The Office of the Attorney General has this week launched a campaign to educate the public on the risks of social media posts about ongoing trials. To find out why this is needed, Senior Content Executive Tobias Sansome investigates the risks to our judicial system, and the AG’s plans to overcome them.
In the last decade, we have seen a substantial increase in the use of social media as a holistic part of our everyday lives. People use social media to communicate plans with friends; to reserve bookings at restaurants; to co-operatively work and share data; and most frequently – simply to share their opinion and insight. This has, of course, had profound effects across a variety of sectors; with industries like retail, entertainment and communications being amongst the most widely affected. It was believed that the practise of law had remained (largely) unsullied by the ubiquitous nature of social media: as recently as March 2019, the government had asserted in a release that “social media does not currently pose a serious threat [to the criminal justice system]”, and that “although the risk has increased in recent years” the possible threats to court proceedings were minimal.
Hidden in the aforementioned release however, was a section that suggested (with great prescience) that “one area of concern was that some social media users are unaware of reporting restrictions”, something which – it was speculated – would lead to increased breaches of anonymity orders, or contempt of court. The release concluded that the increasingly common “social media posts which are in contempt of court or which identify someone subject to an anonymity order… [have] the potential to put trials at risk.” Whilst the extant cases of this were rare, it has nonetheless exposed an ‘information gap’ between the government and the population; an issue that – as we shall soon see – has necessitated an orchestrated communications campaign by the Office of the Attorney General.
“Knowledge is Power”
At the core of the information gap was the fact that whilst journalists and lawyers knew how to navigate the rules of contempt; often, social media users did not. Although the information on what actions may risk contempt of court has long been codified and made accessible to the wider public, little focus has been put into proactively educating the public on the risks inherent in posting about ongoing cases.
Within the last decade, there have been a number of examples wherein court proceedings have been severely jeopardised by the use of social media, and in particular via the use of social media to identify and defame anonymised defendants. The teenagers convicted of the murder of Angela Wrightson were quickly identified and vilified on social media, despite having been granted an anonymity clause protecting the identity of the girls even past the age of 18. The widespread sharing of the information led the judge to abort the trial, leading to the loss of tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayer money, delaying prosecution for a year, and even risking a mistrial.
In addition to the reputational risk posed to defendants standing trial, social media has created an element of physical risk for those who give testimony in court. In 2018, during a trial of her two close relatives, a woman identified only as KH took a series of photographs of witnesses for the prosecution, despite the judge having issued an order imposing restrictions on reporting or identifying the witnesses. KH uploaded the photos and videos of the witnesses from the court room, identifying the witnesses, tagging them on social media and calling on her followers to share the posts amongst the community. This placed the witnesses at enormous risk, and jeopardised the validity of the trial.
A third risk is the risk towards those who are incorrectly identified as criminals. The ‘Golden Thread’ of British justice states that ‘all are innocent, until proven guilty’ – admirably upheld in the courts, but unfortunately, often eschewed elsewhere. Social media has a expressed a particular fondness for identifying guilty parties, with ‘Twitter detectives’ famously identifying a slew of criminals including multiple trespassers at the January 6th Insurrection and the Kenosha shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse; as well as being the stars of a documentary about online vigilantes hunting down animal abusers. However, these amateur sleuths have also frequently incorrectly identified (and subsequently vilified) the wrong person. In 2013 the forum website Reddit was the centre of a movement to identify and apprehend the Boston Marathon Bomber. The mob incorrectly identified a number of Boston citizens as the bomber, leading to one such innocent being mobbed by press and angry crowds. Incorrect identifications by social media detectives not only risk wasting police time and jeopardising criminal proceedings, they also impart huge emotional and psychological damage to those who are incorrectly identified, and often publicly castigated.
The most well-known case of defamation resulting from an incorrect accusation was that of Christopher Jeffries, a somewhat reclusive man who– in a cruel vicissitude of fate – was accused of the murder of his tenant, Jo Yeates. Jeffries was subsequently lambasted by the press and the wider public, until the eventual identification, confession and prosecution of the real killer. Social media was quick to assign blame to Jeffries due to his perception as an ‘oddball’ – something which was exacerbated by the press who referred to Jeffries in unflattering terms, painting a picture of a sinister and antisocial loner. However, this case marked one noticeable difference from the others mentioned above – the fallout from the case would lead to a substantial increase in awareness amongst the press, of the risk of interfering in the judicial process.
“Knowledge is a dangerous thing. But ignorance is no protection.”
Following the acquittal and release of Christopher Jeffries, a number of newspapers were found to have broken the law around reporting, and were successfully sued for defamation by Mr Jeffries. More significantly, two papers (The Sun and The Mirror) were found in contempt of court for risking prejudicing future jurists, and ordered to pay substantial fines. This was a watershed moment for tabloid – and even broadsheet – press; one which emphasised the risk of interfering with the judicial process, and established a clear precedent for future penalties. Whilst this was a landmark case within the press sector, and one which established clear rules of engagement for newspapers and journalists; awareness of the laws around contempt of court remained oblique to the wider public. As social media’s presence within every aspect of our lives has increased, so has the need for an orchestrated awareness campaign to educate the public on the risks inherent.
Recognising the need to educate the public on the risks of contempt of court, the Office of the Attorney General’s has begun a communications campaign, designed to raise awareness of the risks when posting about ongoing trials. The core of the campaign is focused on social media, in an attempt to promote the key messages amongst the most significant audience: social media users. The campaign has taken a multifaceted approach, using the hashtag ‘#ThinkBeforeYouPost’ as a rallying cry to the legal ecosystem, and sharing key cases of social media abuses that lead to contempt of court, as well as providing a series of examples of fictitious comments which would, hypothetically, lead to contempt of court. In addition to this, a tweet pined by Michael Ellis, the Attorney General contains a video in which he explains the risks to the judicial process from social media, the danger of contempt of court, and the need for greater awareness.
However, despite the admirable efforts of the Office of the Attorney General, the campaign has seen little traction. This may have been, in part due to the use of the hashtag ‘#ThinkBeforeYouPost’, which has been overshadowed by a similar campaign, that uses the slogan as it’s strapline. A week before the launch of the AG’s campaign, the popular TV show ‘Love Island’ launched a campaign designed to remind their fans of the human cost of cyberbullying following a slew of high profile suicides resulting from cyber-bullying campaigns; warning them to ‘think before they post’. The two campaigns have overlapped (as they target the same key demographics of social media users) possibly leading to confusion around the key messages.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
The issue it seems, is not the paucity of information, but rather the way in which that information is conveyed to the wider public. The information collated, developed and shared by the Office of the Attorney General is exceptionally insightful and compelling, but the extent to which the campaign has successfully diffused the message into the target audience has left much to be desired. One could argue that the government have fulfilled their mandate by sharing this information, and that it is now the responsibility of the press to inform the public of information that is relevant to their interests. Still others may claim that the onus is on the citizen to be aware of the laws, arguing that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’. Ultimately, it is a collective responsibility – the government must ensure that the information is readily available and digestible; the press have an obligation to report important information to the public; and the citizen has a responsibility to educate themselves on the law. We all have a part to play in defending the sanctity of our courts and our commitment to the ‘Golden Thread’ of British justice: that we are all deserving of a fair trial.