New Media is the New Home of Vigilante Justice

The court of public opinion has never been stronger than in our current social media age. But does the brand of justice it dishes out improve upon or subvert the rule of law?

Bill Cosby is almost certainly a rapist. It's unlikely he'll ever be convicted of that crime — statutes of limitations and all — but if the man's status is neutral in the eyes of the law, he's dead guilty when caught in the gaze of social media and public opinion. His career is in tatters; his reputation is subzero. The desalination process has already begun. It's not traditional justice, but it's something not too dissimilar.

The Cosby case, as well as countless other instances of trial-by-media, raises an intriguing question: Does the brand of justice dished out by new media improve upon or subvert the rule of law?

(For a crash course on "new media," the Wikipedia article is a good place to start, but think of it as the ugly Frankenstein monster of traditional media plus social media.)

Let's begin with Cosby to explore that thought.

Earlier this week, NY Mag published a striking feature on the nearly three dozen women who have come forward to accuse the actor and comedian of some very un-Huxtable acts. This, coupled with the release of a 10-year-old deposition in which Cosby admitted to drugging women for sex, all but closes the case as far as public opinion goes: 

"In Cosby’s deposition for the Constand case, revealed to the public just last week, the comedian admitted pursuing sex with young women with the aid of Quaaludes, which can render a person functionally immobile. 'I used them,' he said, 'the same as a person would say, ‘Have a drink.’' He asked a modeling agent to connect him with young women who were new in town and 'financially not doing well.'"


The NY Mag piece explores Cosby's long history of preying on women. It also examines the social and legal mechanisms that kept most of his victims silent for as long as they were. This last part is important; many spectators have questioned that silence. Why have all these women waited until now to speak? The reasons are plenty: fear, shame, powerlessness, etc.

"As Cosby allegedly told some of his victims: No one would believe you. So why speak up?"

Noreen Malone and Amanda Demme, who authored the NY Mag article, track the evolution of society's perception and prioritization of sexual assault. There was a time once when drugging a woman for sex fell outside the public's definition of rape. There was a time once when victims interpreted their experience with shame or compliance rather than victimhood. There was a time once when women were almost universally afraid of entering the vicious arena of the U.S. justice system.

That time is in the past now. 

Malone credits social media and recent activism (think the "rape culture" movement) with shifting cultural opinions. As women continue to empower themselves in society, issues important to them, like campus sexual assault, receive more airplay. Millennials as well treat the topic with much more seriousness than other age demographics. Young women across the country are using social media to change — and, at other points, dictate — the ways society interprets rape. They're also using it as a weapon to fight back against rapists.

"These younger women have given something to Cosby’s accusers as well: a model for how to speak up, and a megaphone in the form of social media."

The Cosby saga can be dissected any which way, but it's at its most fascinating when observed as a form of vigilante justice. It's not quite the plot to Unforgiven, but there's a similar thread. A group of women who have been wronged are now taking advantage of cultural shifts to employ new media to hold Cosby accountable. His punishment is not going to be life in prison like many rapists, but it's something. As mentioned, Cosby likely won't ever stand accused in a courtroom. But in the court of public opinion — in which Twitter and CNN are judge, jury, and executioner — he's already guilty.

Cosby's not alone here; we see this phenomenon everywhere now. Public shaming. Embarrassing exposés. Look at what's happened to the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion. What he did was lousy and maybe illegal, but maybe illegal doesn't matter much in the court of public opinion. He's being held accountable for what he did because the media has become able to disseminate this kind of story to unprecedented amounts of people.

Let's return to the question posed at the outset: Is this new media power of shaming people to oblivion (and in some cases shutting the door on a case before it goes to trial) a good or a bad thing?

In many cases, new media's angry mob will go after someone like Cosby, whose deplorable actions won't be punished by the law. It's hard to argue Cosby shouldn't be held accountable somehow. The megaphone, as Malone called it, allows the public to do just that. You could therefore contend that it represents an improvement to our current justice system. The court of public opinion catches all the crimes that fall between the cracks.

But what's important to remember is that the justice system is designed to be meticulously thorough in its investigating. It's also designed to protect the accused. The court of public opinion offers neither as a guarantee.

Let's look at what happens when the situation is much more opaque. For example, the media crucified police officer Darren Wilson last year after he shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson became the face of police brutality; pundits and talking heads branded him murder-cop incarnate. Granted, Ferguson was about way more than just Wilson and Brown, but new media had already foreclosed on the case well before public inquiries could be made to determine if Wilson really was at fault. Which he wasn't.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department acquitted Wilson of all wrongdoing. Months after new media had called him guilty of murder, Wilson was declared innocent via a report that actually knew what it was talking about. Considering how little coverage the Justice Department report received upon its release in March (Ferguson was already old news by then), I imagine much of America still unfairly views him as "the cop who murdered Michael Brown." Say what you will about the undeniable racism in Ferguson and throughout America; Wilson was still treated unjustly by a bull-in-a-china-shop media. Wilson wasn't the first and won't be the last.

The American media has never held more power than it does right now. We as a society are so plugged into the Internet we've basically inserted a funnel into our brains for major media companies to capitalize on. It's refreshing when we see a great piece of journalism make a major difference in the world, or when we are able to see justice play out in front of our eyes. It's appalling when an outlet like Gawker abuses the new media privilege by publishing unethical outings of private citizens for page views. 

This extends beyond just the Internet. Remember "A Rape on Campus?" How about the Duke lacrosse case? In the days following the 2014 Boston Marathon bombings, members of Reddit (with assists from various media outlets) twice identified the wrong person as the perpetrator. Each of these journalistic screwups was only exacerbated by the rapid spread of information via the Internet and social media. If new media gives us the ability to do more good, it simultaneously augments the consequences of the bad.

This is the obvious counterpoint to the argument that new media has a positive influence on justice in America: For every story of social media coming through in the clutch, there are at least as many examples of misinformation and untruths spreading through Twitter like an ignorance contagion. And while it's important that people like Bill Cosby get figuratively tarred and feathered, it's troubling that the practice of media shaming, since it generates so many clicks, is almost certainly here to stay.

The current state of the American media is amorphous and strange. The line that separates media activism from dangerous sensationalism is paper-thin. New media in particular offers a bevy of incredible opportunities for advocacy, activism, and — sure — even justice. But as Uncle Ben would tell you, there's a lot of responsibility coupled with that power. If the media is cool to hold Cosby accountable (and it is), then someone else needs to hold the media accountable. And since new media strives to be democratic, America itself must be up to the task.

Our media is only going to continue to be a reflection of us. That's kind of inspiring. It's also horrifying.

Read more at New York Mag

Photo credit: JIM WATSON / Getty; Stock illustration © creativenv

Below, David Westin (former president of ABC News) talks media credibility and the Brian Williams scandal from earlier this year.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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