More than a thousand protesters turned up in the Ohio River town of Steubenville over the weekend, spurred by a blogging and Twitter campaign that's focused on rape allegations involving high-school football players. Social media has taken the case well beyond the small eastern Ohio town, sparking international tension.
M.L. Schultze reports for WKSU.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
More than a thousand protesters rallied in the Ohio town of Steubenville over the weekend. They were demanding that action be taken over rape allegations involving local high school football players. As M.L. Schultze from member station WKSU reports, with the case going viral on social media and gaining international attention, emotions are running high in this small Ohio town.
M.L. SCHULTZE, BYLINE: With fewer than 20,000 residents, Steubenville sits along the Ohio River, squeezed between the hills of eastern Ohio and the mountains of West Virginia; about 40 miles west of Pittsburgh. You get there on Route 22, and you'll likely lose your cellphone service along the way. But that isolation has not protected this city from some largely unwelcome attention.
UNIDENTIFED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Charge them all! Charge them all! Charge them...
SCHULTZE: The protesters are here to support a teen girl, who was allegedly raped at a series of end-of-summer parties. Many protesting are loosely affiliated with the hacker network Anonymous. But Becky Weaver isn't. She's a resident of a small town just up the river.
BECKY WEAVER: This girl - don't have a voice right now. We want to be her voice. We want the cops to hear her, to know her. Like, as a mother of three girls, if it would be my girl, I want her to be heard.
SCHULTZE: Two Steubenville high school football players have been charged with rape, and will be tried next month. But many here think others should also be charged, and suspect local police of covering up for other players in a town where football is king.
But Steubenville police say that's just not true, and are turning to social media to highlight their investigations since allegations first spread in August that the West Virginia girl, reportedly drunk, was carried from party to party and sexually assaulted. Police here say they've interviewed 59 people.
Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla says their investigation has been thorough, and the rape charges against the two 16-year-old boys are the only ones expected. On Saturday, he also told the protesters that he shares their revulsion at a newly released video showing a former Steubenville player, who has not been charged with a crime, mocking the incident. On it, he repeatedly laughs while calling the passed-out girl dead.
FRED ABDALLA: It was disgusting. It's nauseating. It's sickening. Like I said, you can't arrest somebody for being stupid. But when I hear...
UNIDENTIFED WOMAN: Yes, you can!
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting)
ABDALLA: Can I finish? What I'm hearing on the video - if it was my daughter, I would leave her dead - disgusting, is what I said it was. And I'll say it again, the same day - today.
SCHULTZE: The 12-minute video has already racked up more than half-a-million views.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #1: Say if that was your daughter.
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #2: But it isn't.
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #3: (LAUGHTER)
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #1: If it was.
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #2: If that was my daughter, I wouldn't care. I'd just let her be dead.
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #3: (LAUGHTER)
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #1: Yeah, you would. Listen to yourself.
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #2: I would.
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #1: No, you wouldn't.
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #2: I'm listening to myself fine.
UNIDENTIFIED TEEN #4: (LAUGHTER)
SCHULTZE: To many of the protesters, this video is another piece of evidence that there's a conspiracy here. But Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine urges caution. He took over the case after local prosecutor Jane Hanlin stepped aside because her son plays football for Steubenville High.
MIKE DEWINE: There is a difference between being insensitive, doing immoral things; and committing a crime. And what I am confined to by Ohio law, is what is a crime.
SCHULTZE: But many here say multiple Twitter messages and photos from that night suggest a number of people did not even report a crime had taken place. Jan Leach is the former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, and runs a Poynter journalism ethics workshop. She says the case represents both the strength and weaknesses of the social media world.
JAN LEACH: So before anybody is empowered, I would hope there would be thought-about responsibility. What is the potential benefit - and there are great benefits to this story coming to light in this way - and what is the potential harm?
SCHULTZE: It's that harm that concerns Simon Feaster, manager of the football team back in the 1980s.
SIMON FEASTER: We're a small town, and we do a lot around here. People, they come together, but something like this? Now, you're just breaking the town up. You don't have to come here every Saturday, keep putting this on and doing all this - because everywhere we go now, we're going to be labeled. Here come the rapists; here come the rapists. You can't put that on everybody.
SCHULTZE: But for many here now, it seems that everybody in Steubenville, charged or not, is under the glare of rape allegations spread through social media, around the world.
For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.