In January 2012, 14 year old schoolgirl Daisy Coleman was found outside her home, drunk, barefoot, and freezing. Her mother took her to the hospital, where signs of sexual intercourse were found. Earlier that evening, Coleman and a friend had sneaked out to meet some older boys. They had asked her to drink a colourless liquid and then, she says, assaulted her. Coleman and her mother went to the police. The case was soon dropped by prosecutors, despite the fact that the assault had allegedly been filmed. Coleman was bullied ("On Twitter and Facebook, I was called a skank and a liar and people encouraged me to kill myself," the teenager wrote in an article on, and her family was ultimately forced to leave their home in Maryville, Missouri, after a campaign of harassment.

The case has received international attention this month after the “hacktivist” group Anonymous took up the cause, demanding that the authorities look at the handling of the case. Subsequently, the state has made moves towards appointing a special prosecutor to consider reopening the case.

Unsurprisingly, comparisons have been drawn to the recent rape case in Steubenville, Ohio. That case, too, was reopened after an intervention by Anonymous and a subsequent furore on social media. In both cases, the alleged perpetrators were football players. Both took place in small, provincial towns.

Both cases have shone an important light on rape culture, on the inadequate investigation and prosecution of rape cases, and the growing prevalence of social media as a way of intimidating and bullying victims. Coleman, in waiving her right to anonymity to talk about her ordeal, has shown remarkable bravery. It is too early to say what the outcome of the Maryville case will be, but in Steubenville the two perpetrators of the attack were found guilty of rape and sentenced to imprisonment until they are 21. Bringing criminals to justice and highlighting poor policing is to be applauded.

But the rise in online vigilantism does raise a whole host of uncomfortable questions. Does it prevent cases from being investigated properly? A long report by the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy suggested that this may have been the case in Steubenville. “In the months since the rape case became a national story, it has been difficult to distinguish between virtual and physical reality in Steubenville,” wrote Levy, outlining factual inaccuracies disseminated by bloggers and social media users. Speculation and misinformation about legal cases long predated Twitter and Facebook, but the internet provides a unique opportunity for these rumours to proliferate and amplify. Levy also writes that it is “not true” that the case would not have been pursued without the intervention of internet activists, a point which has been disputed by Jezebel and other media outlets.

In Steubenville, whatever misinformation was circulating, the correct outcome was reached: the attackers were tried in a court of law and sent to jail. But things do not always flow so smoothly. Stories of misplaced internet activism abound. The aftermath of the Boston bombing saw several false accusations being circulated and in some cases, even reported by the mainstream press. The sheer volume of people who are party to a story that goes viral can also have devastating effects. The perpetrators of the Steubenville attack and the accused in Maryville have both received death threats and suffered harassment. Some may argue that this is all they deserve, particularly since the victims – with less justification – have suffered the same or worse. But do we really want to live in an “eye for an eye” society where two wrongs are considered to make a right?

Rape is a horrific crime, and the shoddy investigation of it – demonstrated in poor conviction rates across the world – is condemnable. But is the public shaming of perpetrators really the best alternative? In her New Yorker piece, Levy quotes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard: “By the time people have torches and pitchforks, the system has gone wrong. But you do want a justice system that generates socially relevant outcomes.” Ultimately, a rise in vigilantism – online or otherwise – is a sign that the justice system isn’t doing its job. The best way to prevent a situation where trial by public opinion is the preferred mode would be to improve processes from the outset.