Trial by Social Media

Social media can be valuable as a means of expressing one’s right to free speech, but it can also undermine due process by way of trial by social media.

A fundamental core of most judicial systems is the presumption of innocence for the defendant, placing the burden of proof on the prosecutor to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. However, it is often the case that the public will deem one guilty through means of social media posts and threads, often before the case even reaches court.

A recent example of this is an ongoing case at SIUE where a student has alleged they were the victim of racially motivated harassment. SIUE announced on its Facebook page that the two original suspects have been cleared of involvement and the complainant has been charged with making a false police report.

Under this Facebook post are debates in the comments filled with many confident claims about the guilt or innocence of the parties involved. The details of the evidence in the investigation aren’t publicly available and it hasn’t gone to court yet, but these commenters have largely made up their mind on who the innocent and guilty parties are. 

While social media posts like these don’t typically hold legal weight, they do hold weight in the court of public opinion and can potentially have influence over jurors in a case. Even the federal judiciary committee has taken concern with the influence of social media in court. In 2020, they issued a new set of model jury instructions with the addition of cautioning jurors in the ways social media can undermine the juror’s ability to remain neutral in a case.

In the case of public opinion, there are even times where social media can make someone guilty in the public eye without it ever going to court. For example, in 2017 there was a spreadsheet titled “Shitty Media Men” created by columnist Moira Donegan that has since been taken down. Donegan sent this spreadsheet to her female friends working in the media as a means to crowdsource anonymous rumors and allegations of sexual misconduct against men working in the media.

Although it was only up for 12 hours, people on social media spread the list of 70 names to the public. Although the claims were made anonymously and without evidence, many of the men on the list faced repercussions in their personal and professional lives even though none of them had the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law. Stephen Elliott and Mike Tunison are among the men on the list and have publicly spoken about their personal experiences in the matter. Elliot even went so far as to file a lawsuit against Donegan and others who edited the list.

This example shows how quickly social media can spread information and bring masses to believe it, regardless of its legitimacy. None of these cases ever made it to court, yet there were consequences for many of those on the list, which completely undermines the right to a fair trial they would have been allotted in a legal case. Instead, they were judged by the court of public opinion, which has no rules to ensure fairness, but can have a significant impact.

Further, in cases where criminal accusations do come out to be false, it can leave lasting psychological effects on their life. Many will blow off the impacts of those falsely accused as just having lost material possessions they can get back, which overlooks all of the mental repercussions a harmful label forever being stuck to their name can have.

In a study conducted by the University of Oxford Centre for Criminology, they studied cases in which people were falsely accused of abuse in occupational contexts. They found a large range of trauma and consequences among this population including the constant urge to “‘fight the accusation,’” fears of further allegations, shame of bearing an unwarranted label, etc.

Social media is ultimately a powerful tool and needs to be treated as such. When accusations against a person are made public, it’s vital to avoid spreading opinions about a person’s guilt or innocence until all the information is available as it could have lasting effects on a person’s life if incorrect and even harm a jury’s duty to deliver an impartial verdict in court. Guilty or not, everyone has the right to a fair trial, and social media must be used responsibly as to not threaten this right.

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