Thursday, 17 January 2013

Who's your friend?

Earlier this month we posted a news report of the Court of Appeal’s decision to direct an enquiry by the Criminal Cases Review Commission into the fairness of a criminal trial in light of revelations about social media links between a juror and the (convicted) defendant.

It had emerged that she and the juror in questions shared 22 mutual ‘friends’ on Facebook. There were said to be a number of other ‘small town links’ which at least gave an appearance of bias. See Jury trial in the Facebook era.

It’s the social media element which is of particular interest – to our senior judges and to the rest of us. We’ve seemingly navigated the choppy waters of tweeting in or from court and the obvious potential problems with that but do we now face a new dilemma?

There is no suggestion that the two women in this case were friends – in the real or virtual sense – or even acquaintances. The issue arises from the fact that they shared a number of mutual Facebook connections.

Where the two of them were not directly connected did either know that they shared these indirect links? No reason why they should unless perhaps they had trawled Find Friends for suggestions that would of course be based to a large extent on numbers of mutual acquaintances.

It’ll be noticeable that my terminology changes, as it does between social media platforms. On LinkedIn we have connections. On Twitter we follow and are followed.

“Friend” happens to be the Facebook handle. What does it mean to you? How does it compare with the definition of those with whom you choose to meet “in real life” and talk to socially on a regular basis?

I have friends, who are also “friends”, with many hundreds of Facebook friends. Often one wonders if they mean any more than a comrade in battle during the course of a Massive Multi-Media Role Playing Game.

What’s clear already is that being a friend of someone on Facebook is not necessarily an indication of affinity, though the two may co-exist. Being a friend of a friend of a friend may mean nothing.

Would knowledge of the tenuous link change that? Do those of us on LinkedIn draw any conclusions about any aspect of a person unknown to us from the company they keep, or the company their company keeps? Possibly.

If any such influences seem possible then it must follow that perceptions of potential influences are likely and the CCRC will surely conclude that guidance is needed. Perhaps that will mean that our courts again have to catch up – learn how to scrape the data that is freely available or have the means to access for these purposes. Another human rights issue.

Who’s your friend?

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