No matter what your beliefs in regard to the recent fiasco in Sanford, Florida, one thing is for certain; the case against George Zimmerman was tried as much on social media as it was in the courtroom. While this is not the first time that the Twitter-sphere and Facebook have weighed in on a major T.V. court case (see: the Casey Anthony Trial in 2011), it was significant in that the entire spectacle was driven primarily by social media.
While people watched the trail on television, or listened to news on the radio, it was through Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google +, and other social networking sources that people not only followed the ebb and flow of the trial, but organized rallies, sit ins, marches, boycotts, and even attempts at violent reaction.
George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder for the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman claimed the shooting was in self-defense, while the state and supporters of the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin claimed that the shooting was racially motivated, and intentional. While the experts all agreed that the facts of the case were too muddled for a clear conclusion, due mostly to conflicting eyewitness reports and questionable results from the available evidence, the jury found Mr. Zimmerman not guilty of the crime, and he has since been released.
That is only the story of what happened in the courtroom, however. From when the shooting happened in February 2012 through the beginning of the trial process in June of 2013, the case made international headlines, mostly due to its massive impact on social media. Facebook and Twitter were used to organize rallies and marches; social media drove the creation of National Hoodie Day, in remembrance of Trayvon Martin, and the fact that many believed he was singled out for wearing a hoodie; and social media was the number one tool used to share trial information.
Political and social ideologies were defined by other social network users based on a person’s use of #JusticeForTrayvon versus #JusticeForZimmerman. Online political movements with issues ranging from gun control to immigration to food stamps used the case as a rallying point for their bases on social media sites. There was legitimate concern by some in the traditional media that the prevalence of Martin and Zimmerman information being shared online, both true and false, could permanently taint any jury pool.
Now that the trial is over, many commentators expect the hoopla to settle down. When it reached a tipping point around the time the verdict was read, the news feared riots and demonstrations across the country, and they feared that those would be driven by social media movements. While some isolated incidents happened in the days following the verdict, it was actually social media spreading the message of peace, with most users imploring those connected to them to stay calm, not act rash, and let the system do its job. This goes to show that the massive PR resource of social media, like all of man’s great creations, can be used both as the sword, and as the shield; it is up to us to use its impacts responsibly.