The OJ Simpson trial in the 90s was important for a number of reasons, not least of all as a signifier of the powerful effect of mass media on a trial. High-profile cases are now regularly featured in tabloids and popular online news aggregators.
A recent study, Public Engagement with the Criminal Justice System in the Age of Social Media, examines this same topic 20 years later, in a world where mass media is much different, and much more pervasive.
The study links the media’s portrayal of criminal trials to the dwindling of public confidence in the country’s criminal justice system. Researchers looked examined a host of data points for participants, including news reading sources and habits, knowledge about major recent criminal trials, and overall trust in the criminal justice system at large.
The study’s abstract claims that the study is the first look at social media’s impact, specifically. If that’s true, it’s amazing researchers have waited so long. We have to imagine it won’t be the last study of its kind.
Ultimately, the study finds that social media coverage and conversation about criminal trials do not enhance public knowledge, and does nothing to increase confidence in the overall system. What does tend to increase when the public engages in social media surrounding a trial, is a “greater desire for vengeance and encouragement of vigilante attitudes and behavior.” The conclusion adds that the advent of ‘cyber vigilantism’ may have been born, in part, from this effect. Noble motives, but potentially harmful actions.
As we each make choices about how we use the internet to enhance and enrich our lives, we need to consider how it’s affecting us and our perceptions of our world.
You can download the entire study here. [http://opo.iisj.net/index.