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Justice or vigilantism? Here’s why some Gen Z survivors of sexual assault are turning to social media

Utah is having its own #MeToo moment. Alleged victims are sharing hundreds of accounts of sexual assault on social media.

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Alex Cochran

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is having its own #MeToo moment. Using a trending hashtag that surfaced in June, hundreds of Utah social media users have shared their personal stories of sexual assault and the names of their alleged abusers.

The hashtag is empowering mostly Generation Z survivors to speak out about their experiences, shed the shame associated with sexual assault and find healing. But it is also ostensibly being used to spread false accusations and to out individuals who have not been charged with or found guilty of any crimes. More than 300 alleged perpetrators have found their names on various lists circulated on Twitter.

While supporters of the Utah hashtag say users are bravely taking justice into their own hands, critics say it’s just a form of online vigilantism. The users themselves say the hashtag has come at a time when their generation is reevaluating their relationship to law enforcement.

Utah’s movement is part of a larger trend where victims of sexual abuse are turning to social media instead of the criminal justice system, which is known for the retraumatization of victims, slow processing of rape kits and low conviction rates for sexual predators. Meanwhile, backlash against the Utah posters, including cyberbullying, victim blaming and the threat of legal action, demonstrates that while tweeting about an assault may be freeing, there can also be harsh consequences.

Considering the potential for negative outcomes whether someone reports an assault to police or posts about it on the internet, victims often feel stuck with no good options for recourse, said Jake Roberson, director of communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. At a time when trust in law enforcement is being called into question by widespread protests against police brutality, multiple sexual assault survivors who posted with the Utah hashtag told the Deseret News they felt using social media was a better way to exact justice than going through traditional institutions. All were between the ages of 18 and 23.

“You have a generation that has been raised from a younger age with social media and these opportunities to speak out,” said Roberson. He added that Gen Z is hearing complex and nuanced narratives regarding police and other institutions that previous generations had more trust in.

“It can lead us to a sense of feeling like: In a world of options I don’t trust, at least on social media, I have a little control over how I’m presenting the narrative,” Roberson said.

On the other hand, Paul C. Burke, of Ray Quinney & Nebeker P.C. in Salt Lake City, who represents one individual who says he was wrongfully named in Utah’s recent wave of social media sexual assault allegations, says that accusing someone of a crime on Twitter robs them of due process.

“Social media platforms should neither permit nor be unaccountable for the high-tech branding of innocent people,” he said. “Twitter is no substitute for our country’s system of justice.”

Shortly after #MeToo spread virally following the exposure of multiple sexual assault allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, people in the media industry shared a crowdsourced Google spreadsheet with allegations and rumors against about 70 men. The list’s creator, Moira Donegan, is still trying to extricate herself from a libel lawsuit. In recent weeks, Twitter users across the country have been posting about their experiences with sexual misconduct and using #IamVanessaGuillen to compare themselves to the missing Fort Hood soldier.

“We’ve certainly seen it in a variety of instances — #MeToo being very pertinent to this example — and other sorts of movements that have spun up through hashtags, that when people are sharing their stories collectively online, there’s been a lot of positive change that has come from it,” said Roberson. “There’s also been times where it’s been negative for both the victim-survivor, getting attacked and trolled in ways they didn’t anticipate, and the wrongly accused.”

Roberson says the long-term impact of social media trends like these is yet to be seen.

“These are such new phenomena,” Roberson said. “But we’ve certainly seen the potential for good.”

A question of trust

Gretchen, a 20-year-old sexual assault survivor who lives in Salt Lake City, said Utah’s social media movement was more helpful to her in terms of finding resolution and healing than the police she contacted. Gretchen said she reached out to police after she saw her alleged abuser waiting outside her house. The police where she lived said they couldn’t investigate the assault because it happened in another jurisdiction and explained the process for pursuing a restraining order, according to Gretchen.

“They were telling me all the hoops I would have to jump through. Being a teenager, this was already so hard for me. I thought, I can’t go to court, I can’t file things, I can’t go through all that,” said Gretchen, who asked that her last name be withheld. “If they had been more encouraging and helpful, I might have taken more steps.”

Years later, Gretchen has found support on Twitter.

“It’s crazy to see strangers online wanting to support other strangers because they know they’re going through a tough time. I think it’s really cool,” she said.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to face incarceration than other criminals. Only 230 out of 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. Out of those 230 reports, only 4.6 will lead to a perpetrator going to jail or prison.

