You have to have been living in a cave on the dark side of the moon not to notice the impact the internet has had on our world in the past two decades. Now, an impact you might not have realized -- the ways in which the internet is used to manipulate what happens in courtrooms.
The manipulations are legal. It's up to you to decide if the manipulations are ethical.
In any court battle it has long been the case that the side with the fattest wallet is more able to massage the ultimate outcome. Wealthy defendants can hire expensive and politically connected lawyers. They can engage pricey jury consultants to devise strategy and investigate who will make the most sympathetic juror. Now, a new service for the well-healed called Social Media Analysis.
Simply put, it's a service that scours the internet for any and all comments about the client and their pending court case. The analyst mines chat rooms, message boards and blogs and makes note of the attitude, opinions and beliefs the local community has formed about the person in question. That analysis is then used in all sorts of ways by the jury consultant and the defense attorney.
First, they'll discover potential minefields they might encounter at trial. If the majority of a community thinks the client is a lazy, no good bum who is likely guilty then the lawyer will know to stress to the jury what a church going, hard working person the defendant is. When the lawyers stage mock juries (in advance of the trial) they can test out information they've learned about on-line to see how relevant it might be to a real jury. And, the information gathered from social media sites can be used during jury selection to help pick a favorable panel.
In this day and age -- and if you've got the money -- it seems foolish to go into a courtroom battle without thoroughly investigating what's crackling through the blogosphere about your case.
Christine Martin is a senior consultant with DecisionQuest, one of the nation's leading trial consulting firms, and she's sold on the value of social media analysis.
The internet, she says, "Is like a pseudo focus group for us. It's the first step in due diligence. If you get into court and haven't checked to see what they're saying about you and your widget on Wikipedia you could be in for a big surprise!"
But social media analysis is more than a quick Google check of a person or topic and it's more than just compiling comments. It's a social science, really, which takes in all available data and then studies it. How much negative information is out there about the client that might have already infected the jury pool? Should the lawyer ask for a change of venue? Do the negatives warrant the expense of a mock jury dress rehearsal?
Since close to 80 percent of all American households are now connected to the internet people who post on-line have come to be known as "The New Influencers" by those hired to scrutinize their words. The crackpot comments are easy to weed out. These forward thinking analysts are looking for those engaged in thoughtful cyber discussions on the news-of-the-day issues.
If you fall into that category you may already be part of this new social study on how Americans think. Realize, too, that if the analyst determines your attitude, opinions and beliefs mesh with what their client needs in a juror, they may investigate you further. They'll want to learn your age, occupation, marital status and other information to use as part of a template they'll develop to help pick sympathetic jurors later in the legal process.
So, who might buy this cerebral service? Perhaps a prominent businessman under criminal investigation or a corporation locked in a legal battle with a competitor, a vendor or an employee. Politicians are hiring social media analysts in advance of campaigns, businesses nationwide are doing the same to learn what customers think of their products and their brand.
But, in the arena of law and justice is it an ethical practice? Although DecisionQuest and others in the industry do pro bono cases, let's face it, the bulk of their clients are wealthy. Is it fair in a courtroom, where everyone is supposed to be equal, for one side to have an extra weapon?
It can also be easily argued that these researchers are doing nothing more than harvesting information that's already out there on the public vine, a more modern version of the old newspaper and magazine clipping service.
I'm from the school of: there's no such thing as too much information.
Write and tell me what you think.
Next week: When jurors tweet. How the compulsion to connect collides with jury duty.
Diane Dimond can be reached at her web site: www.DianeDimond.com