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.