How Social Media can impact the outcome of Law Enforcement investigations and prosecutions

The community is reminded that comments on social media sites may potentially affect the outcome of court matters relating to this investigation.
We request people refrain from posting hateful or inciteful comments on these sites…. (Victorian Police Press Release, 20 November 2012)

High-profile crime is often the subject of intense public scrutiny. With the advent of social media, citizen journalism has evolved into new spheres of commentary and reporting. It is important to remember that news reporting and citizen journalism often deviate from fact to opinion. In Australia, allegations are just that until proven in a Court of Law. This process may involve a Judge and Jury and the alleged offender has the legal right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a Court of Law.
Commentary on social media can impact Law Enforcement investigations into, and prosecution of crime in several ways:
  • Jury bias: if a crime goes to trial with a Jury, the legal team representing the alleged offender may claim that the Jury (entire or individually) is biased due to the influence of social media in developing and informing their opinion of the alleged offender. That is, the defendant has lost their right to a fair trial.
  • Prior knowledge: in many cases, Jurors do not know the previous criminal history (if any) of a defendant. The defendant’s legal team may object to the jury entire or individually, based on their knowledge of the defendant’s history. In cases where wide spread media coverage has occurred, objections on this basis are rare: but if the defendant’s legal team can prove a juror actively participated in, liked, commented or shared social media content regarding the defendant, then this forms grounds to dismiss them from the jury. When jury members are dismissed, lengthy trial disruptions may occur while replacements are found and screened.
  • Proliferation of misinformation: social media is the ultimate game of Chinese whispers. Facts reported in the news media can be incorrect or plain fiction. Widespread reporting of inaccurate information can hinder law enforcement attempts at strategic use of the media to assist in the apprehension of an alleged offender.
  • Media framing: Do you remember the (still unsolved) case of Madeline McCann’s disappearance? The media were so intent on blaming her parents for her disappearance in the early stages of the Police investigation that the general international public assumed for a time that they were guilty. This trial-by-media ended with a full public apology by several news media outlets; but completely negated the ability of Police to effectively use the media to aid their search. (For more information on Media Framing in Law Enforcement, you can read my article ‘Abandonment, Abduction … Murder? Media Success and Sorrow : Madeline McCann & Qian Xun ‘Pumpkin’ Xue.’)

Practice and advocate responsible digital citizenship by allowing law enforcement to do their job without social distraction.

Let the judicial process to run its course.

No-one wants to see a situation where a guilty person escapes conviction and/or imprisonment due to a single Facebook post or Tweet.