Trial by Twitter: online army to judge Oscar

WASHINGTON - The Oscar Pistorius case is already being compared to other high profile court appearances.

But unlike the time OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson endured their days in the witness box, Pistorius won’t just be dealing with live cable TV networks scrutinizing him.

He’ll also be judged by an army of online followers in an emerging trend of ‘trial by Twitter’.

Hailed the ‘trial of the century,’ the murder trial -- and eventual acquittal -- of American footballer O J Simpson in 1995 has become a landmark in US media history, the first time Americans were able to watch every part of a trial live on TV.

The 133 days of testimony, straight from the courtroom, created an unprecedented media circus – as Frank Sesno, a CNN anchor at the time (and now with the School of Media and Public Affairs), remembers: "If there hadn't been cameras in the OJ Simpson trial it would have, I think, had a tenth of the impact it had."

"First of all, there would have been no 24.7 television coverage. You can't have television without pictures. If there hadn't been 24/7 television coverage it wouldn't have become the sort of icon of its day," he adds.

Ten years later, the advent of the internet meant that fans -- and detractors -- of singer Michael Jackson were just as engaged, when in 2005, he went to court on charges of conspiracy to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.

That was in spite of the fact that the judge banned cameras from the courtroom and lawyers were prohibited, under a gag order, from talking to the media.

But what wasn’t around at the time of the Michael Jackson trial were web pages such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit -- social media sites where anyone can now discuss their thoughts on a trial, and potentially live tweet about the proceedings.

Frank Sesno thinks that makes a big difference: "If the OJ Simpson trial, with cameras in the courtroom, was a three ring circus, if there had been social media, Twitter and Facebook, it would have been a 300 ring circus."

"Now it's not a spectator sport, it's a participant sport, everybody can play. Everybody can sound off, everybody can comment in real time about what they've heard or what have you," he adds.

"And I do think that what social media allows is this sense of ' I'm part of the jury too, let me tell you what I think'."

But that feeling of power, through social media, has also proven a problem in some US courts, says media lawyer Adrianna Rodriguez, when certain jurors decide to blog or tweet their thoughts on a case in a way that could undermine the justice system.

"The problem is that when they do that they create a following, just like you create a following when you post your opinion about anything, and it starts further developing your opinion outside the proceedings and a way that's outside the rules of evidence and all the protections that have been put in place to ensure a fair trial," Rodriguez says.

There’ll be no jury in the courtroom when Oscar Pistorius takes to the witness stand.

But thanks to the legacy of trials like those of MJ and OJ, there will be a worldwide jury waiting and watching online, ready to dissect the superstar’s every move -- and cast their vote in a reality show with which they feel intimately involved.


* Watch eNCA's US correspondent,  Lorna Shaddick's video package from Washington, in the gallery above.

- eNCA

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