5 Absurd Perversions Of Justice, Courtesy Of Social Media
The internet loves to disrupt old, outdated ways of doing things, like buying things from your local shopkeeps or raising a child who doesn't know what felching is. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, to "disrupt" something in the tech world is to 1. burn it to the ground and 2. cross your fingers that whatever replaces it won't be much, much worse, as you 3. ride off into the sunset. One arcane institution currently being disrupted by the internet is the justice system.
From time to time, this kind of disruption is a very good thing. The killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week gave us a terrible reminder of that. It was only because of the ubiquity of smartphones and social media that white people said, "Wow, it looks like that thing black people have been talking about forever is actually happening!" So the point of this article isn't that the internet can't have a positive impact. It can. But the effects of the internet are a bit like the effects of LSD: Every once in a while, we're Dock Ellis pitching a no-hitter, but more often than not, we're naked teens at risk of burning our apartments down.
You Get More Chances In Court If You Have An Interesting Story
Recent years have shown a swell of interest in true crime programs. We were endlessly entertained by Making A Murderer, obsessed with getting to the bottom of how many sketches could be predicated on nothing more than a Midwestern accent. Whatever you think of the particulars of a given case, you probably agree that the chances of someone's appeal shouldn't be affected by how titillating their story is. Unless you're a reality show producer, in which case your idea of justice involves a guillotine and a number where people can text their votes.
Two weeks ago, a judge announced that Adnan Syed, the subject of the first season of Serial, will have his case retried. It seems like there were a lot of errors made in the original case, so that's probably a good thing. But what's troubling is that he's getting the retrial because of the show. Syed's current defense attorney said that because of Serial, he "had thousands of investigators working for me, and that produced information we otherwise would not have had, and that helped us get to where we are right now."
"Let's make this one quick. I have a Division raid at 4."
Serial's first season was a tantalizing cocktail for listeners, hitting all the pleasure centers of the public consciousness at the the time. It had a gruesome crime, racial conflict in a big city, and the '90s (gag me with a spoon!). It also aired not long after the finale of How I Met Your Mother left a fan-theory-shaped hole in Reddit. If a few superficial factors had been different, this case might not have taken off the way it did and Syed very well might not be getting another chance.
It's easy to see the upside of the retrial: A potentially innocent man may go free. The downside is less visible but no less important: Because we have limited resources, Syed getting a new trial means someone else's case won't get the attention it would have otherwise. The deciding factor between two appeals shouldn't be whose story was more gripping to wannabe Nancy Drews.
The hierarchy of courts shouldn't be District Court -> Courts of Appeal -> Supreme Court -> podcasts and Netflix documentaries.
Juries Are Compromised All The Time
Everyone has a right to be tried by a jury of 12 of their peers. That's why it would be impossible to convict Beyonce of a crime: She is peerless. An important aspect of being tried by 12 people is that you be tried by those 12 people -- not them plus the ill-informed opinions of their Facebook friends. Otherwise, all verdicts would come back as misspelled inspirational quotes.
But most juries aren't sequestered, because housing and babysitting 12 people is expensive. The only place the Department of Justice could afford would be the hostel from Hostel, and that would cause more problems than it would solve. In a majority of cases, jurors go home at the end of the day to be with their loved ones (laptops). They are then on their honor to stay away from information related to the case so that their opinions aren't tainted by inadmissible information.
The only problem is that the internet makes it impossible to avoid taint. Merely by looking at their phones, jurors are instantly awash in inadmissible information. In order to avoid it all, they would pretty much have to puncture their eardrums and claw out their eyes. Or maybe even not get on Twitter for a while. The point is, it would be impossible.
"UGH jury dty iz so sutpid gonna hang this guy 4 sure LOL!"
So jurors are considering whatever "facts" they can find on the internet, the place where the second-most-linked-to video is one that we trick one another into clicking.
The worst part is, we don't know how prevalent it is. Nearly 80 percent of judges say they have no way of knowing if jurors had violated a social media ban -- someone with access to the jurors' posts would have to bring them to the court's attention. That means we are unnecessarily retrying cases (and therefore not hearing others), and the ones we retry are being chosen by how aggressive jurors get asking for follow backs.
Jurors Friend Everyone Involved With The Case
As you might expect from spending even a moment's time on the internet, people reading things they shouldn't isn't half as big a problem as people saying things they shouldn't. Tweeting about every tiny detail of your day is a God-given right that every American enjoys. And it's a right every American will continue to enjoy, because jurors' inability to stop tweeting verdicts means nobody is ever going to prison again.
