Are fair trials possible in today’s world of social media?

The world wide web connects millions by transcending geographical boundaries, dismissing time zones and redefining ‘accessibility’. However, while the internet, especially social media, has many perks to offer, it also creates complications like never before.

As the number of internet users increases with each  passing day, a deluge of varied opinions and dialogues flood every available online platform. Networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram give a voice to every individual who has access to an internet enabled computer or a smart phone. Sometimes, the ability to make themselves heard brings a positive change in people’s lives. Unfortunately, it also gives the masses power to indirectly influence decisions that actually demand neutrality, logic, and extensive research.

A prime example of an administrative establishment that has been adversely hit by social media is the legal system. The freedom of the press is undergoing a paradigm shift, and social media trials are its medium. In the past it was common to come across sections of people who openly criticised judgements passed on high-profile cases but these opinions were far removed from the proceedings of the court and, therefore, had very little influence on those officially involved. Today, such criticisms are easily accessible and they are often laced with slander speeches that aim to malign the reputation of advocates and judges. Such personal attacks on a platform that reaches far and wide can unnerve even the most steadfast of people

What’s worrying is that those presiding over such cases often face ostracism as a result of things written about them on social media websites. With time, the social pressure takes a toll on their decision-making abilities. The circulating opinions also have the power to bring in an element of bias and influence their decisions. Such perspectives were once shared only by accredited journalists of the court. Now, there are hordes of opinionated individuals with little or no knowledge of the law and the justice delivery system who use social media as a medium to spread half-baked opinions. The functioning of a justice delivery system is, therefore, rampantly distorted on a regular basis.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, the internet has also begun doling out paid and fake news. Each story, funded by a certain somebody, furthering some agenda, has the potential to reach a billion people and alter their beliefs. This is a huge problem especially since the majority of the population now depends on social media for news and information. Neutral journalism that was once the rule is now the exception. Recognising and giving weight to the written word over ‘water cooler gossip’ has become a jaded concept.

While all of the above may lead you to believe that the internet has entirely usurped and tainted the role that scrupulous reporting and journalism once played, it is incorrect to believe so. Media continues to be the mediator between a judge’s verdict and the public’s response to it. Facilitating this exchange properly and meaningfully is crucial. Sadly, the media, too, is accused of being irresponsible with their roles of disseminating factual news as opposed to rumoured opinions. It is charged with acting as the judge, the jury and the executioner in each case.

There are several cases that stand testament to the pressure that false reporting and social media campaigns put on not just the general public but also the judiciary. The first example to come to mind is the Aarushi Talwar case in which the parents of the deceased were portrayed by the media in all shades of grey even before a verdict was reached. Another example is that of Jagadguru Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal’s case in which the people were made to believe through aggressive reporting that the holy man was in fact a murderer much before the courts had concluded their proceedings. This is not to say that there are absolutely no instances in which pressure from various forms of media has lead to a positive outcome. Jessica Lall’s murder case is one such example. Had it not been for constant media intervention the perpetrators of the crime would have gone scot free. Similarly, in the case of Priyadarshini Mattoo, the murderer, a highly influential man’s son, was finally put behind bars after years of persistent pressure from the media and the masses.

The right to a fair trial is the only way a miscarriage of justice can be averted. Since judiciary is all that people turn to for delivery of justice, having a fair trial is an essential part of a fair and just society. There’s an unspoken understanding of roles played between reporters and the jurors and how social media can be called the disruptive glue holding them together.

So, what can be suggested to address the elephant in the room and reach fair verdicts?

  1. Clear guidelines should be set down for jurors to ensure that they refrain from doing their research on social media. By adhering to such a rule, jurors will enter the courtroom without any preconceived notions.
  2. Only accredited journalists should be allowed to make use of electronic devices during court proceedings. This helps keep a close grip on the number of journalists that are permitted to attend current cases and the content they publish.
  3. Introducing a 15 mins lag to the ‘live’ tweeting mechanism for the journalists present in court. This will ensure any material that could amount to contempt of court is contained.
  4. Jurors that tend to high-profile cases and their families should be given proper briefs on how to manage their social media platforms. This is a necessary yet underrated measure. It makes sure that anything posted by the juror or his relatives doesn’t hinder the proceedings of a case and maintains its integrity.

Each suggestion mentioned above can help restrict social media from seeping into trials and their outcomes. I don’t think this solves it all, but I do believe it is a step in the right direction.

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