Social justice advocates are beginning to view sites like Instagram and Youtube as double-edged swords, acting not only as important tools for change, but also as attackers’ go-to choice for humiliating their victims.
Last week, a group of tormentors in Bay Village, Ohio doused an autistic teenage boy—whose name is being withheld—with a bucket of human feces, urine, saliva, and cigarette butts. Mocking the popular ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, in which participants soak themselves with water and ice to pledge their support to the ALS Foundation, the tormentors posted video evidence of their crime to Instagram.
The perpetrators, who have been identified, used the boy’s own cell phone to film the crime, and it wasn’t until the boy’s mother found the video on her son’s phone that the issue was brought to light. The family involved the Bay Village police, who said in a public statement on Facebook that the department is “working closely with the Bay Schools, analyzing the device used to record the video, interviewing witnesses, determining exactly where and when this occurred and identifying those involved.”
The Bay Village community immediately embraced the boy and his family, organizing vigils and fundraisers to support the victim and raise awareness about autism. Clint Keener, superintendent of Bay Village Schools, wrote a letter to parents stating that the school will take disciplinary action against the suspected students involved, and that he would like the teen to know his community cares about him. “We also expect that our student body will, as they always do, use this event as an opportunity to show that the greatest antidote to this type of cruelty and ignorance is the kindness and caring that they demonstrate time and again, each and every school year,” Keener wrote.
It wasn’t until a few celebrities tweeted about the crime, though, that the incident went viral. Actor and comedian Drew Carey was the first to dive in: “WTF? Just saw this. Horrendous. These kids should be arrested and expelled,” he tweeted on Saturday. He followed-up shortly after, adding, “If the Bay Village PD wants to start a reward fund to find who did this, contact me. I’ll donate $10k.”
Actress Jenny McCarthy followed suit the next day, tweeting, “I’m joining Drew Carey’s 10k reward to Find Perpetrators Behind Horrible ALS Bucket Prank. Now it’s 20k! #Justice.”
Both Carey and McCarthy have personal ties to the case; Carey grew up near Bay Village in Cleveland, which served as the setting for “The Drew Carey Show,” while McCarthy’s 11-year-old son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
In the case of this Ohio teen, social media was both complicit in the hate crime against him, as well as instrumental in seeking justice. “Historically, social media has been an enormous boom for the disability rights movement,” says Lydia Brown, a leading activist and blogger on the autism spectrum. ”It’s allowed us to communicate with each other, which for many reasons was not possible prior,” citing both financial reasons and a lack of accessibility for people with disabilities in public.
In 2011, activists like Brown used social media to call for justice in the case of Christopher Baker, an autistic boy who was 11 at the time, who disobeyed his teacher by throwing a ball across the room during class. For punishment, the teacher placed Christopher into a large duffle bag, zipped it tight and left it in the hallway outside the classroom. The school called Christopher’s mother Sandra to come get her son for his misbehavior. When she arrived, she watched with horror as her son’s teacher struggled to unzip the bag, finally freeing a sweaty, traumatized boy. After the incident, Brown crafted a petition calling for the Kentucky teacher’s immediate dismissal, who claimed that the bag was “therapy” for Christopher. Mobilizing legions of online activists and supporters, Brown’s petition gathered 207,000 signatures and drew international attention to Christopher’s case.
In another highly disturbing case, social media served to reveal the massive prejudice and hatred that our society harbors toward people with disabilities. In 2006, a group of teenage boys in Victoria, Australia, posted video footage to Youtube of them raping a young girl with developmental delay, setting her on fire and urinating on her repeatedly. The footage, which was part of a homemade DVD the boys called “Cunt: The Movie,” got thousands of hits on Youtube before the site finally pulled it. None of the boys served time in jail, simply receiving a slap on the wrist and made to attend a rehabilitation program that emphasized positive sexual practices.
“As heart wrenching and devastating as it is, it’s unfortunately reflective of a much broader problem,” Brown says. “You can give someone as much cultural sensitivity or disability training as you like, but if they’re deciding to harm people, they’re still going to go ahead and harm people.”
Most recently, a group of teens in New Castle County, Delaware, took multiple cell phone videos of their attack on a 26-year-old man with William’s syndrome, which causes developmental delay. The videos show the young people repeatedly stomping on the man’s head, punching him relentlessly, and ignoring the victim’s pleas to stop. The videos somehow made their way to Instagram, where they garnered thousands of views.
In an ironic twist of fate, however, the attackers suddenly found themselves victims of cyber harassment, with disgusted real-life acquaintances posting the teens’ names and phone numbers to the Internet as punishment. Several Instagram users also reported the incidents to the local police department, which now has at least some of the attackers in custody.
While activists like Brown acknowledge social media’s potential to combat hate crime, they all agree it’s not enough. As Brown tells The Daily Beast, “If you don’t teach that disabled people are people, if you don’t teach the history of the disability rights movement, if you don’t teach that disability is part of diversity, then you perpetuate the invisibility of the disabled experience.”
Therein, though, lies the true power of social media: the injustices that used to be invisible are now plainly seen on a glowing screen.