Web 2.0 and Trial by the Masses

Guy Brighton
  • 29 november 2007

Contributed by Jessica Greenwood:

I, and no doubt thousands like me, have been closely following the case in which an Erasmus student was murdered last week in Italy. Erasmus is an exchange programme in which European universities allow students to study for a year abroad. I did my own Erasmus year at Bologna University, not far from Perugia where Meredith Kercher was killed.

It’s obviously a high profile case given that the victim was young, beautiful and intelligent, and although precious few details are forthcoming, we know that Kercher’s death was both physically and sexually brutal. In addition to this, it’s throwing up all sorts of interesting questions about the way in which web 2.0 is having an effect on the way in which we appropriate news events. The minute tragedy strikes, the contents of personal web pages – whether of the victim, or the perpetrator – become a source of endless discussion. Facebook and MySpace pages are now seen as a fair and accurate way in to that person’s character and personality, yet the divide that still exists between the person that we actually are and the person we project ourselves as being in an online environment is never taken into account.

At the centre of this lies an awkward symbiosis. On the one hand, there is what appears to be lazy journalism, eschewing serious investigation in favour of the facile sentimentality that social networks churn up daily – ‘The last thing she posted on her Facebook was a message to her friend saying she’d see her later’ etc. And on the other? An insatiable voyeurism on behalf of a public too confused by the blurring of the lines between virtual and real, public and private to tell the difference. I Facebook, therefore I am.

I started thinking about it this morning when people in the office were gossiping about some violent short story that this American flatmate had apparently posted online and wondering why ‘no-one had done anything about it.’ The actual story was a fictional short story that included a rape accusation which she wrote for a college assignment. But what did the Daily Mail say? “Inside the twisted world of flatmate suspected of Meredith’s murder,” and focused only on that part of Knox’s MySpace site. Her MySpace friends were also hounded by the American press, simply by virtue of having clicked on a button that said ‘add friend’. And similarly, a picture of her boyfriend dressed as a bloody surgeon for Hallowe’en and pasted on his MySpace profile is now being paraded around the Internet as evidence of his complicity.

Whether they were guilty or not, the way in which we now choose to splay selected elements of our lives out for all the world to see has ostensibly granted the public the right to judge our online personas without actually knowing anything at first hand; a process not muted but positively encouraged by traditional media sources.

A little perceived knowledge is a dangerous thing. Sometimes people are exactly who they say they are online. Sometimes they are not. The point is, their virtual presence is only one side of this equation, and because we have no first hand experience we have no frame of reference with which to decide how closely related Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are in practice. Whilst I have no issue with the applications themselves, being a self-confessed Facebook obsessive since April, I do struggle with the way our perceptions have changed. Now, a person’s actual self is subordinated to the broad brushstrokes of a social network homepage. That’s not a problem with Facebook, it’s a problem with us. It’s not the band, it’s the fans.

Most worryingly, the idea that people should have ‘done something’ has huge implications for freedom of expression, particularly on the web. Done what, exactly? Prior to the explosion of the ‘create and share’ generation, the responsibility lay with friends, family, teachers and parents to flag up disturbing behaviour. These are people with real world connections, and first hand knowledge of the tendencies on display. Now, because every element of our lives is public, we are fair game not just to those who know us but to everyone who doesn’t. This notion of a huge, self-monitoring organism – what a remarkably prescient Foucault termed a panopticon years before the inception of the Internet – is positively Orwellian in its implications. Fiction with violent subject matter and Hallowe’en costumes are now considered evidence of physically violent tendencies in a person. With an atmosphere this hysterical and a community of online curtain-twitchers this large, how long will it be before a photo of you drunk outside a club leads to you being flagged up as a dangerous element?

There’s a great quote about this in an article that India Knight wrote in the Times about Kate McCann, and the public’s disgraceful behaviour towards her:

‘For once I don’t mean the (British) press, which seems to me, despite its inevitable mawkish descents into sentimentality, to have acted pretty responsibly. No, by “we”, I mean the public. Forget that old chestnut “I blame the media”: now that everyone has an opinion and an embarrassment of outlets in which to express it, “I blame the public” is going to become the refrain of the coming decades. There is no shortage of online places where people may freely and anonymously air their opinions, even if their opinions are vile or demented or both; and there are millions of these newly voluble people. They have made it all right to say unspeakable things, to air the most shameful thoughts, always to think the worst, and never to give anyone a chance…The McCann story may end up being about the death of empathy.’

The death of empathy. Is anyone else terrified?

– Contributed by Jessica Greenwood

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