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Tim Burke: Has social media fueled our rush to judgement?

To see examples of the ever-increasing rush to judgment, take a look at any form of social media today and read the comments posted.

It’s remarkable how quickly people on social media will offer their opinion on any topic. The comments are mostly a condemnation of whomever or whatever the post was about, especially political posts.

Not too long ago, political differences had at least something to do with the issues, but in the age of social media, it’s almost entirely about social type. It’s about finding and spreading viral soap operas that are supposed to reveal the dark hearts of those who are in the opposite social type from your own. It’s about finding images that confirm your negative stereotypes about people you don’t know. It’s about reducing a complex human life into one viral moment and then banishing that person to oblivion.

For a recent example, just look at the media circus that surrounded the Covington Catholic High School boys.

Nick Sandmann, the teen at the center of the 2019 misinformation-fueled internet controversy, recently settled with CNN after suing the cable station for defamation for $275 million. CNN had rushed to judgment and didn’t thoroughly gather all the details of what happened in the incident before putting it out for public consummation.

The public was outraged by what CNN initially reported.

That public outcry against the Covington students was fueled on social media by a tweet containing a brief video that misleadingly appeared to show a smirking Sandmann and the other students surrounding Phillips and blocking his path.

Public outrage ensued, and the image quickly spread over the internet with many reacting to the image by stating it depicted racism exhibited by Sandmann and the other MAGA hat-wearing students.

But after the initial video drew national anger, which resulted in death threats directed at Sandmann, more footage containing additional context emerged, and statements made by Sandmann indicated that Phillips had approached Sandmann and that Sandmann was backed into a group of other students and didn’t have much space to move out of the way.

Sandmann stated he was not smirking but smiling to indicate that he didn’t pose a threat, and that he was surprised and confused to find himself in the predicament.

CNN’s anti-Trump bias was clearly evident in their rush to promote a negative MAGA supporter story without thoroughly checking all the facts.

This rush to judgment and condemnation of someone takes place behind a computer screen or smart phone. People get a false sense of courage, and they post whatever they want, because they feel that there is nothing that anyone can do about it.

Before the internet and social media, if you wanted to state an opinion, you had to do it publicly (face to face) or through the print media.

Back in our wild west days, publicly stating a misinformed story or negative opinion could get you drawn into a gunfight! So, it was prudent to keep your mouth shut or at least know all the facts before you spoke up.

Social media posters might want to pause for a moment before they too rush to post an opinion and condemn someone. They need a list of things before they take to the keyboard: more information, more context, the whole story and the real facts before they offer their opinion.

One cause of action that may arise from posting information on Facebook is a defamation of character claim.

To prove defamation of character, the victim has to show that you made a statement that was published, it caused the victim injury and it was false and was not a privileged statement. The statement must be spoken or written.

Spoken defamation is usually referred to as “slander,” while written defamation is usually referred to as “libel.”

While many people may look at Facebook as a private medium to share information, Facebook is actually considered a public forum. Furthermore, multiple courts in various jurisdictions have found that there is no legitimate expectation of privacy on Facebook, even when users take precautions to keep certain content “private.” The victim has to show that someone saw the post.

Successfully winning a defamation suit does not require that many people saw the communication, as even an email sent to one person has provided justification for an award in other libel actions.

The statement must be damaging to the individual, including to his or her reputation. This may require that the individual show how he or she was damaged from the statement, such as being ostracized from a social group or losing business at his or her store.

Some states have “slander per se” standards in which certain statements are presumptively slanderous, such as statements that a person committed a crime, was professionally incompetent or was promiscuous or a carrier of a disease.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole new category of lawyers that figure out a way to sue social media posters for comments against their clients in the very near future. CNN found it to be a very expensive lesson.

Tim Burke is a businessman, philanthropist, educator and Pahrump resident. Contact him at timstakenv@gmail.com

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