Why Anonymous gravitates to cases like Maryville and Steubenville

The hacktivist group has created a vigilante niche for small-town rape cases

A teenage girl in a small Midwestern town says she was raped by a popular football player while drunk. The act was filmed on a smartphone. When the girl reports it, she and her family are harassed by their neighbors and on social media.

But this isn't Steubenville — it's Maryville.

The Missouri town of 12,000 has been called "Steubenville redux" after Dugan Arnett's investigation in the Kansas City Star revealed a series of events eerily familiar to the notorious rape case. Daisy Coleman, then 14, and her 13-year-old friend (who is not being named) allege they were each raped at a party. Daisy was allegedly raped by Matthew Barnett, a then-17-year-old football player whose grandfather is also a popular state representative. Another party-goer, Jordan Zech, 17, allegedly videotaped part of the act on an iPhone.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Maryville and Steubenville is that the former may actually be worse. Daisy was found on her lawn the next day in just a sweatshirt and t-shirt, having been abandoned on a 22-degree night without even her shoes. Following reporting the rape, Daisy was thrown off the cheerleading squad, while her mother, Melinda, lost her job. And after fleeing their town, their old house, which was still on the market, mysteriously burned down.

Those disturbing details aside, the similarities between the two cases are striking, not least of which is the reason they received national attention: Anonymous, the online hacktivist group.

Two days after Arnett's report, Anonymous released a statement "demanding an immediate investigation into the handling by local authorities of Daisy's case." The group has embraced a vigilante role, just as it did in Steubenville, claiming with the Ohio case that it would "not sit idly by and watch a group of young men who turn to rape as a game or sport get the pass."

Anonymous' press release on Maryville highlighted some of the more graphic details absent in most mainstream reports, including the hospital statement that Daisy was found to have "three tears inside her body, two to four inches in length." It also makes some significant insinuations that the Barnett family is involved in a cover-up, asking, "What is the connection of these prosecutors, if any, to Rep. Rex Barnett?"

Anonymous has become an unusually familiar face in small-town cases of rape and harassment of teenage girls. The group gravitates to cases that almost exclusively feature rape accusations in relatively small American and Canadian towns.

Anonymous acknowledges this pattern, citing in its press release the cases of Rehtaeh Parson of Halifax and Amanda Todd of Port Coquitlam in Canada, girls who both committed suicide after cyber-bullying. Parson's bullying resulted after she said she was raped and photographed by other teenagers. Anonymous says that in these cases "the adults, the police, and the school system failed to protect them," requiring Anonymous to step in.

But why exactly has Anonymous decided to wreak its style of havoc on these small towns is unclear. Rarely if ever are major urban metropolises a target, though it is hard to imagine that these types of disturbing incidents don't also occur in Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles.

It may be that the group fits so neatly into the role of hero when it comes to towns we are quick to brush off as close-minded and jock-focused. As Ariel Levy at the New Yorker wrote of Steubenville:

The story they produced felt archetypally right. The "hacktivists" of Anonymous were modern-day Peter Parkers...Teenage boys who play football in Steubenville — among many other places — are aggrandized and often do end up with a thuggish sense of entitlement. [New Yorker]

In other words, these towns fit a stereotypical model that make them easy targets not only for Anoymous, but for the American public at large.

Unfortunately, the parade of online attention for Steubenville produced a series of stories about how a "town, desperate to protect its young princes, contrived to cover up the crime" — which just wasn't accurate, wrote Levy.

Also, when Anonymous did intervene in the Amanda Todd case in 2012, the group outed the wrong guy, which shows just some of the risks of the group's vigilante behavior.

However, despite these errors, it's easy to understand the allure for Anonymous to get involved with these small-town cases. When people turn to Twitter to say they hope Daisy "gets whats comin" or to comment on a photo of the Steubenville victim that "whores are hilarious," it's no wonder Anonymous wants to take quick revenge via the social media domains it knows so well.

And of course, those kinds of blood-boiling comments are why we cheer Anonymous along, too.

As with most forms of vigilantism, though, how much good is accomplished remains in question. More attention may be paid, but it is no guarantee for trials or justice or change.


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