The online audience is a powerful entity. We are now fairly accustomed to getting what we want. Companies ask for our input in creating the products we would like to see. We can customise our own t-shirts and mugs. We made a Veronica Mars movie happen, we revived Arrested Development, we bought a chunk of the Abel Tasman. Activism is literally at our fingertips. When we hashtag, it trends. When we speak, the decision-makers listen.
Now we would like to determine guilt and innocence.
A well informed public is not a bad thing. A politically active, vocal population is not a bad thing. Mob justice is a bad thing.
Netflix hit docu-soap Making a Murderer aims to point up corruption in the judicial system. It exposes systemic failures caused by human error and prejudice. It reminds us that the law is fallible when corruption is allowed to flourish. The problem here is that the public reaction was a desire to circumvent ‘the process’ altogether, exoneration by petition. We can’t determine guilt or innocence via public opinion, especially when we’re getting our information through a skewed source.
And in the age of change.org and KONY2012, we’re not content to simply discuss the case as entertainment. This is happening right now, and we’re accustomed to being able to exert some authority over our on-screen narratives. We want our new favourite show to end in a way we’ll enjoy. And so we unite for action, bring power to the people. In January 2016, a petition calling for a presidential pardon for Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, reached the required 100,000 signatures. Although it seems the pardon isn’t applicable in this case, it demonstrates the strength of our collective conviction that it’s our role to circumvent the legal process.
Carried away on a wave of righteous indignation, we use our keyboards to seek a raw form of justice. We don’t want the slow gears of appeals and motions, we want to cut through the red tape and bring down the guilty.
The problem is, no person, or unregulated group of people, gets to be judge, jury and executioner. We have these complex institutions for a reason; accountability. Within each branch of our legal systems, there are safeguards, scrutiny, paperwork, reviews. There are processes in place to prevent abuses like those that have occurred in the Avery/Dassey case, so that these things are aberrant and only happen when there is a large-scale collusion. There are also processes to correct and punish when miscarriages do occur.
But all that moves too slowly to soothe our moral outrage. This is the same corner-cutting mentality makes online crusades like Anonymous problematic. In collective structures like Anonymous, there is no editor, no fact checker, no safeguards. It’s a beautiful idea; true transparency, freedom of information, abolishing bureaucracy. Except that people are emotional and trigger-happy, and when we start seeing ourselves as Batman, problems arise. Here’s some examples:
Steubenville, January, 2013. After the rape of a high school girl, an Anonymous subsidiary, LocalLeaks, releases damning footage of a former Steubenville High student joking about the rape. However, they also release false information about the case and the rape victim’s name. The anon at the head of the operation shrugs it off, saying “We could either gut the Steubenville Files…or we could release everything we know, basically, with the caveat, Hey, you’ve got to trust us.”
The treatment of Jon Belmar, Chief of the St. Louis Police Department, in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. Twitter account TheAnonMessage ‘doxxes’ Belmar, tweeting contact details and photographs of his family to an enraged public when he declines to name the shooter.
Shortly afterwards, self-appointed social media investigators release their conclusions that Michael Brown’s shooter was a man named Bryan Willman. Willman is in fact a dispatcher from another state. His photo and personal details (some inaccurate) are circulated online by Anonymous. Willman’s social media accounts are flooded with so many threats that he shuts them down. He stays in his house for six days, on ‘lockdown’.
In 2011, Wikileaks releases US state department documents which compromise the protected identities of international journalists, human rights activists and academics.
There’s also the infamous overzealous misidentification of Boston bombing suspects (YourAnonNews twitter account was instrumental in the dissemination of the false names).
And last year a young Australian man was falsely identified online as a bomber in an attack in Bangkok.
These are some of the largest scale instances of false information and irresponsible vigilantism, but there are plenty more.
And these were attempts at justice, however misguided. Similarly passionate demands for justice have been provoked by Making a Murderer. The Yelp page of Ken Kratz’s law firm has been effectively wiped clean after a torrent of abuse from disgusted viewers. Massive online communities like Reddit have fostered rumours and speculation about the identity of Teresa Halbach’s killer, rumours which will likely dog Bobby Dassey, Scott Tadych, Ryan Hillegas and Mike Halbach indefinitely. In a more extreme reaction, a bomb threat was called in at the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department on February 3rd in the name of “getting justice” for Steven Avery. And there were even rumours that Anonymous themselves were taking up Avery’s cause.
It can be easy to forget that in documentary film-making, our perceptions are always being manipulated. Documentary can even be more dangerous than other media, because it presents itself as impartial fact, when in fact it is filmed, edited, scored and structured to make us see and feel a certain way. Making a Murderer has an agenda, however well-intentioned, and tells a distinctly one-sided story. It certainly exposes questionable police conduct and is often shocking and frustrating, but there is plenty that the series omits. Avery’s new lawyer Kathleen Zellner has certainly recognised the power of the masses, and has been extremely active with publishing new information about the case via Twitter with the hashtag ‘#makingamurderer’.
But is twitter really the place to look for justice? Haven’t we seen enough damage done by these online witchhunts? Calls for greater scrutiny and fairness in government are always valid, but we are spectators and it isn’t our job to interpret evidence or to allocate blame.
According to James Surowiecki, the very nature of the ‘network’ (ie online communities and social media) creates a risk of groupthink. “Networks…drive attention to the things that the network values…once an idea gets going, it is very easy for people to just sort of pile on, because other people have, say, a link. People have linked to it, and so other people in turn link to it, etc., etc. And that phenomenon of piling on the existing links is one that is characteristic of the blogosphere, particularly of the political blogosphere”.
While freedom of speech is essential to democracy, the problem with the internet is that anybody can use a highly visible platform to say whatever they want, enjoying ease and anonymity, not being filtered or fact-checked before they are published, and with no guarantee of being held accountable for their words. Like most other things, the criminal justice system doesn’t work when it is abused. And, like Avery says, poor people lose all the time. But that is the result of a larger, societal issue, not restricted to this branch of government. And it doesn’t mean that trial by social media is a preferable alternative. The internet is an environment that proves the power and danger of ideas, of names. And an accusation as weighty as murder, or shooting an unarmed man, or planting a bomb in public space, demands methodical examination, compelling evidence and liability.
A passion for justice is admirable, but justice by nature needs to be dispassionate and impartial. There must be an objective, complex system in place. Or else, amidst all the shouting, finger-pointing and righteous indignation, we will commit the very injustices we want to prevent.
Image source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11975183/Million-Mask-March-Anonymous-protesters-hurl-fireworks-at-police-in-London-live.html