Musings

The Pursuit of Justice in the Age of Social Media

I made a mighty mistake today.

In reading an article posted in another forum from Australia’s public broadcaster about the ‘news’ that someone alleged to have done something to an Australian overseas would plead not guilty to the charges he’s facing in response to the allegations, and subsequently reading some of the comments written by others, I broke my first rule about engaging with people who are obviously emotionally worked up about an issue and not ready to hear some rational argument contrary to their stated opinion. I was shocked to read of the number of people who “knew” the man was guilty, that the man was a “coward” or “scum” for taking the route of pleading guilty, and the number of people who have already convicted this person without hearing any evidence produced in a trial.

My comment, which I thought entirely reasonable (and at least one other commentator agreed with me), attempted to remind people that a suspect indicating he would plead not guilty to criminal charges he was facing is not ‘news’, and was certainly not worthy of the vitriol that was directed towards the suspect. It reminded people that the ‘outrage’ directed towards the suspect over his alleged actions was unwarranted and misdirected and that people should wait for the judicial process to come to its natural conclusion. I also dared to suggest that people shouldn’t rush to judgement based on what they ‘knew’, and not on the media’s reporting of preliminaries to the judicial process.

Apart from the commentator above who appreciated my “sensible comment” I received three other comments in response to mine. One pointed out that most trials are resolved by plea deal in the US and therefore the story was legitimate news, despite the fact that the story does not mention a plea deal at all, that a plea deal is still part of the judicial process, and that the revealing of a potential defence by the suspect’s lawyer still didn’t make the story ‘news’. That comment, at least, was based on the information the poster had come across which is entirely valid even if not directly related to my point.

The other two comments, however, were what I should have expected for breaking my own rule:

Do you teach internet classes or are you just naturally full of yourself? (which has had four ‘likes’)

and

Is that how the church managed it’s vast array of guilty paedophile priests? Always plead not guilty, in the hope some scum can prove you weren’t at fault. (which also has had four likes)

The first of these is typical of those who don’t like hearing something that might dare to challenge their view, while the second is the kind of comment I often see because it is a Catholic priest who has dared to challenge their view. Neither comment responds to the contents of my comment directly; they respond to the commentator. It is an ad hominem argument, one designed to dismiss the target of the ad hominem attack rather than attempt to engage with the ideas being put forward. It is, unfortunately, a phenomenon becoming increasingly common in public discourse. I don’t like your argument or what you’re saying, therefore I will demean you rather than have to counter your argument.

In the context of criminal trials, the danger exists that the kind of vitriol-filled comments made by some folks on fora such as the one I visited today could jeopardise the ability of the accused to receive a fair trial and for justice to be done. There is a strong argument to be made, in my mind at least, for reporting on the preliminaries of a criminal matter to be severely restricted in order to ensure the proper administration of justice. It would also be possible to mount an argument, though less cogently I think, for the same restrictions to be in place while a criminal trial is underway. By all means, tell all the details once the trial is resolved, but until then be circumspect about what is reported lest the pursuit of justice is endangered.

In the particular case on which I commented, the chances of that happening are slim since the matter is in a foreign jurisdiction, but then again one can never know. In the case of the commentators I was reacting against, they have already decided what justice is and what justice demands in this case, and, apparently, no amount of suggestion otherwise will change their mind.

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