A rape victim tells her story at an Anonymous rally in Steubenville, Ohio.Courtesy MC
Two years ago, Rehtaeh Parsons told her mother that four boys had gang-raped her while she was drunk on vodka at a house party. A photo of the 15-year-old throwing up during the alleged assault blew up on social media, and soon Parsons' classmates and peers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were texting her invitations to have sex with them and calling her a "stupid slut."
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police eventually abandoned her rape case, claiming a lack of evidence, and Parsons, who had been a straight-A student, dropped out of school and struggled with depression. Then, last month, she hanged herself in a bathroom.
Instances of teenage girls being sexually assaulted and cyberbullied are so common that they rarely make the news. In the Parsons case, people started paying attention not because the episode was particularly egregious (it was), but because it sparked a new vigilante campaign by Anonymous, the global hacktivist collective.
"I think that you can say without a doubt that it was a rape," says a spokesman for the small group of Anons who coalesced around the Twitter hashtag #OpJustice4Rehtaeh last month. It only took the group about two hours, he says, to track down the photo of the alleged rape and identify the boys involved. Now the group is threatening to name them publicly if the Canadian authorities fail to bring them to justice.
Though Anonymous is best known for targeting corporate websites, pwning religious extremists, and championing Occupy Wall Street, members of the loose-knit group have more recently branched out to go after rapists. In Steubenville, Ohio, last year, the group was instrumental in highlighting the alleged complicity of members of a local high school football team in the rape of 16-year-old girl by two of their teammates and turning it into a national story.
Targeting rapists and their enablers isn't necessarily something one might expect from Anonymous, which springs from an online geek culture long on the Y chromosome. Just a few years ago, the group existed almost entirely on 4Chan, a no-holds-barred internet chat room where rape would be more likely to come up in a punch line—if not an insult involving someone's mother. Even now, only about a third of the followers of the largest Anonymous Twitter account, Your Anon News, are women, according to someone who helps run the account.
The demographic is "guys sitting around playing Worlds of Warcraft and drinking beers" or "out on the streets where there's riots and kettles," says MC (@Master_Of_Ceremonies), a spokesman for the Anonymous effort in Steubenville. "It's just kind of more of a guy-mentality thing."
An Instagram photo posted on the night of the rape. The two boys were later convicted.
Or it was, at least, until the group's anti-rape ops kicked in.
Until now, the story of how Anonymous got involved in the Steubenville case has never been told in full. The group's interest was sparked by Michelle McKee, a 50-year-old* victim of childhood sexual abuse who says she more recently was nearly driven to suicide by a vicious internet troll.
McKee, who lives in Washington state, is friends with Alexandria Goddard, an Ohio blogger whose reporting on the case drew a defamation lawsuit by the family of Steubenville High School football player Cody Saltsman. (The case was ultimately dismissed.)
By then, police had arrested and charged two of Saltsman's teammates with raping a passed-out girl at a drunken house party. Social media was awash with evidence that other team members had not simply failed to stop the assault, they had callously belittled the victim. Saltsman, for one, allegedly posted the Instagram photo at right showing the accused rapists lugging the unconscious girl by her hands and feet. He tweeted:
Michael Nodianos, another reveler who'd heard about the incident, chimed in:
Disgusted by the rape and the lack of outcry in its aftermath, McKee spent weeks calling and emailing national journalists, urging them to write about the assault and the lawsuit against her blogger friend, who had hammered away at the football team and the community for their silence.
"Once it became an Anonymous op, it was no longer in my control. It was kind of like being a baton runner."
After striking out, McKee eventually stumbled upon #OpAntiBully, an Anonymous subgroup that goes after cyberbullies. Members of the operation had recently orchestrated a dramatic takedown of a clan of high school Twitter trolls who'd urged a suicidal 15-year-old to cut herself and drink bleach. McKee was deeply impressed. "People from Anonymous came and kicked their ass," she recalls, speaking out about her involvement for the first time. "And I'm thinking, this is what [the rape victim] needs."
So McKee nervously reached out to the Anons on Twitter. "I thought they would either get involved or get pissed, and my online life is over," she told me. But where she expected a bunch of impetuous hackers, she instead encountered people who were willing to listen and to trust her—especially after she shared her own stories of being bullied and abused.
On December 10, she became the first second person to blast out the now-famous Twitter hashtag #OpRollRedRoll, a reference to Steubenville High's beloved Big Red football team and its fansite, RollRedRoll.com (Update: McKee says the first tweet of the hashtag was from @KYAnonymous but isn't visible because his account is suspended):
"Once it became an Anonymous op," McKee says, "it was no longer in my control. It was kind of like being a baton runner and handing it off to the next person."
About two weeks later, the Anonymous subgroup KnightSec hacked RollRedRoll.com. The hackers posted the incriminating tweets, Saltsman’s Instagram photo, and the names of 11 bystanders. "This is a warning shot," said a video communiqué featuring a computer-generated voice and the group's trademark Guy Fawkes figure. The video (watch below) warned that KnightSec would release the phone numbers and Social Security numbers of the entire football team unless "all accused parties come forward by New Year's Day and issue a public apology to the girl and her family."
In a town where being a starting varsity football player is tantamount to royalty, the hack and the threat didn't win Anonymous many friends. Moreover, KnightSec had wrongly named one player who wasn't at the party (it later retracted his name), adding to a perception that it was engaged in a witch hunt. When KnightSec called for an "Occupy Steubenville" rally on the courthouse steps in late December, the turnout wasn't all that impressive, MC told me. But that would soon change.
*Correction: The original version of this article had McKee's age wrong.