In the corruption trial of a former Baltimore mayor, jurors who weren't supposed to be discussing the case outside of deliberation friended one another. Even in a trial about inappropriate backroom dealings, jurors could not refrain from inappropriate backroom dealings. When the judge chastised them for it, they failed to see the irony, with one of the jurors posting "Fuck the Judge" on his Facebook page.
"So we're in agreement about the judge's mother on this post?"
One death sentence was actually overturned because a juror couldn't stop tweeting teasers for the verdict, as though his handle was @ComingUpNextTimeOn"ShouldWeKillThisGuy". (Hands off, reality show producers.) That means that he thought the defendant should be executed, but didn't feel strongly enough about it to stop himself from tweeting. In another case, a juror actually friended the defendant, which must lead to the weirdest comment threads on his vacation pictures.
Our justice system assumes that citizens will take their duty as jurors seriously, for they hold the lives of their peers in their hands. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "Trial by jury is the only anchor yet devised that-- hold on, I just got a Tinder match. This can wait, right?"
The Internet Ensures That Criminals Stay Criminals
One of the main reasons to put someone in prison is to rehabilitate them. At least, that's the theory. But then again, the theory behind Now You See Me 2 was that people would be impressed by magic tricks in a movie, and look how that turned out. Nevertheless, true to our ideals, we spend tens of thousands of dollars per inmate per year in the hopes that they will become productive members of society.
The internet can be helpful to inmates in learning new trades or skills, so that when they are released, they can be denied employment anyway because they have a blemish on their record. Because they've become so cheap and easy, 90 percent of employers now use online background checks to vet job candidates. That often means they dismiss people without even knowing whether they were convicted of drug possession or murder, or what they've done since then. If you're hiring a line cook at Chili's, it shouldn't matter if a candidate got caught selling weed. In fact, if he could help the rest of your employees not get caught selling weed, that would probably be a huge asset.
"Trust me, you're going to want to order seconds on the salad tonight."
Instead, finding work for ex-cons of all kinds is harder than ever, increasing the likelihood of recidivism. So instead of employing hundreds of thousands of people in positions where some proportion of them might be so good as to smoke you out in the bathroom, we send them back to prison. This costs us more per head than they could possibly carry out of their potential employers' businesses, even if they worked at a company that made cash tornado machines. All because the internet turbo-charges employers' baseless assumptions about people who have done a little time for any number of reasons. Thus does the internet disrupt the quaint old idea that people should be able to move on from their mistakes.
Internet Vigilantes Can Ruin Your Life For Absolutely No Reason
If you're worried that the internet is unfairly ruining the lives of people who have paid their debts to society, I've got good news: It can also ruin your life even if you haven't done anything at all. I'm talking about internet vigilante justice, which is egalitarian in that the sights of a bloodthirsty mob could land on just about anybody.
As we've discussed before, the internet has given angry masses of people the unprecedented power to mete out justice from the comfort of their own living rooms, bathrooms, or ... let's be honest, a lot of it happens from the bathroom.
The motivation for vigilante justice is the same, whether it comes from the depths of the internet or the depths of the Batcave: punishing bad people whom the judicial system can't reach, thereby avenging the murders of your parents. The whole reason it's appealing is that it isn't constrained by the strenuous rules and procedures that bind the justice system.
This Ghostbusters debate ends now.
Unfortunately, that's also the exact reason it often does more harm than good, especially when it is being directed by people trained to never read into anything further than 140 characters. The rigorous, sometimes counterintuitive procedures of the justice system weren't developed because everyone thought they'd be a good time. They were developed because without them, we the mob get it wrong. And with all the power crowds on Twitter now have, getting it wrong can have serious consequences.
Just ask Justine Sacco, who was guilty of nothing more than tweeting a joke that Twitter misunderstood (seriously, read that whole thing -- the details are insane). Without knowing any of the details of the situation, tens of thousands of people banded together to destroy her life. (If only we could find a solution for global warming that involved viciously destroying someone's life. We'd have that problem licked by Tuesday.) They got Sacco fired, ambushed her with cameras, and permanently damaged her ability to make a good first impression on anyone with a working knowledge of Google (that is, every single person except those who share stories about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump).
If we can be so wrong about something as simple as a single tweet, why do we think we can speak with authority about complex court cases where we haven't heard half the information? We know we can't, but we also can't help getting whipped up into a rage over things on the internet, because hyperbole is all the internet is. With so many sources vying for our attention online, we scroll through ever-shorter snippets that have to become ever more extreme to pique our interest. And the less you know about a subject, the less nuanced and more extreme your view on it is, making you perpetuate the hyperbole. I haven't actually studied any of that, but I think I read it somewhere, so I know it to be 1,000-percent true.
In addition to writing for Cracked, Aaron Kheifets also writes for the prestigious website Twitter.
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