I’m back with another episode of Chicago PD. But this one was about a bombing, and how “social”-media trolls led to people’s lives being destroyed. The episode began with a bomb going off in the TV studio. One of the people killed by the bomb had a few years ago, as an intern at an online entertainment rag, send a tweet about a reporter who was writing an article about a murder. The tweet was meant as a kind of a joke, implying that the reporter who was writing about the case might have been the murderer as well. The tweet was stupid, it was pure speculation, it was intended as a joke, and years later it got this reporter and a bunch of other people killed by a bomb.
And who was the bomber? The bomber was the reporter who was fired from his newspaper because of that tweet implying that he might have been the actual murderer, which was then “retweeted”, leading to the internet trolls making all sorts of accusations about him that were untrue. His wife left him and later committed suicide. He was blackballed by the newspaper industry and journalism in general. At that point. he decided he had nothing left to lose, and built his whole life around the crusade to punish those people who ruined his life with false accusations. One of the detectives asks, incredulously, “you mean all these people are dying because of a two line tweet?”
During the course of the investigation into the bombing, the Chicago police department had arrested a suspect, and once again the internet “blew up”, as they say, with false accusations about this suspect. He was rapidly cleared by the police and released, but not before his family was the subject of many threats–both phone and internet–bricks thrown through their window, bullying of his children and his generally being roasted on social media. Or should I call it Anti-social media? In this new age of “fake news”, anonymous mass accusations, tweeting/retweeting of irresponsible speculation, the more intelligent and circumspect among us are asking “what ever happened to innocent until proven guilty?”
Here are some quotes from a mainstream newspaper (Chicago Tribune) commentary on that question; the whole commentary is well worth reading innocent: “One of the core principles of an advanced society: the presumption of innocence. The great liberal English barrister John Mortimer called this presumption the “golden thread” running through any progressive idea of justice. And it’s a thread that is being weakened in the febrile post-Weinstein climate. It is now astonishingly easy to ruin a celebrity or near-celebrity. You can do it with a social media post. Spend five minutes writing a Facebook entry about how so-and-so in Hollywood once did something bad to you and — boom — that person is done for. You can dispatch him from polite society with a press of a button on your cellphone.
“Some have argued that the presumption of innocence is a legal standard that does not apply in everyday life. The law must not prejudge someone, but we can. In fact, that’s how Mitt Romney framed his condemnation of Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate. “Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections,” Romney wrote on Twitter. In a narrow sense, that’s perfectly true. But Romney’s line of argument can lead us astray. Legal standards aren’t cold, abstract ideas. They embody what communities over time have agreed is a more civilized way of doing things. People are brushing aside the presumption of innocence as legalism so they don’t have to feel bad when they tweet: “This man’s disgusting.” They’re saying that while judges should exercise restraint, mere mortals don’t have to. What spectacularly low self-expectations.”
In the Chicago PD episode, the suspect who was arrested then released confronted the detective who had arrested and interrogated him, after holding him for 48 hours. “You can’t even look me in the eye and apologize, can you?” he asked the detective, whose only response was a stone-faced “you’re free to go.” That gave me an idea. What if that police department had an official website, and Twitter and Facebook accounts, and posted, on their own social media, a declaration of innocence or something like “we cleared so and so of the crime for which he was arrested and strongly condemn anyone who uses social media to shame or make threats against this individual.”
Oh, wait one, Chicago police DO have a website and Facebook account, and many individual police have twitter accounts. What does the police dept. post on their website? Pages and pages of wanted and arrested criminals, including faces and names. What about Facebook? Announcements of various sorts, lots of community congratulations. Anything about clearing innocent arrestees? Nope, not a one. I understand–even if they wanted to clear someone’s name publicly, what would that lead to? Lawsuits for “false arrest”, lawyers up the wazoo, unscrupulous losers trying to get arrested so they could sue and all manner of harm to the police trying to do their job. Hmm, I guess I won’t expect to see social media exoneration countering social media harm anytime soon.
As far as the principle “presumption of innocence” goes, what can we say about the fact that there are over 300,000 Federal crimes in the U.S. code? Countless U.S. citizens are guilty of a crime without knowing it, and are often tried in the various sorts of media these days. Presumption of innocence? By whom? Has that bird already flown? Maybe the root of the problem is too many lawyers who have to justify their existence.