public, very vocal power to call out systematic failures in responding to and preventing sexual violence. Tweet your thoughts to local, state, and national leaders. Call in reinforcements by outreaching to bigger advocacy organizations to help take up your cause through social media. For goodness sake, start a trending hashtag (*major social media accomplishment*)!

In my humble, pro-techie opinion, I think there are a lot of ways to use social media for good. Practice being the bad-ass, intervening bystander you want to be on the streets. Gather support and community around your worthy cause. Join us in the social media revolution. We’re ending sexual violence online and in the real world today. #WhatAreYouDoing?