- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Although a 23-year-old who was sexually assaulted at Stanford University said she wanted her case to ignite “a tiny fire” about the issue of sexual assault, her words, aided by a powder keg of social media, may have started a wildfire.

A recall effort is underway against Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Brock Allen Turner, a 20-year-old former Stanford student, to six months in prison and three years’ probation for his crime. The judge said a lengthier term “would have a severe impact on him” and argued that Turner posed no threat to those around him.

Critics contend the sentence for Turner, who was found guilty in March on three counts of felonious sexual assault and faced a maximum sentence of 14 years, was far too lenient.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in a statement that the punishment “did not fit the crime.” He noted that Turner failed to show remorse for his actions during the hearing and displayed signs of being a “predatory offender.”

Turner was an Olympic-caliber swimmer on a scholarship at the prestigious university before withdrawing. He admitted to drinking the night of the assault in January 2015 but said the sexual contact was consensual.

He was arrested after two cyclists saw him lying on top of an unconscious, half-naked woman behind a trash bin. They intervened and held him until police arrived.

After Turner’s sentencing last week, the victim addressed her attacker in the courtroom and read a lengthy set of remarks detailing her recollection of the assault and its aftermath as well as her disappointment with the outcome.

“Even if the sentence is light, hopefully this will wake people up,” she said. “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is reason for all of us to speak even louder.”

BuzzFeed first published the oration Saturday in a post that has since been viewed more than 9 million times. On Monday, CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield dedicated her entire one-hour program to reading the 7,244-word statement on the air.

By Tuesday, a Change.org petition was launched calling for Judge Persky to be removed from the bench. It garnered nearly 400,000 signatures in less than 48 hours.

Virtual outrage has translated into real-world action. Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor and a family friend of the victim, is heading an effort to recall Judge Persky.

“He has made women at Stanford less safe,” Ms. Dauber told The Guardian. “The judge bent over backwards in order to make an exception and the message to women and students is ‘you’re on your own,’ and the message to potential rapists is, ‘I’ve got your back.’”

The rapidness of how the events played out at Stanford and the influence of social media were not lost on some observers.

Shannon Rauch, a professor of psychology at Benedictine University who has researched the effects of social media on behavior, said networks such as Facebook and Twitter present a double-edged sword for political activity.

They often capture heat-of-the-moment, emotionally laden reactions to events, she said, which has the potential to catalyze movements rapidly, such as in the case at Stanford.

“When people are angry, they are motivated to see change happen,” Ms. Rauch said. “So social media can definitely have a positive impact.”

But the impassioned snapshot captured by the networks also has the potential to inflame political discourse, Ms. Rauch said, pointing to studies showing social media users “disproportionately exposed to messages that are consistent with their own attitudes, which could partly explain increased polarization.”

Her studies have shown that what motivates users to log on — whether to find news or to interact with others — often affects how they will behave on the platforms.

In one study, Facebook users who sought to relieve boredom or socialize were more likely than those who used the site for news aggregation to agree with racist comments.

Ms. Rauch said the situation may be naturally mitigated by innovative platforms that offer more balanced ways of aggregating news without taking away the positive aspects of interconnectivity.

“In the meantime, however, I would suggest that people venture outside of social media for their news and information,” she said.

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