When social media is not so social

Social media can be a force for good when it’s properly harnessed, but what happens when it’s used to convict online?

This is an increasingly important question for journalists as well as bloggers, and those who like to comment on online sites, as more and more people gets their news – and spread their views – via social media.

Real concerns are being raised about the effect social media is having on actual criminal prosecutions, with one judge warning the general public are tainting evidence.

Cases like the killing of Jill Meagher in Melbourne have highlighted the problem of trial by social media, and a South Australian judge says websites like Facebook are prejudicing witness accounts.

In an appeal judgment, Justice David Peek said, “Facebook has spawned a new generation of private investigators”.

He says it is now much easier for witnesses to discuss what they saw. “The process itself has very great problems in relation to potential contamination of evidence,” he said.

Everyone who blogs or uses a social media site to make comment or write a story must understand the rules are exactly the same as publishing an article anywhere else.

This means libel and defamation can easily rear their heads and anyone commenting either before or during a court case can also risk prosecution for contempt of court.

But why? After all, you may know so-and-so is guilty. You may live next door and have witnessed the assault he is charged with. On your social media page or news site a hundred people may have come forward and said he did it.

Well, the point is, everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Trial by Facebook is not allowed. The law deals with facts, not with what often amounts to hearsay, and it’s the same with journalism.

If you post a picture of the charged man in handcuffs being restrained by two police officers, and let’s say his face is revealed too, what will members of a jury think when the trial comes around?

Some of those jurors may be persuaded by these images that the man up in court must be guilty. That could mean he won’t get a fair trial because some jury members’ minds are already made up. Given that, any defence lawyer worth his salt will attempt to get the case thrown out before it begins, claiming his client will not receive a fair trial because of prejudice.

What that means is a guilty man may go free because of over zealous social media pundits.

So, whether you’re a professional journalist, or an aspiring journalist looking to break into news via your own website or blog or any other form of social media, you need to be aware that once someone is charged with a crime, his or her picture should not appear and any comment should cease, as well as any implication that the person committed the crime he or she is charged with.

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