Making a Murderer, Anonymous and Trial by Social Media
The online audience is a powerful entity. We are now fairly accustomed to getting what we want. Companies ask for our input in creating the products we would like to see. We can customise our own t-shirts and mugs. We made a Veronica Mars movie happen, we revived Arrested Development, we bought a chunk of the Abel Tasman. Séries Netflix Activism is literally at our fingertips. When we hashtag, it trends. When we speak, the decision-makers listen.
Now we would like to determine guilt and innocence.
A well informed public is not a bad thing. A politically active, vocal population is not a bad thing. Mob justice is a bad thing.
Netflix hit docu-soap Making a Murderer aims to point up corruption in the judicial system. It exposes systemic failures caused by human error and prejudice. It reminds us that the law is fallible when corruption is allowed to flourish. The problem here is that the public reaction was a desire to circumvent ‘the process’ altogether, exoneration by petition. We can’t determine guilt or innocence via public opinion, especially when we’re getting our information through a skewed source.
And in the age of change.org and KONY2012, we’re not content to simply discuss the case as entertainment. This is happening right now, and we’re accustomed to being able to exert some authority over our on-screen narratives. We want our new favourite show to end in a way we’ll enjoy. And so we unite for action, bring power to the people.
In January 2016, a petition calling for a presidential pardon for Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, reached the required 100,000 signatures. Although it seems the pardon isn’t applicable in this case, it demonstrates the strength of our collective conviction that it’s our role to circumvent the legal process.
Carried away on a wave of righteous indignation, we use our keyboards to seek a raw form of justice. We don’t want the slow gears of appeals and motions, we want to cut through the red tape and bring down the guilty.
The problem is, no person, or unregulated group of people, gets to be judge, jury and executioner. We have these complex institutions for a reason; accountability. Within each branch of our legal systems, there are safeguards, scrutiny, paperwork, reviews. There are processes in place to prevent abuses like those that have occurred in the Avery/Dassey case, so that these things are aberrant and only happen when there is a large-scale collusion. There are also processes to correct and punish when miscarriages do occur.
But all that moves too slowly to soothe our moral outrage. This is the same corner-cutting mentality makes online crusades like Anonymous problematic. In collective structures like Anonymous, there is no editor, no fact checker, no safeguards. It’s a beautiful idea; true transparency, freedom of information, abolishing bureaucracy. Except that people are emotional and trigger-happy, and when we start seeing ourselves as Batman, problems arise. Here’s some examples:
Steubenville, January, 2013. After the rape of a high school girl, an Anonymous subsidiary, LocalLeaks, releases damning footage of a former Steubenville High student joking about the rape. However, they also release false information about the case and the rape victim’s name. The anon at the head of the operation shrugs it off as full disclosure.
The treatment of Jon Belmar, Chief of the St. Louis Police Department, in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. Twitter account TheAnonMessage ‘doxxes’ Belmar, tweeting contact details and photographs of his family to an enraged public when he declines to name the shooter.
Shortly afterwards, self-appointed social media investigators release their conclusions that Michael Brown’s shooter was a man named Bryan Willman. Willman is in fact a dispatcher from another state. His photo and personal details (some inaccurate) are circulated online by Anonymous. Willman’s social media accounts are flooded with so many threats that he shuts them down. He stays in his house for six days, on ‘lockdown’.
There’s also the infamous overzealous misidentification of Boston bombing suspects, and the young Australian man who was falsely identified online as a bomber in an attack in Bangkok last year. These are some of the largest scale instances of false information and irresponsible vigilantism, but there are plenty more.