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Sundance film shows realities behind social media use and sexual assault
Daisy Coleman in a still photo from the Sundance documentary, "Audrie and Daisy." - photo by Chandra Johnson
Editor's note: the following story deals with disturbing and graphic subject matter that may not be suitable for some readers.

In the wealth of selfies and family photos taken over her short life, 15-year-old Audrie Pott seems like an average, happy, healthy California teenager.

It was a different kind of photo that precipitated her 2012 suicide.

Taken when Pott was drunk and unconscious at a friends party, the photos depicted Pott as her so-called friends had left her: Drawn and written all over with permanent markers, after being sexually assaulted by three classmates.

Pott didnt realize the full extent of what had happened to her at the party until the photos of her were shared throughout her school via email, text and Facebook.

Devastated, Pott demanded the truth from the three boys who later admitted to assaulting her on Facebook. They told her not to worry, that it would blow over in a week. You have no idea what its like to be a girl, Potts Facebook messenger conversation read. I now have a reputation that I can never get rid of. My life is over.

Just a couple of weeks later, amid bullying from her classmates, Potts life was over an outcome filmmakers and married couple Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk hope other families can avoid through their new Sundance Film Festival documentary, Audrie and Daisy. The film takes an unflinching look at how sexual violence is further complicated by technology and social media use through two separate cases Potts, in California, and the rape case of 14-year-old Daisy Coleman of Maryville, Missouri.

Social media has made sexual assault much more public and out of control in terms of the subsequent bullying that often occurs, Cohen said. We thought that was interesting and we found we didnt have a forum to talk about this with our own kids.

Shenk and Cohens film illustrates the damage not only of sexual assault, but how the online bullying and humiliation that sometimes follows makes recovery much more difficult.

Some, like Pott, never recover.

But just as social media and technology can be used as weapons against sexual assault survivors whether through photos, video or online bullying it can also give them the support they need and, in Colemans case, a voice when they choose to tell their story.

(Social media) is a new challenge and a savior all at once, Shenk said. These girls were both bullied on social media. But, on the other hand, a lot of survivors find inspiration and help through those same outlets.

They cant escape this

Theres all kinds of ways (social media) is illuminating our world, but the fact is that you used to be able to live out these kinds of crimes privately, Cohen said. Now theres an online public square of shaming going on, and what weve discovered is thats the piece that can be the hardest to handle.

Brooklyn-based Internet privacy and sexual consent lawyer Carrie Goldberg says that when a video or photo is distributed without consent whether its an assault or an act of revenge porn many people dont understand that its illegal, and undermines societal protections in place for decades or longer.

Things like journalistic ethics of protecting a victims identity, or even state laws that guarantee a minor victims anonymity all those safeguards are destroyed when people publish this stuff, Goldberg said. On top of trauma theyve already experienced, its often too much for them to handle. Particularly when dealing with underage people who dont have the coping skills those are a perfect storm where we see suicidal thoughts and acts.

Goldberg says most of her clients who suffer rape have as much trouble dealing with the social media harassment over their assault as the crime itself.

I have clients tell me all the time that its like theyre being raped every time the video or image is viewed, Goldberg said. Its like this permanent residue left over from the assault that lives on online. Even if they escaped the rape, they cant escape this.

Colemans case, which received national media attention in 2014, didnt end when the two teen boys who admitted to raping Coleman while she was unconscious were sentenced to 2 years probation for child endangerment.

Viral Twitter hashtags like #DaisyIsALiar fueled the discord in Maryville until the Colemans house was burned down and the family moved to a neighboring town.

Faced with a tidal wave of anger and hatred, Coleman blamed herself for the impact on her family. In the film, Coleman transforms from a grinning, blond, athletic freshman cheerleader to a thin, frail girl, her face studded with piercings, her hair dyed black and shaved on one side. Coleman began burning herself, her mother said, and every door upstairs is broken because weve had to kick them in to save her from when shes tried to overdose.

All this, Coleman says in the film, not just because of her assault, but because of the online abuse that followed.

You begin to believe the bad things theyre saying about you. You kind of become a shell of yourself, Coleman says in the film. You almost see that doing away with yourself is the only way to fix things, which isnt the truth at all, but its all your can see when youre sitting in a dark corner.

Healing connections

As much as the harassment on social media upended her life, Coleman also found a path toward healing in the connections she made online in the two years since her assault.

Via Facebook, Coleman started talking with other survivors and has since used her story to encourage other victims to seek help. Coleman is part of a growing enclave of survivors who have teamed up with Promoting Awareness/Victim Empowerment (PAVE), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to rape prevention. Angela Rose founded PAVE after she was abducted from a Chicago-area mall and raped at age 17. In many ways, Rose says social media is a help to her cause.

This is such a crucial time to get people engaged on social media about what consent means, Rose said. Social change is happening right now, and its because of stories like Daisys that can teach people what needs to change even just knowing what to do if someone discloses an assault to you.

While Cohen and Shenk are glad victims are going public to work for change, they worry that social medias role in their assaults often forces them into the public eye. Thats good and bad, Cohen said, because it promotes discussion in the public and families, but it may not be the best situation for every survivor.

Twenty years ago, we wouldnt have made this film because there wouldve been no reason for girls and their families to be talking about it, Cohen said. The public nature of all this is forcing them to come out and talk about it because they were outed on social media.

Cyber Civil Rights Initiative legislative and tech policy director Mary Anne Franks worries that often social media backlash drowns out what the victim has to say.

We have this extraordinarily new moment where were talking about rape in a much more public way, but the expectations have shifted to where a victim owes us details and everything she says has to be proven, even when she doesnt name names, Franks said. In that way, social media has done more to fan the flames of paranoia rather than giving victims a chance to speak.

Goldberg says while more survivors are using social media to speak out about their experiences, its a decision that shouldnt be made lightly.

The problem is just that (going public) often comes about from a place of non-consent. Some victims feel cowardly for not going public, Goldberg said. Its a big decision because it then forever become a perpetual part of their online identity. Its courageous to speak up, but its not courageous to keep it private.

For some survivors like Coleman, getting help and sharing her story through social media was a way of reclaiming her identity after her assault online and off.

Since my friends didnt stand up for me, I urge others to speak out, Coleman says in the film. Because the words of our enemies arent as awful as the silence of our friends.
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