Social Media: Judge, Jury & Executioner

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Social Media has transformed the PR landscape; gone are the days when spin doctors using a combination of earned & purchased press, crafted impeccably tailored messaging for their clients.

Sure, spin is alive and well, but social media has added a layer of transparency that we welcome.  We’ve watched as company after company has its hands smacked by the masses with a megaphone.  Chick-Fil-A. Kenneth Cole.  United.

All companies that have watched their missteps amplified and vilified by angry social users, sometimes deservedly so… sometimes not; social media has had a tremendous impact on PR.

As fervent social participants we relish the power of social media to uncover truths.

However, because of our nature, we must look beneath all of the talk about the impact to the real numbers: how have these PR nightmares impacted business? Reputations? Justice?  While we celebrate the victories, we are very cautious not to mistake vilification for victory.

Social media should not serve as Judge, Jury and Executioner because it is not equipped for due process.

In our Sunday Social Judge, Jury & Executioner we will shine a light on these pivotal cases and try to judge fairly, ward out unfairness, and help us all take a step back.

Social Media’s Positive Impact

On March 17th four high school football players in Stuebenville, Ohio were convicted of raping a 16-year-old victim.  The case garnered national attention because it appeared that people in power in the small town were at the very least not investigating thoroughly.

Alexandria Goddard, a blogger who formerly lived in Stuebenville, exposed the crime by investigating the perpetrators own tweets and online posts.

While Goddard continued to do the investigative work one would expect from the local police, the case began to get nationwide attention in the social and traditional press.  Before long, people claiming to be the hacking group Anonymous got involved, exposing private emails and hacking into the websites of the city of Stuebenville and the football program itself.

There was much debate as to the fairness of the trial by vigilante onliners, but in the end the case was heard in real life and the Ohio justice system found all four boys guilty.

A rape that may very well have gone unpunished was exposed through social media and tried in a court of law, a victory for Social Media.

A Case of Breathtaking Sadness

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, in November of 2011 15-year old Rahtea Parsons was gang raped by four boys.   The rape occurred when she went to a friend’s where, during the rape, one of the boys took a picture as it occurred, and shared that picture thorough the community.

Condemnation was swift by members of that community, but they didn’t condemn the perpetrators; they judged Rahteah to be the guilty party. Deemed a slut by her peers and ostracized by her community, Rahteah moved but she could not escape the depression and heartbreak.

After 18 months of vicious bullying, tremendous public exposure, and a frustrating search for justice, Rahteah attempted suicide.  Last week her parents took her off life support.

Real Life Justice Fails

The local police were made aware of the situation, but stated that there was not enough evidence to win in a court of law.  Leah’s parents and supporters feel that the police weren’t really interested in finding out what actually happened.

The justice system failed Rahteah, and it appears that the primary reason the police used for not prosecuting is fear of failure, claiming they didn’t have enough evidence for rape OR child pornography.

“An investigation was completed and in consultation with the Crown there was insufficient evidence to proceed with charges,” Cpl. Scott MacRae told the National Post.

In the Steubenville Rape case, social media exposed the guilty because of their own actions.  Their online ‘bragging’ was, in the end, the evidence against them.  In Rahteah’s case, technology was used to bully and harass her.

After one rapist circulated pictures of her rape, fellow students harassed her both verbally and via text, calling her a slut, asking her to have ‘sex’ with them too.  The pressure of the connected world gave Rahteah no escape from the continued harassment.  Her father was quoted as saying:

My daughter wasn’t bullied to death. She was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police.’

The community around her used the power of technology to tear her soul apart.

Social Media Impacts Real Life

The social media world did take up the case of Rahteah, and sadly, it can no longer have the same success of the Steubenville case. In Steubenville, justice was won for the victim but for Rahteah it is too late.  All we can hope for is that justice is brought to her attackers.

The primary difference in the case is that the social media world did not take up the case until after Rahteah’s suicide attempt.  It lacked the early efforts of a dogged investigative blogger like Goddard.  The story and Rahteah’s heartbreak did not become widely known until it was too late and she was gone.

On Friday, Anonymous posted a video that makes it clear that for them, the case is not over.  While part of me wants to cheer on these unknown hackers, their very clear threats to the 4 perpetrators send shivers down my spine.

What if they get it wrong?  In a Real Life case there are repercussions for a justice seeker when they are found to have targeted the wrong people, or used unfair tactics.

Real Life Justice Forthcoming?

 On April 12th Police announced that they were reopening the case based on the fact that a witness has come forward willing to testify publicly.   They also claim that this was not due to online activities, but we beg to differ.

The furor that surrounded this case after Rahteah’s death brought the full heat of an international spotlight on those responsible for protecting the community of Halifax.  I don’t think for one minute the specter of Anonymous exposing the facts of the case and the actions of police didn’t prompt this change.

When the Prime Minister is weighing in, people work a little harder.

Vigilante Injustice

In both of these horrible rape cases, it appears that social media has shed light on wrongdoing. Perhaps the guilty will be held responsible in a court of law but the very real concern is that vigilante ‘justice’ will punish the innocent.

The mob mentality that social media can inflame is powerful and dangerous.  When the Newtown shootings occurred, Adam Lanza’s brother Ryan was wrongly identified as the shooter. It is not hard to imagine a case of an individual carrying out his or her own perceived ‘justice’.

Ratheah’s parents are opposed to vigilante justice, as we all should be.

Social Media’s Investigative Role

Shining a light on perceived injustices, asking questions, and using the leverage of social media’s voice to prompt real life justice officials to do their jobs thoroughly is a very positive thing.

It is impossibly poignant to hear with the knowledge of the Steubenville case so prevalent in our minds but for Rahtaeh Parsons and her family, there has been no justice.  It is too easy to become swept up in the emotion of these cases but we need to be very careful that we are not acting as the judge, jury, and online executioner.

Social media’s power is in its transparency, not in its ability to provide due process.  Those of us using it need to be continually mindful of the difference.

VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.

5 thoughts on “Social Media: Judge, Jury & Executioner

  1. bowden2bowden says:

    Great read Amy on the impact to justice that social media can have. Of concern to me are the unjust hangmen that lurk waiting to throw the gallows door! It is a powerful thing, truth, and social media platforms allow for ease and rapid exposure to the truth. But sadly, it allows for many unjust negative slander. Nature of the beast in the day when fact-checkers now come second if at all. The good will keep doing good and the ugly will, well just be ugly!

    • AmyMccTobin says:

      bowden2bowden Yes – that’s what’s so frightening… and companies should be worried too, because they can be hung just as quickly.    
      We are going to spend time dissecting these sort of cases each week; our aim is to make everyone stop and find out the facts before blasting a person or a brand, and especially before inciting others.  I was very touched by this story, but especially by the parents of Rahtaeh speaking out against vigilantism.

  2. AmyMccTobin says:

    Over on Twitter biglugg77 shared this link that states that the Goddard, the crime blogger, did more harm than good by exposing innocents.  The police state that they were working fervently to follow up on all evidence.    That may all be true, but it is still my opinion that the pressure that Goddard and others put on the case by exposing it via social media ensured a swift and speedy look at the evidence, and eventual conviction.
     http://www.heraldstaronline.com/page/content.detail/id/585297/Speaking-up–Hanlin-discusses-rape-case.html?nav=5010

  3. […] two heart wrenching cases of rapes that were judged heavily via social channels, and last week we covered a personal brand,  social […]

  4. […] events surrounding the Boston Tragedy in A National Tragedy ; the dark side of social in the Steubenville Rape and the Rahteah Parsons Tragedy, and, more recently, our Lynch Mob in Action post drew a lot of attention and […]

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