Since the “Not Guilty” verdict came in last Friday on the Kyle Rittenouse case, the debate over the handling of the case has continued across social media platforms. Armchair pundits, including celebrities and politicians, have weighed in.
To the left, the verdict has been seen as a travesty of justice – while to many on the right, justice was served. It could be argued that his supporters have noted that he had his day in court. While some on social media have suggested the system is broken, the truth is that one side is always going to be disappointed in a verdict.
Yet, many continue to vent on social media.
“We live in a time of intense polarization with contentious topics constantly being litigated in the court of public opinion. And that court of public opinion is located within the realm of social media,” explained Craig Barkacs, JD professor of business law and ethics in the Business Master’s Degree Program at the University of San Diego School of Business. “In fact, many ‘systems’ are perpetually being put on trial in social media – our system of gun laws, our system of race relations, our system of policing the streets, and, yes, even our system of justice itself.”
“Because this was a high profile case with competing verdicts already cast by the general public long before the trial even began,” Barkacs said.
However, few comments have been directed at the prosecution by either side, yet many legal experts would suggest that a bad prosecution can lose a case if it fails to make its case.
There could rightfully be “dissatisfaction with the prosecutor is that they set the charges too high,” suggested James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.
“Murder requires proof of premeditation,” explained Bailey. “That did not exist. Why not file charges of manslaughter and reckless endangerment? Those charges would have been easier to prosecute and increase the likeliness of a guilty verdict.”
From the opinions on social media, it seems that a “fair trial” may have never been in the cards.
“The Rittenhouse case is odd because everybody’s mind was made up before the trial,” added Bailey. “Before a single piece of evidence was presented, people decided he was guilty or innocent, and no amount of evidence would have swayed them to change their mind.”
Debating It On Social Media
Given all of those facts, the question is what does such a debate serve when it is conducted on social media, except to widen the divides and create further arguments. It seems that the case was pre-determined before a verdict was given, and sadly it is a clear divide along political lines.
“There are no rules of evidence, no orderly presentation of facts, and no limits whatsoever on what may be said or who may say it,” said Barkacs. “Nevertheless, that’s where we find ourselves as a nation. Understanding, respect, and unity are in short supply—and social media has played a powerful role in creating such a scarcity. Unfortunately, too much of social media seems to be designed to addict its users to anger, controversy, and hate. Individual players come and go, but the systems they represent remain.”
Unlike past high-profile trials – such as the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial – where the news media regularly had actual legal experts weighing in throughout the trial, the Rittenhouse case was really one largely confined to the debate among “non-experts” on platforms designed for discussing far lighter topics.
“Exchanges on the case have largely taken place via social media, which is always a dubious venue for discussing controversial issues because contributors can slide from calm commentary to accusatory tirades that are seldom based on the available evidence,” said Bailey. “There’s little risk for social media contributors in doing so, as they don’t have accountability; none will lose their job because of irresponsible journalistic practices.”