When Anonymous Focused Its Digital Wrath on the Steubenville Rape Case
Nancy Schwartzman and Nora Zelevansky on "Justice Ops" and Online Vigilantes
“Greetings, citizens of the world!” A ghoulish figure peered through the portal of the internet, his computer-generated voice stilted and uninflected. He wore a black-and-white mask frozen in a sardonic grin, eyebrows raised. “We are Anonymous,” he boomed, a specter beaming in from YouTube.
Around mid-August 2012, a party took place in a small town in Ohio known as Steubenville. On this fateful night, a life was changed forever as a group of the football players of Big Red high school began taking advantage of an underage girl. The girl was sexually assaulted, raped, and dragged unconscious from party to party. The town of Steubenville has been keeping this quiet and their star football team protected. You can hide no longer. You now have the world looking directly at you. #OpRollRedRoll engaged.
On Christmas Eve morning 2012, the residents of Steubenville, still reeling from the New York Times cover story the week before, woke to yet another unwelcome surprise: a video had been uploaded by the leaderless hacker collective Anonymous to the Steubenville booster club website, RollRedRoll.com. (It had been “hacked” into, some would laugh, by guessing the password: RollRedRoll.)
In the virtual proclamation, a masked vigilante threatened exposure—a “dox,” or the dissemination of personal information—of anyone involved with the rape who didn’t come forward, confess, and apologize for their role. With this threat of released social security information, phone numbers, addresses, incriminating photos, and maybe more, the town was forced to reckon with this more sinister and alien element. The rape case was having an uncontainable ripple effect, spreading far beyond the borders of Steubenville—and even Ohio.The rape case was having an uncontainable ripple effect, spreading far beyond the borders of Steubenville—and even Ohio.
“I knew a rape had happened over the summer,” remembered former rival athlete Brendon Sadler, who was a family friend of Jane Doe’s and knew she’d been the victim. He was just a few years older, white, athletic, with piercing blue eyes and dark hair tucked into a grubby Nike hat. He slumped on a well-loved couch. “It kind of got swept under the rug. Like nobody would talk about it for a while. And then, all of a sudden, some guy comes on, he’s not even from the area, and he’s like, ‘I’m coming for you.’” Brendon marveled at the audacity of this entity who took action publicly in the name of the underdog. The man behind the mask seemed like a modern-day Robin Hood, swooping in and fighting injustice. She was passed out; it’s not okay—this is wrong, Brendon remembered thinking. “As soon as Anonymous posted the video, I was like, ‘I want to help.’” Brendon had long been incensed by the Big Red players’ sense of entitlement and bullying, and liked the idea of them getting their due, but he was also titillated by this notion of futuristic vigilantes. Anonymous just seemed cool.
“No one in Steubenville talked about [the case] much until Anonymous hit,” remembered former Big Red football player Jeno Atkins, who was an incoming senior when Jane Doe was raped and was friends and teammates with the teenagers involved. The grown-ups may have been up in arms for one side or the other, but at least some portion of Big Red’s student body was already consumed with other concerns—grades, crushes, games, movies, holidays—until the auto-tuned crusaders came on the scene.
“I don’t think anything like this had happened in town before,” said Sandra Lyons, a rape crisis counselor for the county, based in neighboring Weirton. Many people didn’t know what to think. On top of everything else, for the older generation only beginning to get a handle on social media platforms like Facebook, it was a culture clash. Most locals didn’t understand concepts like hacking or doxing or even how the Anonymous video had invaded the Roll Red Roll website. The last thing many residents wanted was to call more attention to this case.
“It’s hard to get anyone in this area to discuss rape,” added one local woman, who was initially nervous to be interviewed for my film, but was emboldened by Anonymous’s outspoken stance. Once she began talking, she delivered her message with confidence, her straight strawberry blond hair tied half-up, baring her resolute expression. “And if they do, it’s kind of a little bit and then, ‘I’ve had enough. Let’s put this subject away and move onto something else. I’ve had enough.’”It was as if “the internet,” this amorphous entity, was threatening to descend on their town.
