TechCrunch’s Paul Carr has a thoughtful piece on “cyber-vigilantism” where citizens witness or experience a crime and go online to chase it down, name the alleged perpetrators, or pressure the authorities out of complacency:
“[W]hen that naming happens, the case is over before it’s begun: no matter whether the accused is guilty or innocent, they are handed a life sentence. Until the day they die, whenever a potential employer or a new friend Googles their name – up will come the allegation. And, prison terms notwithstanding, that allegation carries the same punishment as guilt – a lifetime as an unemployable, unfriendable, outcast. There’s a reason why the Internet is a great way to ruin someone with false allegations – and it’s the same reason why falsely accused people are just as likely to harm themselves as guilty people.”
The post was written after TechCrunch decided to delete a story about an alleged sexual assault and is a useful read in provoking us as journalists in any medium to reflect on how we treat stories of this type.
There are no hard rules of course, and associated legal issues vary from country to country.
In the Judith Griggs case, for example, was I right to post on the story? My decision was based on a few factors: firstly, I was reporting on the actions of those on her magazine’s Facebook page, rather than the ‘crime’ itself (which was hardly the first time a publisher has lifted). Secondly, I waited to see if Griggs responded to the allegations before publishing. Thirdly, I evaluated the evidence myself to see the weight of the allegations. Still, I’d be interested in your thoughts.