Late Sunday night, New York magazine released its latest cover. It features black-and-white photos of 35 women sitting in chairs, as well as one empty chair. "Cosby: The Women," the headline reads. The story inside focuses on the powerful, intimate and harrowing stories of those 35 women, who have each accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, and it is a damning indictment of the once-beloved figure known as America's dad. The reaction was swift, loud and almost universal horror of Cosby's alleged crimes.
Each woman's story, presented along with the year her alleged assault occurred, is at once uniquely shocking and disturbingly similar to the next. But the vast majority of these women suffered in relative silence after their encounters with Cosby, and their stories are only now getting widespread attention. One woman highlighted this change in the rocky landscape accusers must reckon with, attributing it to a cultural tide shift that helped bring Cosby down: the rise of social media.
"In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media," Tamara Green, who was allegedly assaulted in the early 1970s, told the magazine. "In 2015, we have social media. We can't be disappeared. It's online and can never go away."
She was referring to the various ways in which social media helped the allegations against Cosby pick up steam, gathering together in a loud mass until they could no longer be ignored. From the initial spark of public awareness to the online platforms adopted by Cosby's accusers, social media and the Internet have played a vital role in bringing the accusations out into the open.
As Noreen Malone wrote in the essay accompanying the 35 testimonials, "Younger women have given something to Cosby's accusers as well: a model for how to speak up, and a megaphone in the form of social media."
Cosby's accusers wielded the full force of social media. In October 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress referred to Cosby as a rapist during a bit in which he discussed Cosby's habit of morality policing.
"It's even worse because Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old-black-man public persona that I hate," Buress told the crowd. "He gets on TV: 'Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the '80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.' Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches."
"He gets on TV: 'Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the '80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.' Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches." — Hannibal Buress
Immediately after it popped up on the Internet, the video went viral, shooing Cosby back into the spotlight despite previous efforts to protect him from scrutiny. The reaction to a single standup act by a male comedian — versus the reaction to decades of accusations by multiple women — is telling.
"You know, a woman can be not believed for 30 years. But it takes one man? To make a joke about it? That fucking pissed me off so bad," as Victoria Valentino, one of Cosby's accusers, put it in New York.
That troubling point aside, however, the rapid-fire spread of Buress' sketch across social media was one of the biggest dominoes in Cosby's fall.
It didn't end there, however. In November, Cosby's team attempted to wiggle their way back into the Internet's good graces — and it immediately backfired. After Cosby's Twitter account prompted users to create memes of the actor using the hashtag #CosbyMeme, the Internet retaliated by submitting images like this:
As public scrutiny intensified, more and more women came forward with their own stories. In November, artist Barbara Bowman wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post headlined, "Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?" In March, poet Jewel Allison followed with her own Post op-ed: "Bill Cosby sexually assaulted me. I didn't tell because I didn't want to let black America down."
Dozens of women with varying levels of celebrity were sharing their stories, some publicly and some privately. PJ Masten, a former Playboy bunny who said Cosby assaulted her in the 70s, told New York, "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."
"Younger women have given something to Cosby's accusers as well: a model for how to speak up, and a megaphone in the form of social media." — Noreen Malone, New York magazine
Social media has often given a voice to those who struggle to be heard. #BlackLivesMatter, a movement launched by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, began in 2012 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin; it has since spawned nationwide protests, high-profile magazine covers and a place as a movement, "not a moment."
#WhyIStayed, a hashtag campaign writer Beverly Gooden started to call out the media's treatment of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case, is another example of social media gone right. Other seemingly successful campaigns — like #BringBackOurGirls and Kony 2012 — have since petered out, leading some to critique the staying power of social media campaigns.
But as the Cosby story has shown — if not legally, at least societally — digital spaces can have a powerful effect on the rest of the world. Without the megaphone of social media, as Malone put it, the accusations may have lived on in relative quietude, and with them the painful stories of dozens of women.
"There's no response," Cosby said in November, following questions about the alleged incidents.
That's where he's wrong. His accusers have responded — and they're not going away.