Facing new reality of social media

January 11, 2013

Those of us who came to adulthood before the advent of personal computers are tempted to dismiss Facebook, Twitter and other social media as fads soon to be abandoned for other distractions. Not so.

A century ago, the same thing was said about telephones.

Microtechnology has made us a world of incredibly fast change, and many venerable institutions are having a difficult time keeping up with it. The latest example of this can be found across the Ohio River in Steubenville, Ohio, where social media is confounding the justice system.

Potential witnesses for two high school football players charged with rape have been threatened and pressured through social media not to testify. Some are reluctant to come forward, the players attorneys say, because of fear that their names and addresses may be published through social media and on the Internet. One of the attorneys said they are reluctant to sacrifice their college career and reputation in whatever place they might go for fear of being vilified, not just for the moment but for years to come as the information circulates on the Internet.

The case involves not just the rape of a 16-year-old girl but also an Internet video that joked about her. The accused are members of the high school football team, and many believe other team members were involved and are being protected by authorities. The case is receiving national – and even international – attention because of the efforts of activists associating under the Anonymous and KnightSec labels. That some of these activists are protesting in Steubenville but concealing their faces behind Guy Fawkes masks is a bizarre reflection of social media itself, through which so much communication and miscommunication can be accomplished anonymously.

Lawyers of the accused are calling for a change of venue, claiming a fair trial is impossible in Steubenville. But social media and the omniscient Internet ensure that the attention will follow the case to wherever it’s tried.

A few months ago, a hostage situation in a Pittsburgh office building illustrated how social media is affecting law enforcement. Police initially were helped by their ability to communicate with the gunman through social media. The problem was that everyone else also was able to communicate with him, making ending the situation all the more difficult.

We cannot ignore these developments in communication. They have had a profound effect on commerce and industry, and they will continue to inflict change on every other aspect of our lives. The challenge is not to insulate institutions like our justice system from social media, but to allow them to adapt to this new reality.



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