Social media is a wonderful thing. It has broken down so many communication barriers that it can be seen as a purely positive invention. However, problems caused by social media have come under the spotlight in recent times. These include increased bullying, harassment and in some cases criminal actions. What I believe to be very problematic, however, is the effect social media has on criminal trials.
I am all for social media – I am, for example, highly addicted to Twitter. I have access to hundreds of news outlets and thousands of bloggers who all have their own opinion and I can be, and am, influenced by these sources. All sorts of people share their opinions via social media and can have huge influence at times.
The perfect example is in the tragic death of Reeva Steenkamp. Her boyfriend, the olympian Oscar Pistorious, has been charged with the murder of Ms Steenkamp. I hope to emphasise the word ‘charged’ here. Charged in no way implicates guilt: it merely means there is enough evidence to to be tried for the alleged murder of his then girlfriend. The only person who really knows what happened that night is Pistorious himself.
This is why he will go to trial, to determine whether he did murder her. I read a number of articles on the internet to try and understand what exactly happened – the comments section under these articles highlights the problem I have with online and social media. Some of those who left comments said they hope Pistorious rots in jail and that he deserves everything he gets. Pistorious has not even been sent to trial yet: he has merely had his bail hearing and nothing more. There has been no implication of guilt, evidence has not been heard in full and most importantly the trial judge has not made any decision.
I can understand why people would jump to this conclusion but it is worrying that such extreme conclusions are so readily available. During the 80s and 90s, the worst case scenario was you would have a tabloid run a hyperbolic story but even tabloids never went as far as some people do on the internet. While we still have a balanced press, this is now being undermined by people who think someone is guilty simply because they have been charged with a crime and post their views to this effect online.
The case of Oscar Pistorious can be considered a moot point because the jury system is no longer employed in South Africa, but social media has caused problems in other jurisdictions. In Australia, there have been concerns about the influence social media commentators may have on the trial of Adrian Ernest Bayley, the man charged with the murder and rape of Jill Meagher. Authorities have expressed their difficulty in forming a jury that is in no way biased because of the vast hatred against Bayley which is popping up on social media. There have even been concerns that the trial may collapse. What worries me is that firstly some people may not receive a fair trial, as is their right, and secondly that some guilty parties may escape punishment because of those were unable to remain unbiased.
This problem has occurred in the UK as well – in one case, a woman contacted the accused via social media while deliberating as a juror. This caused the whole trial to collapse and also resulted in the juror being sentenced to eight months for contempt of court. While people believed the sentence to be harsh, I can understand the reasoning behind it. A collapsed trial has drastic effects: it results in further time wasted, it will cost the state quite a tidy sum to get another trial established and it will result in a much longer wait for a decision.
I believe that a strict approach is needed here, as exists in the UK. Social media use during criminal trials needs to be deterred to prevent a trial collapsing, resources being wasted and and a drawn-out wait for the accused and the victims. Ireland is a small country: news travels fast and opinions develop even faster. I would hope that most people will remain balanced and realise that what they say through Twitter, Facebook or a personal blog could have severe ramifications one day as any one of us could be selected for jury duty.