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A judge's view: Social media fallout reaches the court system

If anyone doubted the raw power of social media, the past week should have convinced them otherwise. A Minnesota hunter in Africa killed what turned out to be a famous lion. Within a couple days of the story breaking, the man had to shut down his...

Dale Harris

If anyone doubted the raw power of social media, the past week should have convinced them otherwise. A Minnesota hunter in Africa killed what turned out to be a famous lion. Within a couple days of the story breaking, the man had to shut down his business and go into hiding. Organized protesters converged on a Twin Cities-area dental office. Twitter and Facebook accounts devoted to the subject gained thousands of followers from around the world, and online comments were filled with death threats toward the hunter. Several innocent employees were put out of work, a suburban police department had to increase patrols in a residential neighborhood, and a previously obscure man found himself being condemned by everyone from late-night talk show hosts to foreign diplomats.
And all of this occurred before the man was even charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one.
Regardless of how you feel about trophy hunting, the idea of becoming infamous worldwide in a matter of days should be a sobering thought. A generation ago, saying or doing something stupid might have led to some embarrassment. But it usually blew over quickly. Now, a careless tweet or indiscreet photo can “go viral” and ruin someone’s life in a heartbeat.
High school gossip becomes cyberbullying.
We now need websites like snopes.com to try to separate fact from fiction. And those only work when people bother to check a story’s accuracy rather than just hitting “share” or “forward.”
It’s fascinating sociology, but there are real people whose lives are fundamentally altered because of it.
This phenomenon affects the court system as well. One of my colleagues in the Twin Cities has a blog titled, “Jurors Behaving Badly,” and nearly all of that bad behavior now is related to social media. Divorce files are full of intemperate Facebook posts that show up as trial exhibits. Bloggers covering trials write about excluded evidence that jurors can then see online. Worst of all, responsible journalists feel extreme pressure to keep up with this tempo, and the quality of their own coverage can suffer from inadequate fact-checking.
The “town square” has become the entire globe. When a crime receives a lot of publicity, it is not uncommon for the parties to seek a change of venue. Traditionally, that just meant getting out of range of the local newspapers and television stations. But ask yourself where could the Twin Cities dentist find an impartial jury right now if his case was tried in the United States? How many people can you name who have not formed any sort of opinion on what happened to Cecil the Lion?
There are no easy solutions. Our interconnected society has made seismic changes in how we receive information, how we choose our political leaders and how we take action on issues of public concern. The court system will have to adapt and adjust as well. But as individuals, before we share that Facebook post or retweet that online petition, maybe we want to ask ourselves how we would feel if our dumbest comment or biggest mistakes went viral.

Dale Harris is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.

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