In the killing of Trayvon Martin, the angel and the devil of social media have discovered the perfect battlefield.
Without social media, the Feb. 26 killing of Martin, an unarmed, black 17-year-old in Sanford, Fla., probably would have remained forever a four-paragraph news brief in the local newspaper. On that rainy night, Martin was walking from a grocery store to his father’s home in a gated community when a neighborhood-watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, followed him, argued with him, fought with him and then shot him.
However, within social media channels, millions of people, many of whom have little direct, verifiable information, have taken sides as to whether the shooting was justified.
In fact, 2.2 million people have signed an online petition, started by Martin’s parents, demanding to know why the shooter, Zimmerman, who is half-white, half-Hispanic, has not been arrested or charged with the killing. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the case.
Bhaveeni Parmer, a Dallas attorney who specializes in intellectual property and technology and writes and speaks about social media, said that social media is increasingly playing a role in advancing legal cases and other situations.
“We’re seeing example after example of how social media can take a social, political or other public interest matters to the mainstream quickly and with a certain passion that was otherwise either absent or would take weeks or months to create,” Parmer said.
That “certain passion” exists even though the facts surrounding the shooting are murky.
Alison Fine, an author who writes about social media and social change, said, “It’s highly unlikely that anyone outside of this small town would have heard of this case before social media enabled individuals like Trayvon’s parents to share their story. … I think this is a phenomenal development and provides an immediate and bright spotlight on social injustices.”
The parents stepped forward on March 8, posting a petition on Change.org, a social media site that enables “anyone, anywhere to start, join and win campaigns for social change,” according to its website.
Until that posting, said CNN media critic Howard Kurtz, the only news coverage was a four-paragraph story in the Orlando Sentinel two days after the shooting.
The explosion of support on Change.org clearly came from social media – from people posting the link on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, emails and in other social media outlets. For instance, The Huffington Post’s report about the Martin family news conference was shared on Facebook 6,306 times and shared on Twitter 634 times. Among the 2,843 comments to that story (one of many stories about the case on Huffington Post), links to the Change.org petition were posted dozens of times.
But the power of social media to drive public awareness and public opinion in a legal case has some law enforcement observers concerned. In an online column for the Washington Times, retired Chicago police officer Peter Bella called the Trayvon Martin case “the latest social media tragedy.”
“The problem with the social media thing is that these large numbers drive the media narrative,” he said in an interview. “It fuels a lot more ignorance than it actually informs people. … Okay, fine, we want some kind of justice; it’s a moral and social wrong. But is it criminal?”
That question mark poses more than just the uncertainty as to whether Zimmerman deserves to be prosecuted. It also seems to represent the uncertainty as to the value of quickly arrived-at, mass conclusions drawn from skimpy evidence and often based on ideological stances.
No one can dispute the worthiness of Fine’s conclusion that social media can shine “a bright spotlight on social injustices,” but neither can anyone other than Zimmerman be certain as to all that took place on that rainy Florida night.
What is known is that Zimmerman called 911 to report suspicious behavior by Trayvon Martin. The dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow him, but Zimmerman did anyway.
Zimmerman said the two scuffled, and based on injuries to Zimmerman’s nose and head, Sanford police accepted Zimmerman’s assertion that he shot Martin in self-defense.
What is certain, however, is that social media channels have spawned clear abuses, some performed in the name of a social conscience.
The worst social-media excess, which has prompted criticism across the board, was film director Spike Lee’s retweeting of what was purported to be Zimmerman’s home address. The address was wrong, so a couple in their 60s was forced to flee their home. Comedian and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, whose riffs on the news are frequently “liked” and tweeted by social media users, pointed out that Lee has 250,000 followers, any one of whom could have decided to carry out vigilante justice against a family with no connection to the case. But even if Lee had tweeted Zimmerman’s correct address, Stewart said, “Sending a lynch mob to anybody’s address is a bad mistake.”
In the world of social media, lines are now drawn. Participants in social media sites are drilling down into all the publicly available evidence and arguing online over its meaning. Ultimately, the tendency of social media to drive millions of citizens into one camp or the other jeopardizes Zimmerman’s right to a fair trial, if it gets that far. As Wendy Kaminer, an attorney and civil liberties advocate, wrote on TheAtlantic.com, “Who doesn’t harbor preconceptions about this case?”
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