Morgan Freeman finds out that the internet has turned millions of Americans into lawyers, prosecutors, and jurors

The only thing missing from today’s internet charge, trial, and conviction of actor Morgan Freeman on allegations of sexual harassment at a workplace are the digital eyewitnesses like the ones that caught Al Franken play-fondling Lauren Tweeden’s breasts.  In Mr Freeman’s case, the eyewitnesses were human. The prosecutors, lawyers, and jurors, however, are mostly digitized and charges and convictions merge and rapidly go viral in a globe that is increasingly connected.

My title implies that the number of arm chair attorneys and jurors has increased. Check your Twitter and Facebook timelines and observe your followers and friends opining on allegations by eyewitnesses (allegations not yet entered into any legal record) and an apology issued by Mr Freeman (questionable as to whether it is admissible as evidence and probably meaningless since he admitted to nothing). As to whether the number of commenters contributed significantly to the degree of virility, I would answer that while there was some contribution, the number of commenters was not the significant contributor. The main contributor is the number of online editors or gatekeepers.  There are more people today that are giving a “thumbs up” to posting a story.

If you lived in Charlotte Amalie, U.S. Virgin Islands in the 1970s, you had one newspaper and two television stations providing you news. That meant three editors deciding what local news got broadcasted and back then local TV news coverage was sparse, in my opinion.  Today the internet has changed that.  Alternative online news sites and blogs mean that a non-story to one editor is a scoop to another. It is not that the same level of information is spreading faster. Viral means to increase the amount of available information that gets to more consumers via digital means.

The increase in the amount of information reported is compounded by an enlarged forum within which the public is exchanging ideas. Some net neutrality advocates would call an enlarged forum an example of the openness of the internet where more media consumers can be heard. Hence the millions of armchair lawyers and jurors.

How valuable are these opinions? In a court they don’t mean much. Judges and attorneys would not want juror assessment tainted by uninformed opinion, meaning these days they would have to look under a rock to find people outside an earshot of a podcast on the matter.  To a social scientist the public exchanges online provide some data on attitudes toward the tawdry behavior Mr Freeman is accused of, but as an experiment, as a measure of opinion the public exchanges don’t provide the best data because the collection is not subject to the best controls.

Probably the only benefit that matters is that people can claim that while they are not a lawyer, they slept at a Holiday Inn and the ability to vent support, denial, anger, or frustration en mass is benefit enough.

A reining in of the political media should be expected under a nation-state model

Forbes reported today about a statement of work issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on 3 April 2018.  The statement of work seeks prospective vendors capable of providing the Department’s National Protection and Programs Acquisition Division with the capabilities to monitor traditional and social media. The specific objective of the services is:

“Services shall enable NPPD/OUS to monitor traditional news sources as well as social media, identify any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event. Services shall provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers.”

The statement of work does not get into any specifics as to why the Department would need such a program. It could be one of three reasons. One reason could be a push back by the Trump Administration on what it calls “fake news.” Mr Trump has shown a disdain for what he terms as unfair reporting typically from media perceived to be left leaning. He has no love for CNN, a lack of love expressed with so much disdain that he came out against the Time Warner-AT&T merger, one that is now being challenged by the Trump Justice Department.

The second reason for the proposed statement of work may be to create another tool for dealing with the media attacks a Russian troll service has been accused of. By monitoring media influencers, the United States could make a preemptive strike against journalists, bloggers, broadcasters, etc., that spread fake news and set the stage for divisiveness in American politics.

The third reason I see is that the political media has to be reined in by the nation-state. Part of the nation-state’s political ordering of and for society should include keeping the collective in order by controlling the messaging. While some spin is allowed in order for news organizations to establish some type of brand differentiation, i.e., MSNBC leans liberally forward while FOX is conservatively fair and questionably balanced, the general messages issued by the nation-state via the political media must be uniform enough to keep the masses in line or distracted. Too much spin to the left or to the right creates chaos in the collective, a disturbance in the force that the nation-state cannot afford.

I believe reason three is the purpose for the Department’s statement of work. Some Americans may see the proposal as an attack on a free press, but has the press ever really been free? Except for the occasional “breaking news” (which amounts to a press secretary given their favorite reporter or a reporter they can use the first shot at a story), most political news is initiated by a state actor with the media being tasked for commercial and political reasons for distributing it.

Probably over the weekend we may see some discussion on the meaning of a “free press.” Given that this story is not even trending on Twitter anymore has me wondering how seriously the media is taking the Department’s action.