Judge, jury and executioner - cast your vote now

Dylan O’Neill discusses the effect that media has on the court of public opinion.

In the popular dystopian sci-fi show Black Mirror, series writer Charlie Brooker has gained prestige as a digital town crier, focusing on the relationship between human nature and technology. In the season three episode, Hated in the Nation, Brooker provides a startling indictment of humanity’s complacency when facing natural disaster, in terms of the introduction of the andriod bees. The episode also serves as a mirror to society on their use, and undoubtedly misuse, of media and the power it wields in influencing public perception. Throughout the episode, the hashtag #DeathTo is used by the British population in response to a number of national scandals to voice their outrage. After it comes to light that the use of this hashtag is directly connected to the deaths of these public figures, amazingly, the public continue to use it, this time with an added fervour.

Black Mirror has never shied away from showing human nature in an unflattering light, but this episode, along with Shut Up and Dance, is perhaps the most chilling when one thinks about how the episode fits into the series. Unlike many of the previous episodes, there is no futuristic backdrop that sets the characters at odds with the world, it is set in modern day. The artificial bees are the only source of a science-fiction McGuffin, with their exposition quickly glossed over. This makes Hated in Nation one of the most disturbing episodes of the series in how close to home the episode hit viewers, when it first aired in 2016.

Fast-forward three years, and shockingly, most of the events have already come to pass in the real world. Bees are fast becoming an endangered species, with an ever growing need for international intervention to sustain the ecosystem. Even more so for the influence that media plays in everyday life. With the globalisation of social media platforms, people from around the world can voice their opinion on news events as they unfold. Where there is a sharing of information on such a large scale, there has been an emergence of opinions from those who incite violence and xenophobic thinking against public figures or marginalised groups. This in turn leads to news cycles being dedicated to the public response just as much as the inciting incident, making it almost impossible to go a day without hearing about the latest scandal. If we then consider the implications on this constant stream of information, we must ask ourselves just how much of our society is shaped in response to the media?

Take a case of a criminal court proceeding for example. Such a high profile case will undoubtedly lead to heated responses from the public, as we’ve seen in the Graham Dwyer trial and the Paddy Jackson trial. With the media covering this reaction, and giving the full story behind the cases, is it practical to expect the jurors on each case to abstain from following the story? Is the media inadvertently adding pressure to reach a conclusion? Is the court of public opinion now the only real judgement that matters in the 21st century?

After the verdict of the Paddy Jackson trial was reached, there was mixed responses of outrage and vindication from many online. Despite, what many believe to be a miscarriage of justice over the treatment of the victim and what was allowed to be presented as evidence, it sparked widespread conversations over the rape culture and what constitutes consent in society. Post-trial, the idea of teaching consent in schools is still hotly debated in the Dáil, with some TDs supporting the reformation of sexual education and others staunchly opposing it. As for Jackson, though he evaded jail time, he was found very much guilty in the majority of the public’s eye.

While Black Mirror dramatises the role of the media, it is not an immediate precursor to the world of George Orwell’s 1984, where the media is a tool to enforce one particular way of thinking. As mentioned before, social media has created a means of communication between individuals and communities and brings together stories from across the world, creating a larger sense of community. This lends greater support to issues that are at the forefront of discussion in social spheres. Prime examples of this were the two #HometoVote campaigns for the marriage referendum and 8th Amendment referendum in 2015 and 2018, respectively, both garnering worldwide support, and criticism, from different international groups.

With such a powerful influence that the media holds, it depends on the user for how it is implemented into real life. When social media has been used to share criticisms of those in power and who abuse their influence, there can be real world forms of retaliation. Recently, there has been a rise in claims that universities harbouring and promoting “leftist propaganda”. Governments in Brazil, Hungary, Poland and Venezuela have called for restrictions to be placed on these universities, with some countries even instigating a professor watchlist, that encourages students to “tip-off” the authorities if their professors or university staff express left-leaning political views or are critical of right-wing views. Some state-controlled media publications and broadcasters are subject to oversight from the country’s government's department of communications and must clear their schedules with officials before sharing content with the public. Independent news publications suffer from lack of funding, creating a monopoly in the media sector. Once a government has a grip on the country’s media, it then becomes a case of squashing any form of media that would attempt to set itself up as independent and critical of the nations treatment of its citizens.

With the potential of the media to be complicit in the derailing of democracy, should the pre-emptive polling of political candidates be considered harmful to the democratic process? There is an argument to be made for the potential of bias in editorial decisions being made in polling certain demographic to skew the results in favour or against a certain candidate. In the age of information and post-truth perception, the media can hold just as much sway as the millions invested in the candidates’ campaigns.