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.
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.