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Is Anonymous's Rape Vigilantism a Public Good?


It only took a few hours of Anonymous's "OpMaryville Twitterstorm" Tuesday for the action to elicit a response: Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder and House Speaker Tim Jones called for state Attorney General Chris Koster to reopen the case of Daisy Coleman, the 16-year-old former cheerleader who was allegedly raped last year by a popular high school football player, Matthew Barnett, in her hometown of Maryville. This was interpreted as a victory for Anonymous, and indeed, the optics are great PR for the hacktivist group, but that might be all. Koster has said that he won't get involved in the case, and that his office does not have the authority to intervene and overrule Rice's judgment; Jones has even less influence in the case. Meanwhile, an entire Missouri town feels like it's being judged by the nation. So was Anonymous's Twitterstorm a net positive?

It has been well over a year since the charges were dropped against Barnett, after Nowaday County prosecutor Robert Rice concluded there was not enough evidence to take the case to trial. In the interim, the Colemans have been driven out of Maryville by harassment. They now live in Albany, Missouri, an hour away, and have struggled to move past the assault. Their former home in Maryville burned down in April. Tuesday night, Daisy’s friend Paige Bourland, who accompanied her to the party on the night of the alleged assault and who was also sexually assaulted that night, spoke publicly about the incident for the first time on CNN. (Her assailant has admitted to having non-consensual sex with her and took a plea bargain in a juvenile court, serving several months in a juvenile facility.)

The case's national profile began with a revelatory investigation published Saturday by the Kansas City Star, but it wasn't until Monday, when Anonymous posted a “Twitterstorm package” online announcing its intention to protest the dropped charges, that the case became commonly known. Links to Anonymous's package outpaced links to the Star's article by a wide margin during the Twitterstorm, as the flurry of digital activism overshadowed some of the details of the case. 

Most popular links shared in Tweets including the #OpMaryville hashtag, 10/15/2013 11:20 a.m. - 10/15/2013 6:30 p.m. "" links to the Anonymous Twitter package. Compiled by 

Traffic to the Kansas City Star's investigation this week from

Twitterstorms are a favorite tactic of the group, which has previously led Twitter "ops" to protest genocidecybersecurity, and the U.S. government’s data collection techniques. (Sometimes they stage on-the-ground protests—there's one planned in Maryville next week.) Reuters, The Huffington PostThe International Business Times, and Slate all highlighted Anonymous’s involvement in the Maryville case, while Mother Jones expressed skepticism at how effective the Anonymous plan could be, noting, “Anonymous' #OpMaryville acts so far have fallen more in the prankster realm than in serious hacker sleuthing.” Gawker’s Adrian Chen was similarly doubtful that Anonymous would actually help the Coleman family, noting that when the group got involved in the Steubenville case, they probably hurt more than they helped the cause of justice: “it's hard to see how a bunch of anonymous bros swooping in from the internet and avenging random rape victims is [a] sustainable way to fight rape culture. Maybe they'll be more careful this time, but given the early chatter, I doubt it." 

He has a point. Anonymous’s involvement has complicated the story as much as it has helped raise awareness of the case, and it's hard to see how one short interval of heavy Tweeting can do much to combat injustice and rape. Anonymous did help bring national attention to the Steubenville case, and as a result, the group has been repeatedly approached by rape victims asking Anonymous to do the same for them. Yesterday, several Twitter accounts affiliated with Anonymous participated in the Twitterstorm, including @YourAnonNews@YourAnonCentral, and a new account, @Justice4Daisy, run by current and former members of Anonymous. YourAnonCentral explained that the group took up this case in particular to expose alleged political corruption on the part of the Barnett family (Rex Barnett served in the Missouri House of Representatives): 

The Kansas City Star spoke to Rex Barnett, who said he has deliberately stayed out of the case. Whether or not he meddled in the case is a question for investigators; but that detail was lost in yesterday's storm, when Anonymous repeatedly referred to him as a current representative, despite the fact that he left office in 2002.

Maryville is shaping up to be another Steubenville in a number of ways, though there are of course important differences, like the fact that there's no explicit justification for why the charges against Daisy's assailants were dropped. The city, where neither Paige nor Daisy live anymore, is now under a heightened security alert due to all of the attention. Jezebel's dispatch from Steubenville last month painted the picture of a town marked by its sinister depiction in the press, where residents feel they are collectively regarded as culpable for the rape of a 16-year-old by two high school football players that occurred there in 2012. Maryville, rightly or not, is being targeted in a similar manner. The Nodaway County website is down, which Anonymous seemed to slyly take responsibility for on Twitter (though the glitch could also be due to other connectivity problems). Daisy’s mother has said that she knows other girls in town were also assaulted by the same group of boys involved in Daisy’s case, but they have not come forward because they are frightened of facing the same kind of public backlash that Daisy did. Barnett has unsurprisingly become a public target, as is evident on his university’s Facebook page.

All this, and still nothing has actually happened to further Daisy's case. The prosecuting attorney reiterated his decision not to reopen the case yesterday, and Maryville City Manager Greg McDanel said that neither he nor the town had any role in the sexual assault investigation, nor in a more recent investigation looking into the cause of a fire that burned down the Coleman's former Maryville home. "This is a small community where everyone knows their neighbors, and caring for and protecting those around you are common practice, not the exception to the rule," said McDanel. 

In its attempt to expose injustice, Anonymous has also undertaken the "public lynching" that the prosecuting attorney told KCUR he had sought to avoid. As the Maryville Daily Forum put it, “many folks in this town appear to be experiencing a different emotion. Fear.” But if officials investigate the dropped charges against Barnett and even reopen the case, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone outside of Maryville who doesn't think Anonymous deserves some of the thanks.