TOT TRIAL TAKES TOPSY TURN!
Did you hear? Casey Anthony has been found NOT GUILTY of killing her two year-old daughter, Caylee. The internets are aflame with outrage! Nancy Grace‘s head ACTUALLY EXPLODED on TV! Forget the Tea Party, this decision is the real spur to revolution!
I didn’t follow the case closely, but after the verdict, I did a little bit of research into the evidence and arguments. While I understand the jury’s decision, I will cop to being a bit troubled by the fact that our justice system is seemingly content with letting the death of a toddler go unsolved. It just doesn’t sit right on a fundamental human level.
The jury’s decision is fun to parse for a legal nerd like me. But that’s not what I’m really fascinated by. I’m more interested in how the proceedings played out in both the mainstream media and social networks. Recent history is peppered with highly controversial cases — from OJ to MJ to JonBenét — which have provoked strong reactions in observers. But the Casey Anthony trial was different. This isn’t because of the stomach-turning particulars, but rather the confluence of old-school media and user-powered platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It makes you wonder what the Rodney King aftermath might have looked like if it had happened yesterday.
People like to talk about “old” media vs. “new” media, as if one didn’t influence the other. But surely, the nation’s interest in the Anthony case was encouraged by TV pundits like the relentlessly shrill Nancy Grace, a woman who deserves an award for hyperbole. (Note to self: launch the Annual Contrarian Media Hyperbole Awards).
Now I know it is our duty as American citizens to respect the jury system. But I know one thing: as the defense sits by and has their champagne toast after that not-guilty verdict, somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight.
Isn’t that something? Such sustained, sensational coverage no doubt contributed to the way people perceived the case. A quick scan of related Twitter hashtags reveals multiple death wishes to Casey Anthony. This isn’t to say that she’s not potentially guilty, but it does hint at how strong emotions can be shaped by mass media reporting.
What might have been an opportunity to examine how our legal system functions instead became a powerful demonstration of mob mentality. One can be skeptical about whether justice was served and still be disturbed at the bloodlust just beneath the surface of our supposedly civil society.
And that bloodlust isn’t limited to the Great Unwashed. Corporate media feeds on it, opportunistically repackaging our obsessions as easy fodder for ratings. This creates a worrisome feedback loop that plays to our basest collective instincts.
I’m not a believer in a “fixed” human nature, but rather a spectrum of potential behaviors that are rooted in any number of factors. These phenomena are not limited to individual expression. As Carl Jung observed of the rising specter of Nazism, groups of people, too, possess a “shadow” personality that is subject to collective agitation. Here is the seed of the so-called “mob mentality” (or “participation mystique,” in Jungian terms). This phenomenon often presents itself as chaotic, but can be harnessed and directed to very destructive ends (as borne out by the Third Reich).
I’m not suggesting that the reaction to Casey Anthony verdict bears any direct relationship to Nazi brownshirts. Yet as the linkages between German propaganda and mass behavior were once poorly understood, much remains unclear about the interaction of traditional and networked media. At the right time and under the right conditions, the combo could produce calamitous results. This is the flipside to the “Twitter revolution” that tech evangelists point to as driving democratic change in the Middle East. (The fact of the matter is that little actual organizing happens on these networks; most of it is Western echo chamber.)
At the dawn of the Internet Age, many of us overestimated the power the new platforms would have in remaking our media landscape. Certainly, they have upended business models and created an unprecedented environment for individual expression. But they have yet to replace traditional media. This could be due to the relative influence these corporations have over public policy, but I think it also has to do with ingrained consumer behavior and expectation. And by the time that a critical mass of the populace is fully acclimated to the new channels, old media will have figured out a way to control the underlying architecture — through law or corporate collusion. (For those playing along at home, this battle is raging as I type, and is the main reason for my existence in Washington.)
What I’m getting at is this: the continued strength of traditional media, coupled with the unique contours of the social web, creates an entirely new world for information. Like anything, there’s bound to be a good and not-so-good side.
To truly address the feedback loop described above would require a more open and participatory media environment, and not just in the realm of social networks. Whether this is possible or not, given marketplace and political pressures, remains an unanswered question. How that question is answered will determine nothing less than the future of information exchange.
Take that, Nancy Grace.