William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Pistorius case highlights the failings of social media

Oscar Pistorius is an inspirational icon whose fierce love for his woman inadvertently had nightmarish consequences. That’s what the cloyingly vociferous fans on his website would have us believe.

Oscar Pistorius is an ego-on-stilts with temper issues which, due to his arrogance, inevitably resulted in violence. That’s what his detractors punt on social media sites with equal determination.

It’s an intense online debate. The theory of the day, of ‘what really happened’ in his killing of Reeva Steenkamp, is endlessly dissected and disconcertingly personal insults are traded.

Such diametrically opposed views are not going to be resolved by a court judgment, however measured, on Pretorius’ culpability. And that’s only partly because the judicial process is notorious for delivering unsatisfyingly imprecise outcomes when it tries to squeeze human tangles into the template of law.

The court judgment won’t be the final word because the social media universe is pretty much impervious to what society decrees to be the truth. Any official version is merely the kick-off point of an endless process of questioning, of distortion and propagandising by vying camps.

This happened in the old-media world, but to a much lesser degree. Free speech means that controversy has always existed over what really happened – new theories speculating who really assassinated John F Kennedy in 1963 still surface to this day – especially when we dislike or don’t trust the official version. Dogged investigations kept issues alive through articles, broadcasts and books, and on occasion resulted in wrongs being righted.

The new media, however, has a number of negatives in this regard. Previously, getting into print was relatively expensive, with editors and publishers acting as gatekeepers, so the bittereinders who did not or could not accept the official version were eventually deprived of the oxygen of publicity, unless they could unearth a genuinely credible new theory.

Social media, in contrast, has virtually zero cost to participation and no gatekeepers to make a judgement call. Or more correctly, those who could be gatekeepers have discovered the benefits of embracing the nutters and fomenting the frenzy, so as to ramp readership.

Social media also has a life of its own, a continued in-your-face online presence that shades the shelf-life of print. The scurrilous and the fanciful exist online forever, with no counterbalancing imperative to acknowledge the fact that while everyone is entitled to an opinion, not all opinions are equally valuable.

Further, social media has killed off the sub judice law. South Africa no longer prohibits the pre-trial publication or discussion of material likely to be part of the proceedings. The explanation was that learned judges are unlikely to be affected by the online twittering of the ill-informed and the prejudiced, but it is probable that the move was based equally on the realistic assessment that the law had become unenforceable. Whatever the reason, this change has unleashed a pre-trial frenzy to influence public opinion.

While it is true that many scoundrels, mainly crooked politicians and businessmen, tried to use the sub judice provision to prevent the publication of public interest information, it had at least one important benefit. It reserved to the courts alone, after a dispassionate process, the right to rule on guilt or innocence. By forbidding public speculation during the judicial process it shielded justice against any possible taint from a public engorged with emotion. It’s the same reasoning that lies behind SA preferring the arbiters of guilt to be judges, sometimes sitting with assessors, rather than juries.

It may well be true that no high court judge will be swayed in the Pistorius case by facile tweets or Facebook bleats. Nevertheless, before the actual court case has even begun, Pistorius has been tried thousands of times over in the court of popular opinion, based often on information leaked by one side or the other to gain advantage. The dignified trial process has been pre-empted by a scramble for public-relations advantage.

Which is why it nowadays is a priority for the accused – be it Shrien Dewani who allegedly had his bride murdered during their Cape honeymoon, or Pistorius – to employ the right public-relations expert, as assiduously as they seek out competent legal counsel.

One such fundi made the point that the best pre-trial strategy was for Pistorius and his family to keep a low profile. They should disappear from public view, not take journalists’ calls or issue statements, not debate the issue on social media and focus on preparation for the trial.

Certainly not for Daddy Pistorius to lay blame for the killing at the door of black government and, this week, for the Sunday papers to report Pistorius partying and flirting merrily. Then again, one can take a donkey to the water …

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    • Enough Said

      I believe the benefits of the social media outweigh the negatives. There is nowhere for strongmen and thugs to manipulate the mainstream media as much as they used to in the past. The diversity of views and opinions from the crackpot to the expert on social media should make most people question and think for themselves more, and try and search for the truth if they have that type of intelligence. I believe the public should wisen up to bulldust in the mainstream as well as social media if they are intelligent readers due to these debates on social media.

    • WSM

      @Enough Said: Whatever reservations one might have about social media, I would agree with that. It is certainly more difficult to manipulate a million sources of information than it is to manipulate or censor or bully, half a dozen.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Are you certain you have SA sub judice rules correct? Those rules, as you state them, applied to Jury trials of the USA and Britain. SA does not have Juries, or elected Judges either.

      I always understood that ANYTHING submitted officially on court papers, including replying papers, was publishable, but I speak under correction here. Certainly that is how my newspaper editor pals explained it to me in the 1970s

    • WSM

      @ Lyndall Beddy: You are quite correct, Lyndall. Anything that is part of the court record is publishable, and always has been. That includes the various papers, from whichever side they are filed. All immediately, once filed, are part of the court record, accessible to the public and journos, and hence part of any public debate.
      The sub judice rule stands separate from that. It relates to anything that MIGHT possibly form part of the proceedings. So it damped the kind of speculation that social media excels at, in that it prevented pre-emptive dissection of material that potentially would likely be admitted to the court record.

