Persuasion Matters

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Social Media, the Court of Public Opinion and George Zimmerman’s Defense

Facebook. Twitter. Websites. Blogs. Social media is an inexpensive, readily-available source for gauging public opinion. And it’s working its way into litigation strategy.

Casey Anthony’s defense team used social media to monitor public opinion and assess reactions to the actual trial (which was available online through streaming video). The case was a hotbed of public opinion, armchair jurors and heated discussions among complete strangers. People were generally quick to voice an opinion online. And a candid one at that. By observing social media outlets, the Casey Anthony defense team created a cost-effective (albeit somewhat skewed) shadow jury.

The George Zimmerman defense team in the Trayvon Martin case has taken things up a notch.

Instead of being a silent observer in the world of social media, the trial team has opted for active participation. They have created a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a website and a blog. Why? Millions and millions of Americans turn to the internet to gather information, communicate, and connect. Sure, the internet can be a cesspool of inaccurate and distorted information… but it’s also a perfect opportunity to be heard in the court of public opinion before the trial even begins.

Pew Research recently released new statistics related to internet and social media use. The highlights below certainly support the value in using social media to educate the public about the legal process, monitor opinion and attempt to correct misinformation and misperception related to litigation-related issues.

  • Everyone is connected, even grandma. Don’t assume that only the “young folks” are gathering information online or participating in social media. Ages 18-34, 94%; ages 30-49, 88%; ages 50-64, 79%; ages 65+, 48%. (Click here for additional demographic breakdowns)
  • 88% of adults own a cell phone, and more than half of those phones are smartphones. (Click here for data chart)
  • 62% of adults with cell phones are considered “just in time” users because they have used their phones to problem-solve, gather information or coordinate plans within the last month. (Click here for additional data)
  • 59% of adults online access search engines on a daily basis.
  • 66% of adults use social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. (Click here for additional data)

Folks in the legal industry tend to be skeptical of embracing media reports on legal disputes as 100% truth, but the general public? Not so skeptical. Just like prospective jurors, John Q. Public filters new information through his view of how the world should work. Trials are about the jury’s perception of truth and justice: one juror’s truth may be another juror’s fiction.

Personally, I think the Zimmerman defense team is extremely smart to assert its voice using social media. Of course, this does not come without great danger.

Time will tell whether the benefit outweighed the risk.

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