As social media becomes a bigger and bigger part of our society, people are increasingly able to share their opinions with the world. While some social media platforms, such as Snapchat, are often used for banal purposes like ensuring that all your friends know you’re watching “Rent: Live,” platforms such as Twitter have become an easy way for ordinary citizens to connect with others around the globe and make their voice heard. Now more than ever, it is easy for the masses to quickly express their views in a highly visible, increasingly organized manner, giving them an unprecedented level of influence. Using this influence, the public can now exert enough pressure to legitimately impact the world, in ways such as forcing a CEO to step down, calling for the boycott of a product, or shunning someone from the public sphere. In essence, a court of public opinion has been formed, with the populace handing down verdicts and sentences based on whichever direction the tide of mass outrage has turned. While it may seem great that the general populace finally has the power to create change, that power is not always wielded with proper discretion. With great power comes with great responsibility, and, unfortunately, great responsibility is not something that the people always possess. So, instead of functioning as a valid form of judgment, the court of public opinion is an unfair and unduly powerful entity that punishes its victims according to whim, not wisdom.
One of the main problems with the massive influence of popular outrage is that it only benefits the world if people actually understand what they’re getting angry about. In modern times, however, the average citizen gets their news less from newspapers and more from social media. Because of how common it is just to read an article’s headline while scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, many people get riled up over an issue they don’t fully understand. As if this wasn’t concerning enough, the ability to choose what you see in your feed means that social media is a political bubble for most individuals, so the information that they see is often presented in a biased manner (e.g. “Trump locks up children seeking asylum” vs. “Border security arrests illegal migrants”). Therefore, instead of having a population of well-informed, unbiased citizens, the court of public opinion is filled with uninformed jurors who are certain of the validity of their baseless interpretations.
The perils of such a system can be clearly seen in the recent Covington Catholic School debacle. In case you aren’t familiar with this incident, it went a little something like this: a video went viral showing what seemed to be a group of white Covington Catholic students harassing a Native American elder; the populace exploded in anger and the teens were quickly labeled as horrible racists; more footage from the event surfaced, suggesting that the kids were not, in fact, guilty of the harassment for which they had been accused; everyone went “uh oh,” and started backtracking once they were proven wrong. But, by this point, the students had already endured days of harassment, insults, and literal death threats, all over something they hadn’t done.
I would like to state that I’m not defending the Covington Catholic students themselves or insinuating that they are great people. I in no way condone the views of a bunch of Trump-supporting, pro-life kids, I merely don’t think they deserve to get death threats over something that they didn’t do.
This fiasco is a perfect example of how, unlike our real justice system, the court of public opinion doesn’t operate on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” To all the liberals who saw the original video, it made total sense for a bunch of Trump-supporting white kids to be assaulting a Native American elder, even though the clip never showed the students doing anything wrong. So, instead of waiting and gathering more evidence, the public immediately branded the students as guilty. Unlike a real court, the Covington teens weren’t able to present their side of the story or make their case. Once they were labeled as evil, everything that the students said was automatically dismissed as the excuses of a bunch of racists.
The swift and unjust punishment that the court of public opinion rained down upon these teens is just one example of how dangerously powerful public opinion has become. While raising up the voices of the people may seem like a boon to our democracy, this level of influence goes directly against some of the central tenets of our country. Our government was created not only to prevent the tyranny of an individual but also to prevent that of the majority. Founders such as Hamilton and Madison repeatedly fought to establish a system of checks and balances that was immune to the forces of a selfish or uninformed mob, fearing that such a group would wreak havoc in the country. By dishing out punishment based not on empirical law and evidence but on personal views and expectations, the court of public opinion is exactly the type of mass that the founders feared. In 2016 we saw the power that such an uninformed mass can have—it’s essential that we don’t let that type of power go unchecked once again.
Daniel Knopf is a member of the Class of 2022 and can be reached at email@example.com.