If “Roll Red Roll,” the film that launches a new season of the PBS documentary series POV on Monday, only chronicled the facts of the case of a 16-year-old girl who was raped by members of a high school football team in Ohio, I would still be urging everyone to go out of their way to see it.
It is a supremely resonant story, and director Nancy Schwartzman skillfully tells it with a profound sense of social conscience. She also infuses the film about this widely publicized 2012 case in Steubenville, Ohio, with empathy and concern for the truth even when it involves contradictions.
Without being obvious about it, Schwartzman constructs the narrative as the kind of crime investigation TV viewers are familiar with from series like NBC’s “Law & Order.
The first part involves the police who investigate crime, and the second the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders, as the TV narrator told viewers at the opening of each episode of the long-running NBC series.
Schwartzman’s deft use of the formula results in compelling drama that will make you angry, outraged and sad — and then, even angrier, more outraged and sadder yet as the story unfolds.
But for all the wise choices and great execution by the director, what has me singing the praises of “Roll Red Roll” is the way it explores the role of social media in both compounding the horrible abuse suffered by the victim and providing much of the evidence used to convict her attackers.
At a time when social media platforms, such as Facebook, Google and YouTube, and the ways in which they can exploit users and threaten democracy are being debated in Congress, newspapers and cable TV, seeing this documentary reminds me of one of the great truths we seem to forget as we grapple with each new media technology.
That truth was most eloquently and famously voiced by journalist Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s when society was simultaneously embracing and jittery about that era’s new media technology: television.
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire,” he told the Radio and Television News Directors Association in a landmark 1958 speech. “But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
Like TV, the internet and social media are just platforms, forms of technology. They can be used to make us and our lives better or worse. It is up to us to decide how they will be used.
At this point in our history with social media, it seems as if they are being used more for ill than good, as evidenced in the 2016 election and the indifference by Silicon Valley titans like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to their platforms’ pernicious possibilities.
Let’s never forget how Zuckerberg dismissed the claim that fake news on Facebook influenced the 2016 presidential election as a “pretty crazy idea.”
Yet, even after documentation of some of the ways in which Zuckerberg and his cohorts have stolen our data, shredded our privacy and shown almost criminal indifference to their impact on democracy, we still use their platforms and allow them to operate without even the basic kinds of regulation imposed on broadcast radio and TV.
But at least we are now having a wider public discussion and debate about their role, with a consensus building that despite all our First Amendment concerns, regulation seems needed.
(I remember the blowback I got in 2017 when I first suggested the need for regulation after learning how Facebook carried content created at Russian troll farms and paid for in rubles that aimed to exploit racial tensions in cities like Baltimore. I called it Facebook’s “dirty dance with the Russians.”)
I think it is good news that a conversation about the need for regulation is being had this week in hearings before the House Judiciary Committee.
And it’s better news yet that the volume of informed reporting and criticism about social media is rising.
Last week, the New York Times delivered a revealing story by Kevin Roose about a 26-year-old college dropout who found a sense of community in the dark world of the alt-right.
The young man didn’t get their by happenstance, the story says. YouTube’s algorithm-recommended videos — the ones that pop up alongside the video you selected — helped lead him there. They were filled with extremist content that had been created and posted by alt-right actors, who used the YouTube algorithms to get them placed there.
Has social media not been used since its earliest days by extremist groups worldwide to recruit young men to their jihads?
The dangerous mix of young men and social media is one of the most powerful threads in “Roll Red Roll.”
In her testimony at the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford said that her strongest memory from his alleged sexual assault of her when they were teens was the laughter by Kavanaugh and his friend about what was happening to her.
That kind of cruel laughter at the vicious victimization of another is shown in “Roll Red Roll” to be amplified exponentially by social media.
Text messages and videos show one player’s uncontrollable laughter as vulgar jokes are shared among the players on social media about the 16-year-old victim.
“Some people deserve to be pee’d on,” one such message says.
An image of two players dragging her body after she had passed out was posted on Twitter.
Remember what I said about getting even angrier and more outraged?
This is the way social media can be used to amplify the evil that bad people can do. And, make no mistake, some of these boys are bad, despite all the ignorant glorification their coaches, parents, local sports radio personalities and the community in general heap on them because they can play football in a football-mad town. This is toxic masculinity taught, learned and writ large under Friday night stadium lights and in drunken Saturday night rec room parties that end in rape. And all of it is social-media stoked and spread.
But the documentary also shows how the internet and social media helped bring the two rapists to justice.
It was a crime blogger who pushed the story of the rape out of the shadows to a wider audience online. She had grown up in Steubenville and understood the depth of patriarchy there. Her aggregating of the social media surrounding the rape and her additional posts about the media conversation about it drove the story up the legacy media food chain, resulting in staff-reported stories online by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, New York Times, CNN and other regional, national and international platforms.
Social media was also used to organize rallies against the rapists. The rallies, which included statements of solidarity with the victim and powerful testimony from others who had been sexually assaulted, led to more discussion and social-media momentum to acknowledge and punish the crimes committed by these team members even as their coach, school and school district supervisors refused to penalize them in any way.
But, most of all, social media provided a good deal of the evidence used by the prosecutors to send the rapists to jail.
The victim had passed out during the attack and, so, was unable to remember what happened. But the narrative could be re-created through all the ugly texts, videos and tweets among the football players the night of the assault.
“This was a sexual assault with teenagers, and the cell phones told the story,” Marianne Hemmeter, lead special prosecutor for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, says in the film.
Hemmeter also says the video of the boy who couldn’t stop laughing about the rape and making jokes about the victim’s body as she was being dragged “became the backbone” of their investigation, because it showed where each of the boys were and what they were doing and saying at the time of the rape. It could be used for leverage to get the kind of eye-witness testimony she needed from some of the boys to prove penetration of the victim by the two who were ultimately convicted.
That’s social media being used for good by those seeking justice.
I cannot praise Schwartzman enough for providing such a rich illustration of the truth that social media are just a series of platforms through which the culture expresses its values and beliefs. It is the users who make them good or bad.
I am glad to see the pendulum swinging in the direction of regulation. But that is only because I believe government is the only entity big and powerful to stand toe to toe with what these platforms have become in the hands of their irresponsible creators.
But we must not make the mistake of believing regulation will fix everything. Do you really think a new communications act or amendment written by legislators like Mitch McConnell or overseen by a commission whose members are appointed by such a purveyor of slanderous tweets as President Donald Trump would make our all media perfect?
No, we need to have the real debate about digital technology and democracy that we should have started 20 years ago. Media can help us focus as a society on that — something I believe legacy media are finally starting to do.
Let’s start that conversation with the recognition that social media are only as good or bad as we are. And to truly fix social media, we have to first fix ourselves.
“Roll Red Roll” airs nationally on PBS at 10 p.m. Monday, 10:30 p.m. on MPT, and 11 p.m. on WETA.
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