In taking down Bill Cosby, the internet did what a jury could not

No conviction but a fall from grace nonetheless.
No conviction but a fall from grace nonetheless.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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Separated by several decades and scattered across a continent, many of the dozens and dozens of the women who accused Bill Cosby of drugging or sexually assaulting them found one another—and a world of support—on the internet.

The alleged incidents date to the 1960s, when Cosby emerged from American nightclubs to become a star in the mass media of his time, from LP records to network television series to pudding commercials. Few were bigger in analog.

But this king of 20th-century media eventually faced a criminal court, thanks to the relentlessness of the new millennium’s dominant medium.

As PJ Masten, who says Cosby assaulted her in 1979 when she was working at the Chicago Playboy Club, told New York magazine in its groundbreaking 2015 story: “I started getting private messages on Facebook from other former Bunnies: ‘He did me too, PJ. He got me too.’ There’s a couple of websites—‘We believe the women’—and Cosby sites that we all created. And we talk, all the survivors.”

None of those many women can say, without qualification, that what Cosby did to her was a crime. A Pennsylvania jury with the power to change that in one case deadlocked today (June 17) as to whether he sexually assaulted Andrea Constand, who spent 13 years pursuing some form of justice for the molestation she says Cosby committed against her.

Even without a conviction, Constand’s allegations remain a criminal matter: Prosecutors say they will retry the case. In any event, the 79-year-old Cosby’s fall from grace is essentially complete. What had once been whispers about predatory predilections became known to all. And it never would have happened without the internet.

The digital world placed discussion of sexual assault into a more empowering context for the abused. Masten’s use of the word “survivors” reflects an effort to reclaim lives and personal histories. The terminology remains a matter of debate even among those who have been attacked. It’s significant that the discussion is taking place on the web, the medium that allows everyone to label themselves as they wish—and to stake a claim on their identity even as they name names and combat shamers.

Andrea Constand
Andrea Constand walks from the courtroom during Cosby’s sexual assault trial in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

For too long, Cosby had been too powerful, too important, and too profitable for too many entities to be tarnished by the accusations against him. Barbara Bowman, who says Cosby preyed on her in 1985 when she was an aspiring teenage actress, expressed her frustration in a 2014 Washington Post web piece headlined “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”:

The entertainment world is rife with famous men who use their power to victimize and then silence young women who look up to them. Even when their victims speak out, the industry and the public turn blind eyes; these men’s celebrity, careers, and public adulation continue to thrive.

In the end, though Cosby consistently denied wrongdoing in every case, the world could no longer look away from stories of his misdeeds.

Things move faster, and go farther, than ever

Hannibal Buress
Hannibal Buress
Image: Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

At its most basic level, the straight line to the jury room can be drawn directly from a cellphone video of a Hannibal Buress standup bit that went viral in 2014. Buress called out Cosby as a hypocrite who claimed to champion traditional values over what he railed against as the coarseness of modern America. From a comedy club stage in a Philadelphia, Buress wondered how Cosby remained beloved when it was no secret that the man known to millions as Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show had been sued over allegations as serious as rape. “Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s,” Buress said, mimicking Cosby. “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby. So turn the crazy down a couple notches.”

The next big factor in bring Constand’s case to a criminal court: the 2015 release and digital distribution of Cosby’s own damning words in a deposition. His cavalier admissions, first made in 2005 and 2006, landed in a profoundly different environment. The change since then has not been lost on his accusers, including one of the 35 women who told their stories to New York magazine:

“People often these days say, ‘Well, why didn’t you take it to the police?’” said Tamara Green. “Andrea Constand went to the police in 2005—how’d it work out for her? Not at all. In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media. We can’t be disappeared. It’s online and can never go away.”

That’s exactly how the dynamics of the Cosby saga’s spread became so interesting.

Cosby’s own words, and how they proliferated, sealed his fate

There is no imaginable way to overstate Constand’s resolve since 2004. Repeated attacks on her veracity accompanied the isolation imposed on the abused. They formed an inescapable backdrop to her life.

In 2005, after prosecutors originally declined to pursue a criminal case, Constand filed a civil suit against Cosby, accusing him of assaulting her when she visited his home outside Philadelphia. She was an official with the Temple University women’s basketball team. Cosby, an alumnus, was a trustee and a booster. Constand said she viewed him as a mentor.

Cosby’s statements in that suit were unnerving. In a deposition gathered in 2005 and 2006, he spoke of getting hold of quaaludes to use on women he aimed to have sex with. He said he gave pills to Constand, testifying that they were Benadryl, the allergy medication. Constand said she thought they were herbal. (She would later testify she was left “frozen,” unable to move her arms or legs.)

Cosby spoke in detail about a sexual encounter that started with touching her midriff. Asked if he had her permission, he said: “I don’t hear her say anything. And I don’t feel her say anything. And so I continue and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped.”

He would be, eventually. But it wouldn’t happen for more than a decade after the suit was settled for an undisclosed amount, after a 2006 Philadelphia magazine story that did not make a big splash, and—most crucially—after the full blossoming of social media.

The deposition, initially sealed, would form the beginning of the end for Cosby. In 2014, the Associated Press sued for its release, and the New York Times and Washington Post later published details on the web. Prosecutors noted the quaalude admission and re-opened their criminal case. News reports on Cosby were distributed with a speed and reach unmatched at any other point in his career.

More important was the atmosphere into which they were released. The internet in all of its forms—and with all of its shortcomings—has provided victims places to take ownership of their experience. Its explication of the concept of rape culture, its exposure of the calamity of victim and slut shaming, and its creation of new possibilities for the abused to reclaim their identities can transform how we speak, think, and act.

Undeniably, the internet is too often not a safe space. Victims who come forward find themselves under attack and shamed in all the traditionally vicious ways.

“Social media is an imperfect tool for responding to a crime that has been around for thousands of years,” the Guardian noted in reporting on the online abuse leveled at those who seek to expose their attackers.

But think of the things that never would have happened without the internet.

How we hear victims now

The lenient sentencing in 2016 of Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner for his rape of an unconscious woman would have gone largely unnoticed without Buzzfeed posting the statement that the victim had delivered to her attacker in court. Her boldness did not change the six-month sentence (of which he would only serve three). It did, however, give rise to a broader discussion, with unprecedented swiftness and scope.

“Only in the internet age have national conversations—in which anyone with a web connection can participate—truly been possible. This is, technologically and culturally, something of a miracle,” Adrienne LaFrance of The Atlantic wrote in the immediate aftermath of the victim’ statement. “It can also create quite a mess.”

For journalists, it raises an ethics question that, like the internet itself, is a muddle born of free speech and universal access to expressing it. Still, in providing a voice for those who otherwise would not have had any, the access afforded by the digital universe must be counted as an overwhelmingly positive development.

In reviewing the reaction to Bowman’s online essay about Cosby, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi noted that allegations of sexual misconduct no longer required corroboration from law enforcement to merit coverage by legitimate news outlets, for which advocates credit the widening influence of social media.

Mistakes will be made, and innocent people will sometimes get hurt. But the internet promises greater chances that justice will be pursued—and maybe even found—at a speed finally befitting the age.