“I think we are in a national moment where folks are questioning their relationship to law enforcement in general,” said Olivia Harris, executive director of Speak About It, a nonprofit based in Portland, Maine, dedicated to consent education. “Sexual assault prevention advocates have known for years that going to law enforcement can be retraumatizing. We have statistics about how few cases are actually brought to trial.”

On the other hand, Gen Z has witnessed firsthand what an effective tool social media can be for spreading information, especially about a person’s alleged wrongdoing. Roberson said social media offers a sense of control for young people who have seen today’s cancel culture have swift and severe effects on people’s lives.

Gretchen shared the name of her alleged abuser with another Twitter user, who then posted it without reference to Gretchen.

“It was definitely closure for me,” said Gretchen. “I want people to see that and hopefully avoid him, or maybe if he did that to anyone else, they could see that and think, I’m not the only one.”

Two people who talked to the Deseret News said they got involved with the hashtag after seeing the name of their alleged abusers on a list, not knowing beforehand that there were other victims besides themselves.

In addition to being more comfortable with technology, Gen Z is more community-oriented and willing to talk about things like sexual assault, said Brenda Russell, a professor of applied psychology at Penn State Berks in Pennsylvania, who has studied generational differences.

“In my generation, this type of discourse would not be out there. We did not have these discussions,” said Russell, who is of the baby boomer generation. “Unless we have this discourse, nothing is going to change.”

“Look at what we’re going through right now, in terms of the issue of sexual assault in the criminal justice system. That hasn’t worked in the past — and so this is their time. If they are going to make a change or a difference in the world, they are going to try,” said Russell.

The risks

In an era where anyone can accuse anyone of anything online, there are definite drawbacks to the social media approach.

“No person should be branded with a scarlet letter ‘R’ by an anonymous Twitter mob. Justice in America must be for all,” said Burke, a lawyer in Salt Lake City. “There must be accountability for actual rapists, but through our criminal justice system that begins with a presumption of innocence for the accused and operates under the principle of due process for all.”

Sgt. Scott Clarke, with the Layton Police Department, said that a number of those accused on social media are from Davis County and have been contacting the department, concerned, saying there’s no basis to them being on the list.

“It’s been kind of a mess,” Clarke said. “Twitter is a free forum to communicate on. I would just caution that people can put any name up there obviously ... it’s very dangerous.”

According to Clarke, victims of sex crimes should report their concerns to police, even if they feel there is not enough evidence to convict the perpetrator.

“Every victim deserves to be heard. The proper channel for that is to report that to the police so we can fully investigate,” said Clarke. “It’s just a much more effective way of giving a voice to a victim than a social media platform.”

A 22-year-old Twitter user from Pleasant View, Weber County, initially felt empowered by the Utah hashtag and was sharing other people’s stories anonymously. She asked that her name be withheld from this article.

“It makes me so happy to see this whole movement is giving people the courage to finally start healing,” she told the Deseret News.

Then people started claiming that they had been wrongly accused. The 22-year-old said she received threats, including threats of legal action.

“This has taken such a toll on my mental health,” she said. “I will still be an advocate for sexual assault victims, I’m just going to find a more hands-on route.”

“We’ve seen people get attacked, pretty mercilessly in different cases, depending on who they are coming after and who they are naming,” said Roberson. “And then there are trolls who don’t seem to have any particular motivation other than chaos, and they will do anything from harassment verbally to using images to try to retrigger and retraumatize victims. It’s something that needs to be thought through when going public on these things, that there can be these sorts of bad actors aggressively attacking them.”

Harris recommends that the first thing a victim does after an assault is to find support in confidential resources that can help them determine how they want to deal with it.

“Finding resolution looks different for different folks,” said Harris. “People make rash decisions when they feel their choices are limited. If someone has been assaulted and wants to find the next step, remind them that they get to follow the path that makes the most sense for them. Just because people you know are posting about it on social media, if that doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to. Just because somebody you know has gone to the cops and that works for them, it doesn’t necessarily have to work for you.”

Ultimately, Roberson says the solution to the pervasive problem of sexual assault must be bigger than law enforcement or social media alone.

“We must look at how legislatively we can shape policies that prevent these crimes in the first place and then offer better avenues of support when they do occur. It’s more complex. Law enforcement is not going to solve it on its own, neither is social media. We have to take a step back and look at our systems,” Roberson said.