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Exclusive: Meet the Woman Who Kicked Off Anonymous' Anti-Rape Operations

Since Steubenville, the hacktivist collective has found an ethically dicey new role: seeking justice for rape victims.

| Mon May 13, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

New Year's Day came and went, and KnightSec—at the victim's request, according to MC—refrained from publishing the players' private information. But KnightSec had reached out quietly to witnesses, and on January 2, its members released a different kind of bombshell: a video of Steubenville High graduate and Ohio State University student Michael Nodianos at a party on the night of the rape, laughing hysterically as he joked repeatedly about the victim being "dead" and getting peed on. "They raped her harder than that cop [actually a pawnshop owner] raped Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction," he guffawed. "She is so raped right now," he said at one point.

The video went viral, and the next Occupy Steubenville rally drew 2,000 people to the courthouse steps. Because MC brought the sound system, he ended up serving as the de facto master of ceremonies (which is how he ended up with his Twitter handle). As he played excerpts of the Nodianos video over the loudspeakers, he told me, people in the crowd grew so angry that he started to worry that they would riot.

When the Steubenville sheriff showed up, MC invited him up and grilled him about the case. In the end, he diffused the tension by giving the cop a hug. "I'm going to take this negative energy and turn it into a positive thing," he remembers thinking. "You've got to let the crowd vent."

Anonymous hugs sheriff in Steubenville.
MC gives the sheriff a hug. Courtesy MC, Anonymous

And vent they did. For four hours, there was a catharsis of personal pain and grief that nobody in the small town could have imagined. Women who had been raped stood in front of the crowd, clad in Guy Fawkes masks, to share their stories. Some of them unmasked at the end of their testimonies as they burst into tears. Rapes at parties, date rapes, rapes by friends and relatives—their pent-up secrets came pouring out. "It turned into this women's liberation movement, in a way," MC recalls. "And it just changed everything. There was nothing anybody could do against us at that point because it was so real and so true."

Here are a few excerpts, recorded through the sound system:

In the wake of the Nodianos video and subsequent rally, Anonymous was besieged by people wanting to join, many of them women. Yet the events also triggered cyberthreats against the sheriff and the implicated students. A mother of one football player ranted, during a Dr. Phil taping, that some of the kids were too terrified to go to school, and were sitting "in a corner…puking, peeing in their pants."

In March, a judge sentenced Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays to a minimum of a year in a youth correctional facility for raping the girl, and Mays was given an additional year sentence for disseminating nude photos of a minor. The next month, #OPRollRedRoll held its ninth rally, this time outside the building where a grand jury was being assembled to look into who else may have known about the rape and not come forward. A week later, police executed search warrants on Steubenville High School and the offices of the Steubenville school board.

"I'm glad that [the Anonymous op in Steubenville] happened, but I'm not convinced that all of the people who were implicated were guilty."

Like many of Anonymous' actions, the anti-rape ops have been intimidating to their targets and fascinating to the press due in part to their unpredictability. One moment, they might come off like something organized by a mainstream group like Take Back the Night. The next, like a virtual lynch mob of impulsive twentysomethings.

"What kind of [self]-respect do you got, to go bang an unconscious chick? What, you couldn't find one awake? Dude, she was out cold!" says MC, who works as a roadie for a sound production company.

Vigilante-style online activism "is still very much uncharted territory," says Tim King, a visiting professor at the University of California-Berkeley who studies cyberbullying. "This power can be used for justice and doing what most people view as the right thing, but it can also very quickly turn into a witch trial. It really depends on who is wielding the power and how responsible and cautious they are with it."

While the Steubenville operation inspired other Anons to launch #OPJustice4Rehteah, it also served as a cautionary tale. "One of the reasons I wanted to get involved to begin with was that I didn't really like the way that the stuff in Steubenville was handled at all times," says the Canadian op's secretive spokesman and ringleader, whom I'll call Fawkes. "I'm glad that it happened, but I'm not convinced that all of the people who were implicated were guilty. I wanted the chance to work on an operation like this and have it go in a different direction."

KnightSec, says Roseanne Barr, "has evolved into something that I think is like Batman…They're just challenging the people in power to do the right thing."

For one, the Anons involved in the Parsons case have not publicized the names of the accused rapists. "We're not trying to inflict any punishment," Fawkes says. "We just want the police to do their job." (On April 12, the Mounties reopened their investigation, saying that a person had come forward with new information.)

Fawkes believes that it was a lack of cybersleuthing skills, not a lack of interest, that led the police to quit pursuing the case in the first place. "The reason that this is necessary and will continue to be necessary is mainly because the police don't know how to do that type of work," he says. "There's not going to be any justice available through law enforcement, so the public is going to turn to whomever it can."

"It has evolved into something that I think is like Batman," says comedian Roseanne Barr, who began publicizing the Steubenville rape in December at the urging of KnightSec. "Batman goes to City Hall and he challenges the people in charge to do the right thing, and then he flies away in his Batmobile. That's kind of what they are. They're just challenging the people in power to do the right thing."

An Anonymous rally in Steubenville acmacom

McGill University anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, a leading expert on Anonymous, argues that the group's impact has less to do with its hacking or crime-fighting chops than its evolution into a broad-based, PR-savvy group of activists and citizen journalists. "One of the elements that they exploit is the fact that there is all this data and information out there," she says. "So who is willing to find it and package it in a compelling way? That is what they are good at."

"We didn't have to do it as Anonymous," Fawkes admits, "but because we did, we were able to stir up so much support. We didn't use Anonymous to commit a crime and then hide our identity; we used it as a tool to cause a media and internet uproar."

So will going after rapists become a staple for Anonymous? After all, as Coleman told me, "It's often accidental as to why they turn their attention to one thing versus another."

But the activists behind #OPRollRedRoll and #OpJustice4Rehteah say they envision new Anonymous subgroups that would tackle multiple rape cases at the same time. There's also talk of launching coordinated anti-rape protests in multiple cities, Occupy Wall Street-style.

"I think there's going to be a lot more of this happening," Fawkes says. "How can you say no? If this mom comes to you and says, 'My kid was raped and the police won't help me and I know who did it,' what are you supposed to do?"

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