Making Sense of the Media
2:54 pm
Mon March 18, 2013

Social Media Lessons from the Steubenville Rape Case

Credit Facebook

Guilty verdicts March 17 in the rape trial case of two Steubenville, Ohio football players proved, again, how strong a role social media played in this case.

And, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense Making Project" said it is just the beginning of this new age of social media power.

The two young men may not have been charged at all had they not, themselves, posted incriminating photos of the victim on the internet.

And, when news of the case hit social media, it went viral, making this local crime case a national story.

Accusations flew across "Facebook" and "Twitter" that the small community had tried to protect the football players.

Meanwhile, members of the community claimed the accused were being tried and convicted -- on social media.

Even after the verdict, comments by some reporters -- focusing on the ruined lives of the young men and not on the victim -- kicked up another social media firestorm.

McBride said this is just a sign of the times.

"I actually don't really find it all that disturbing. Obviously, rape is disturbing. But, teens use social media and they use cell phone technology in a very different way than adults do. Even though 93 percent of teenagers have access to the internet in their homes, many of them prefer to use cell phones as their primary way to get on the internet. And they do things differently than adults. They take a lot more photos and document their lives, which is why this case came to the attention of law enforcement in Steubenville."

Should parents be trying to teach their kids that there are limits to sharing their lives on the internet?

"Sure," said McBride. But she added,  it is almost impossible to keep up with teenagers using social media.

"Our teenagers are always going to be ahead of the curve on this," McBride explained. "Teenagers are spending less time on Facebook primarily because parents and their teachers are on Facebook. So they are moving to Twitter and to Instagram because those are places where most 40 or 50-year-old parents aren't necessarily present."

McBride admitted that the social media coverage of the Steubenville rape case -- with people openly advocating a position instead of simply reporting -- is fundamentally different from traditional reportage.

"It's a lot different," said McBride. "When I go on to Twitter or Facebook and I talk about a case like this, a lot of the people that I'm talking to don't have the same inhibitions I might have as a journalist to not convict these boys before a jury convicts them. So they are much more likely to share their opinions and those opinions become the predominant way we have these conversations in a social media setting."