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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