    • Brian B

      Some observations of the Pistorius saga.
      There are basically two camps.
      The pro camp mainly consisting of the fairer sex who feel a profound sense of sympathy for the accused and are quite willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
      The anti camp , mainly males feel a sense of disgust and revulsion that a lovely person was gunned down in a situation where, if there was an alleged threat to her safety, should have been the perpetrators prime priority to protect.
      It seems that celebrities attract attention and adulation regardless of their conduct.
      The demonstration of religious fervor at the trial and by some supporters in the social media and elsewhere seems at odds with the brutal reality of the situation.
      To lay blame at the door of the government for the tragedy is rather delusional . Perhaps he rather contemplate what went wrong and what influence he had on his sons behavior and character before making sweeping statements.
      Are public relations experts (spin doctors ) necessary if you are innocent and will the state fund the costs for those who can not afford them?
      The social media plays an important part of modern society by enabling people to give their views and vent their frustrations. Whereas the media tend to manipulate news to further their own agendas , the social media provides a raw cross section of what people are actually thinking warts and all.

    • WSM

      @Brian B: ‘It seems that celebrities attract attention and adulation regardless of their conduct.’ Yup, you have hit the nail on the head, regarding the essence of social media!

    • Paul S

      I agree that social media provides a vehicle for giving opinion and views not possible just a few years ago. However, I also see it as a platform for very corrosive comment and personal attacks which are easily carried out behind the safe anonymity of a username. To quote just one example: while the initial live BBC online reporting on the Boston bombing was interesting, it paled to nothing compared to the some 17 000 related comments flying back and forth between the anti-Muslim element (largely in the US) and the purportedly more open-minded rest of world . I’m pretty sure they would have torn each other apart if they had been in the same room or neighbourhood, and this was long before any suspects had been identified. You have to wonder what long-term effects are resulting in our global village, which seems to have more than its fair share of idiots, many very active on social media..

    • ‘whiteness’

      “Are public relations experts (spin doctors ) necessary if you are innocent and will the state fund the costs for those who can not afford them?”

      Whether we like it or not, most (almost all) political (GOVERNMENT) reports in the media on issues like how safe or necessary nuclear energy or genetically modified crops or fossil fuels, or soldiers to the CAR are, are spin.

      But some idiot in goverment said so, so some idiot in the mianstream media towed the line and printed it. And the average idoit that has the vote does not know what those issues are so they vote some idiot they don’t know into power, totally against their best interests.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Maybe I should have clarified what I meant. The fact that qualified and experienced Judges, and not unqualified and inexperienced Juries, decide verdicts SHOULD MEAN that the media and social networks have no influence.

      Except that the ANC now have decided that Judges (and advocates) need not be either qualified or experienced but must meet race or gender quota.

      We already have seen what a disaster that caused with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission run by amateur Judges.

    • http://amandzing.wordpress.com/ amandzing

      Sub judice was shot down by Justice Nugent in 2007. Not sure, despite this article, if it has been removed from the law books or what its present condition/status is.


    • http://http//paulwhelanwriting.blogspot.com Paul Whelan

      The current situation appears to be (after 2007) that any action brought in future on the grounds that a matter aired was sub judice would be unlikely to succeed unless it could be demonstrated that the decision of the court had been influenced – something perhaps impossible to do as judges are judged able to resist the pressure of popular opinion by training and temperament. In short, sub judice is effectively no more.

    • Momma Cyndi

      In the old days, the very same arguments and judgments would be over hedges and in pubs. Nothing much has changed except the scope. People are still the same but now they have a wider group in which to discuss it all.

      I bet that Steve ‘Sasol’ Hoffmeyer is thanking his lucky stars that his various indiscretions were pre-social media and every Hollywood star of the golden age is thankful that Heat Magazine wasn’t around back then. Still didn’t stop the skinnering back then though.

      Taking away the sub-judice didn’t change much other than cutting back a tiny bit on the wilder speculations

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Nats could not sucessfully censor information with state laws in the apartheid days. The ANC, or any other government, has even less chance of doing it now, however many Secrecy Bills they pass in Parliament.

      In the Old Days journalists simply sold the information which could not be published in SA to the International Media and it was published overseas. Nowdays a state can only block information if it blocks its citizens from the Internet.

    • Littlebobpete


      Could there not be a third grouping. Those who believe that, regardless of who the victim is, that its absurd that anyone, even in this country, can justify the pumping of 4 bullets into an “unknown” human being.
      Thats actually the sad state of South Africa that should be debated on social media. The inferences by his legal team seem to suggest that its an acceptable behaviour. Perhaps we should rather be debating the behaviour of his legal team and their inferences. After all…….it seems…….from their perspective………the end justifies any means.