While I was in Steubenville on various visits, I interviewed women, many in their fifties, who had been silenced or ignored when they tried to report their assaults in town. This is the very foundation of rape culture and what allows it to fester in so many environments. The silence turns survivors into second-class citizens, always forced to watch their backs and their mouths, retraumatized every time they happen to run into their attackers at the local grocery store or on the street. Like many places, this community didn’t understand that doing nothing and saying nothing was the crux of the problem, and wouldn’t make the scourge of sexual violence go away.
“I don’t think anyone really knew who Anonymous was,” recalled Chief McCafferty from behind his desk. “There’s never been a case like this in Steubenville.” Rigaud and his team were tying up loose ends of the investigation before the trial, sorting through data from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), while the chief found himself juggling the fallout in town. The police department had even created a web page called “Steubenville Facts” to help disseminate correct information about their discoveries and the case.
Anonymous seemed to cast doubt on local law enforcement and insinuate that there was a cover-up by authorities. To some, especially the more analog locals, the message from the masked man felt not only threatening but also like a harbinger from the future. It was as if “the internet,” this amorphous entity, was threatening to descend on their town.
The ominous cloak-and-dagger theatrics were no accident. Dramatic flair is a hallmark of Anonymous, which describes itself as “nothing more than an idea that can be appropriated for a common cause.” The element of performance is a device to get the public’s attention. As David Kushner reported for Rolling Stone in his November 2013 article, “Anonymous vs. Steubenville,” which inspired actor Brad Pitt’s film production company to option the story and Kushner to publish a 2020 book, A For Anonymous, “Anonymous is a purposefully chaotic and leaderless collective. Anyone can proclaim themselves a member or declare an ‘operation’ against a target. But getting others to give a shit is another story.”
In this case, though the man in the video commanded authority as if in a veteran leadership position, he had only joined the ranks that summer after watching We Are Legion, a documentary about Anonymous by Brian Knappenberger. According to Kushner’s article, for Deric Lostutter, a computer programmer in Kentucky who spent his childhood being bullied and witnessing domestic violence in his own home, the chance to play the vigilante role and take down the establishment was instantly enticing. All you needed to join was a plastic Guy Fawkes mask with raised eyebrows and an anchor goatee to mimic the seventeenth-century British rebel, available on sites like Amazon or Party City.
Adopting the moniker KYAnonymous, Lostutter began scrolling for relevant causes online. He started with an operation he dubbed OpEducation, releasing the contact information of Clark County, Kentucky, school board members. He charged them with mishandling funds and putting monetary gain above the needs of children. Once he posted, he was rewarded with additional material as people forwarded him internal emails, expense reports, and more evidence. Posting that information on Twitter earned him a temporary suspension from the site. But, as David Kushner reported, eventually the Clark County superintendent retired after being “under fire from a citizen’s group,” and Lostutter saw that his vigilante work could have an impact.
After that, he successfully targeted the owner of a revenge porn site, as well as hate group Westboro Baptist Church, who planned to protest a vigil for the children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. According to Kushner, for #OPWestboro, KYAnonymous recorded a YouTube manifesto over a video of ominous storm clouds, railing against the church’s “hatred.”
Though some Anonymous members complained that he was taking on too much, the collective ultimately backed him, doxing the church’s members and taking down their website. Lostutter also successfully organized a counter rally, Occupy Newtown, “soliciting the help of plainclothes cops, as well as Hell’s Angels, to form a human wall around the funeral.” That won him attention, both good and bad, from some of his Anonymous predecessors and a reputation for establishing a new category of Anonymous acts—“Justice Ops.”
More than one element made the Steubenville op feel different from others. “The hacker wasn’t some European guy in a black turtleneck in a room,” said David Kushner. “He was a turkey hunter in the middle of Kentucky. Anonymous as a sprawling international group had been making the news with their mass protests against Scientology, but Steubenville was different because here was this guy getting in the middle of this small-town ‘cover-up’ and terrible tragedy. He was like the masked avenger, riding his horse into this small Ohio town to help this individual girl. It was smaller, more personal. Like him or hate him…he managed to do something good.”
Excerpted from Roll Red Roll: Rape, Power, and Football in the American Heartland by Nancy Schwartzman with Nora Zelevansky. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.