How a 16-year-old rape victim becomes an Internet meme

Jada, a 16-year-old junior in Houston, claims she was drugged and raped at a high school party after accepting a drink from a friend of a friend.

But as truly disturbing as those allegations are, the aftermath is almost worse: Photos and videos of the assault circled on social media. Jada’s accused rapist mocked her repeatedly on Twitter. And at some point in the whole soulless spectacle, a meme was born: It’s called #jadapose — and it consists of lying prone and half-clothed on the floor.

Per Topsy, a Twitter analytics tool, the hashtag has been used 3,000 times since it was coined Tuesday night, apparently in response to the 11 p.m. local news broadcast on which Jada went public.

How, exactly, does something like this happen? Even after Steubenville and Torrington and a dozen similarly disturbing high school rape cases — how does a rape victim become a meme?

On the most immediate level, of course, it only takes one person with a Twitter account and a cellphone camera: In this case, a foul-mouthed Houstonite we’ll call “Tre,” who kicked off the trend on Twitter at 11:36 p.m. Tuesday night.

But social networks are also communities, which inherently means Tre didn’t act alone. Within 24 minutes of the first #jadapose tweet, the hashtag had been used nearly 500 times, chiefly within a group of Houston teenagers who seem to know Jada and the other parties involved. At any point, any user could have stifled the meme by tweeting out against it, or replying to Tre with some kind of complaint. But instead, users replied with the laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji, or variants of “lol!” with the punctuation drawn way out.

It took five hours before a single user replied to the original image voicing disapproval or disgust.

Recently, for an unrelated story, I spoke to a gentleman whose wife had been the victim of severe harassment on Twitter. He told me — as several victims’ advocates have before — that Twitter needs to do more to police offensive and harassing material. Especially when it comes to women, who are infamously vulnerable on the platform.

But he also said something that resonated, grimly, as I scrolled through the @-replies on Tre’s original #jadapose post.

“These people have friends, and presumably, not all their friends think this kind of behavior is acceptable,” he told me. And yet — whether out of fear or embarrassment or apathy, or a desire not to complicate social relationships, or a concern over how Twitter etiquette works — nobody speaks up. Twitter is perhaps the clearest, most explicit illustration of networked relationships, of the complicated web of social ties that govern our behavior and dictate what we consider right or wrong. And yet, even there, we have radio silence. The responsibility is divided and spread so thin, over so many gossamer connectors, that in the end nobody feels it.

No one complains. Everyone lmaos. The #jadapose tweet-count ticks higher.

There’s a tendency to speak of Internet phenomena as if they were somehow autonomous or self-directed; we say a meme “spreads” or a photo “goes viral,” assigning absolutely no agency to the people doing the actual spreading.

But #jadapose didn’t “go viral” — it was made viral, through the collective approval of an unfeeling, even amoral, online community. In some cases, that approval was tacit. In others, it was voiced outright.

And in most cases, it seems, no one is apologizing.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey | July 10