5.21.2011

Social Media Influence on Justice - Opinion Piece

Imagine your 4-year-old daughter vanishes without a trace. You take your story to the police who call a press conference seeking leads from the public. Two days later, you are arrested as the prime suspect in the disappearance of your child. When interrogated by the police, they indicate you became the main suspect after Facebook and Twitter posts were picked up by the local media.
According to their reports, neighbors posted they saw you loudly scolding the child the morning of her disappearance. The local media then took the story national without doing due diligence. Your child has been taken from you and the entire world is pointing its finger in your direction. In little more time than it took to reach out for help, you have been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. Does this sound impossible in today’s digital world? I assure you it is not.
In South Berwick, Maine, an unidentified 6-year-old boy was recently found dead, apparently due to asphyxiation.  Wanting to help identify the killer, a concerned citizen created a Facebook page and posted the child’s picture. As a result, the police gathered numerous leads from the public. Eventually a woman, the purported mother of the child, was taken in for questioning. Additionally, local news organizations began to release unofficial and unconfirmed information about the child and his mother via social media sites. While the facts of this story differ somewhat from the initial scenario posed above, the concept is similar. 
In today’s world of instant gratification, social media is playing an ever increasing role in the field of criminology. There can be no doubt that instant connection with hundreds to thousands of people has proven beneficial to providing important information to law enforcement- this concept is the foundation of the Amber Alert. However, we the people must remain vigilant of the threat to our core legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”
The court of public opinion is quick to judge and even quicker to spread it’s fervor. Law enforcement officials must take extra effort to insure they are not prejudiced by non-litigated, non-proven “facts” spread through social media networks. In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts and surrounding towns underwent a tumultuous period. More than nineteen men and women lost their lives as the result of allegations of witchcraft and devil worship. In fact, these allegations were little more than hear-say and conjecture, largely mixed with motives of revenge, blackmail, and teenage boredom.
The digital age has many wonders. The ability to “reach out and touch someone” has grown exponentially in recent years and social media continues to play an enormous role. With everything that social media has already accomplished, we can expect that its influence on our lives and interactions with each other will continue to increase. This will include the importance to our system of justice. This being the case, we must maintain constant vigil to insure our fellow citizens are given due process.


This article is authored by Jerry D. Smith Jr., Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist and CEO at Breakthrough Psychological Solutions, PLLC.

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