Over the last decade social media websites over have transformed both our landline and mobile based internet experiences in a way not dissimilar too—and in fact as a part of—the overall transformation of how people gain and share information that the internet has been bringing about for the last two decades.
Not shockingly, social media’s reach has found its way into the jury box, unfortunately not with the greatest results. As a general rule judges and the legal academy have viewed social media as any other kind of media and banned jurors from accessing or using it as a means to obtain information about the case to which they are assigned. Interestingly though social media access bans incorporate two traditional jury rules, ones prohibiting discussing or reading (also seeing news updates, etc…) about the case while it is ongoing, because of the dual multimedia and communications aspects of social media websites.
Social media bans, like the related older bans on discussion about or “old” media reading or viewing, exist to ensure that jurors base their decisions on just the arguments and evidence they hear in court and therefore ensure neither side is disadvantaged by any external out of court information or argument that they were not given a chance to address in court. To put it simple, such bans help to ensure that both sides in a trial get a fair shot to make their case to a jury without outside interference.
Because of the importance our legal system rightly places on trial fairness and preventing jury interference, social media use by jurors has become an increasingly pervasive and costly problem. There are numerous cases of both mistrials (for multiple examples see this article) being declared because of a juror’s use of social media which can in and of itself prove costly in terms of time and court costs. The problem is exacerbated when an appeals court has to overturn a lower court decision and order a retrial, like happened here. This is because instead of the regular trial and appeals you would have in the judicial history of a case you wind up with an aside initial trial and appeal that don’t count legally and served as nothing but a waste of money and time (in both cases, for both sides at trial and the courts and by extension the taxpayers).
Social media has like most aspects of the internet greatly changed and expanded how people share and access information. However, when it comes to juries that increased sharing and access has to be tempered with some degree of juror abstinence or restraint while they perform their civic duty so that the right of both sides to a fair trial that our society champions is not abridged by a juror read or was told online and which neither side at trial was able to address. Otherwise we might as well just settle cases based on how many #INNOCNET or #GUILTY trends a case receives, a scary proposition if I’ve ever heard one.