Not the Next UVA: Social Media and Campus Sexual Assault

On March 10, 2015, all non-graduating students at New York University received an e-mail titled “Mandatory Training on Sexual Misconduct for NYU Students.” This mandatory training takes place in the form of an hour-long online course. Many students likened this course (Think About It) to AlcoholEdu, the online course about drinking responsibly that all freshmen are required to take. Many worried that students would take this new course as seriously as AlcoholEdu- which is to say not seriously at all. Some worried about sexual assault victims, and the possibly triggering effects this course may have on them. Most agreed that the university could have gone about this in a better way than an online course that most students will speed through in order to be able to register for next semester’s classes.

NYU is not the only university with a new-found interest in campus sexual assault. After the large amount of press that sexual assault cases have received in the last year, many schools are attempting new measures to reduce the number of assaults on their campuses (or possibly the amount of bad press they could receive). With 94 colleges under Title IX investigation as of January 2015, and with the list public, it isn’t difficult to imagine that many schools wish to avoid being put onto this list. No school wants to be known as that school, the one that was involved in a scandal in the press because it didn’t protect its students properly.

This fear is understandable. These topics are getting more airtime in the news, with the public turning a critical eye to the events. If it appears the school did not do its due diligence, it is berated on social media and in feminist blogs. One case that was catapulted into the public sphere was the Rolling Stone article about an alleged rape at UVA.

This article followed a girl named Jackie, who told of her experience at a fraternity party, which culminated in a gang rape. She said that she’d told friends about the attack, and that they’d told her not to seek medical attention (she had allegedly been raped by multiple men and a beer bottle, lying on broken glass). She then claimed that measures were never taken against her alleged attacker.

It was little surprise that this story was heavily shared, inciting outrage across the country. Some expressed doubt in the story, but there were opinion writers who quickly condemned them. It had become a very polarizing topic- either you believed the victim’s story, or you were a rape apologist.

As part of the aftermath, the University of Virginia suspended all fraternities on campus, and people began saying that all fraternities were to blame for campus sexual assault. There were protests outside the Phi Kappa Psi house and death threats were directed towards the Associate Dean of UVA. The strength of the reaction was only matched by the distance the story had spread.

Now, four months later, after an official police investigation and a review of the article itself by Columbia University’s Journalism school, it has become apparent that almost the entire story had been fabricated. These friends who allegedly told Jackie not to go to the hospital were found (they were never contacted for the original story) and they all denied the story. There had not been a party at the frat house in question on the night Jackie claimed to be raped. And a man fitting the description of the initiator of the attack was never found.

By failing to fact-check and verify quotes with their sources, the reporter in question created a very one-sided article. She was very clearly biased towards the alleged victim, taking everything she was saying as truth. That’s not to say Jackie couldn’t have experienced a traumatic event — but the event as she presented it never happened.

One can’t help but wonder the extent to which social media factored into this story and the reactions that followed. Because the article was posted online, it was easily share-able on sites such as facebook, twitter, or tumblr. People formed strong opinions about this article and only had their opinions strengthened by the millions of people online who shared them. As a result, the article spread like wildfire, causing UVA to be scrutinized by the entire country.

And now that it’s been revealed to be a false accusation? Who’s to say what the lasting effects on the students and faculty will be. With the breadth of this story, despite it being wrong, might some people still maintain that Virginia is not a safe place to be? Lastly, what effect will this have on cases of sexual assault in the future? Can this one fraudulent case bring the veracity of others into question?

The first lawsuit calling Title IX into question in terms of campus sexual assault happened in 1977. Nearly 40 years later, this issue not only pervades, it has only grown in size. Perhaps that can be attributed to the advent of social media, or perhaps it means we’re simply becoming more liberal-minded as a country. But as long as these stories remain so firmly in the public eye, universities will be forced to change their practices and policies regarding sexual assault. Let’s just hope they’re effective, and not just efficient.

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