Days after a politically connected teen accused of rape walked free without facing any charges in Maryville, Mo., hackers are pondering their own brand of justice.
The two-year-old case stems from a party at which Daisy Coleman, then 14, says she was raped by 17-year-old Matthew Barnett. More serious charges against Barnett—the grandson of a longtime state legislator—were dropped last year, but he pleaded guilty last week to a misdemeanor count of child endangerment for apparently leaving a barely conscious Coleman outside her home in freezing temperatures after the 2012 party. That's where she woke up after the party.
After lengthy torment by the community—which included burning down her house—and Coleman’s reported suicide attempt last week, her mother asked on Facebook for the help of Anonymous, the activist group whose involvement attracted attention to a similar rape case in Steubenville, Ohio.
The mother, Melinda Coleman, appeared to have deleted the Facebook post this week and apologized for sounding ungrateful to Anonymous, which pressured prosecutors to bring charges last year. But the group’s involvement waned, and those charges were never brought.
“I just was so hopeful that information would come out as in Steubenville that would save the case,” Melinda Coleman wrote this week.
Activists appear to be taking the plea seriously. The group added the word “Reopened” to a Facebook page devoted to Daisy’s cause, and participants wrote they were trying to rekindle interest.
“It's not over few people needed a break and we will start again tomorrow [sic],” wrote one person who appeared to be an organizer on Monday.
Anonymous has had less of a role in Maryville than it did in Steubenville. Part of the reason is that prosecutors appeared to be taking the case more seriously than they did in Steubenville, said Gabriella Coleman, a professor at Montreal’s McGill University and an expert on Anonymous and other hackers.
Daisy Coleman’s suicide attempt, her mother’s plea, and Matthew Barnett’s misdemeanor conviction are likely to prod Anonymous back into action, Gabriella Coleman said.
“They tend to react when prompted,” she said, noting that the group has become a go-to resource for publicizing such cases. “Anonymous is a really well-oiled PR machine, so I think people look to them for help.”
But the same social media tools that have helped galvanize activists also appear to have prompted Daisy’s suicide attempt. Her mother told reporters Daisy was harassed on Facebook after attending a party earlier this month.
“Social media is a double-edged sword,” said Fatima Goss Graves, a vice president with the National Women’s Law Center. “In many ways, it has helped survivors find resources and bring awareness. On the other hand, it can be used to harass survivors.”
On Tuesday, Anonymous was using the sword of social media to fight back against Daisy's tormentors, tweeting the name and photo of someone accused of using abusive language to blame Daisy for her rape.