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Politics & Current Affairs

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 Magpublished 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 Gawkerabuses the new media privilege by publishing unethical outings of private citizens for page views. 

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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.