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Did Twitter make the Steubenville rape case worse?

Ma'lik Richmond (R) reacts after learning the verdict in his trial at the juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio March 17, 2013.

POOL/REUTERS

Twitter has become a revealing worldwide feed for our more monstrous natures. Having clearly learned nothing from the unfortunate Twitter commentary already out there, two teenager girls in Steubenville have been arrested for making threats via Twitter.

They spewed off just moments after the guilty verdict came down against a pair of football players in the U.S. town. One tweet, directed at the victim of the crime, read: "You ripped my family apart, you made my cousin cry, so when I see you [expletive] it's gone be a homicide."

In an interview with CNN, the sheriff who laid the charges, seem to vacillate between "these are kids" and astonishment that they apparently tweeted from the courthouse with police and lawyers in their midst, with the judge having imparted a caution against such behaviour while announcing his decision.

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One girl sobbed upon her arrest, the sheriff said, as if she only then realized her tweet further victimized a young woman who has been through a horrific ordeal.

But that is what Twitter does: Lacking a filter, it allows for all kinds of instant hate and viciousness. These are days when the first thing that pops into your head isn't just worth saying, it's worth the whole world reading.

But this isn't "just kids." Twitter is an all-ages hate forum. The teenagers who spend so much of their days in this rapid-fire space only take their cues from the celebrities and adults they follow. Death threats are "trending": 49ers David Akers got one last December, saying if he missed "one more field goal you about to get your entire life ended."

Even baby news is fair game: Upon the birth of her baby, Adele received this happy message: "Is it fat and handicapped lol? Just murder it already lol." Those are just two quick examples; try Googling death and Twitter.

And what tone of discourse is being set by the delightful Ann Coulter, who offered this view on U.S. President Barack Obama during the election campaign: "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard."

It shouldn't surprise us that teens jumped on board. Twitter, as the New Yorker detailed in January, has become a dark playground for all manner of racists, anti-Semites and bigots – creating a complicated question about the limits of free speech in a society where individual responsibility is so easily diluted across global Twitter feeds.

And these aren't the comments of a fringe group of reprehensible tweeters. In Steubenville, the trash talking of a rape victim went on for weeks, and people backed their comments with real names. In fact, the blogger who captured the online story of what was happening in the town following the rape, Alexandria Goddard, properly defends herself against accusations that she "complicated" the case. It was drifting around in online view anyway – that is until the posters began scrambling to take down the "evidence" - Goddard forced us all to look at it. Those tweets and posts revealed not just the crime, but the attitude that prevented the kids at the party from stepping in to stop it that night, to say nothing of the adults who joined in by condemning the victim.

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In the end, as the with the choice made in the moment, the power of group speak on Twitter can just as easily be an instrument for good. Even when the law steps in, as it has in Steubenville and may do so again yet, shutting up the voices for intolerance and hate is impossible. Drowning them out with tweets is not. Twitter isn't designed for bystanders. One hateful tweet is only as loud as the crowd of followers who do nothing in response.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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