Trial by Media, Trial by Internet

Trigger Warning: This post has mentions of sexual violence and drug use.

Toby Turner, Witch-Hunts and The Presumption of Innocence

Early last month YouTuber Toby Turner, AKA Tobuscus, was subject to a number of allegations by a former girlfriend, April Fletcher. These allegations ranged from Turner’s own drug abuse to serious accusations that he both drugged and raped April while they were together. For those unaware, Turner has a YouTube subscriber count across his channels of around 15 million – he is incredibly popular; He is also the latest in a series of prominent male YouTubers to be accused of sexual assault through a social media platform.

In this current climate of unlimited broadband, smartphones and social media, the internet seems to have metamorphosed into a whole separate world, larger than our own tangible one, and governed by a entirely different set of rules. Where once a person’s actions were only important to a tiny fragment of the human population, now they can be judged by millions of people, sitting behind keyboards, in every corner of the globe. And this is what inevitably happens when someone as high profile as Turner is subject to sexual allegations over social media. The trial plays out over the internet rather than in a court room.

The term ‘trial by media’ was coined relatively recently, ‘trial by social media’ even more so. These phrases describe a phenomenon that can be loosely traced back to way before the birth of any form of media, to the ‘witch-hunt’. The mass hysteria surrounding witchcraft, particularly in Europe during the middle ages and during the Salem Witch trials, provides a cautionary tale about how moral panic can lead to false accusations and failure to follow due process. The strongly held belief and fear of someone’s guilt could become so widespread, that any evidence to the contrary was quashed and that actual guilt or innocence no longer mattered. During the middle ages a ‘witch-hunt’ could lead to an execution; now days it is not physical damage that is inflicted, but rather damage to one’s reputation. The modern day ‘witch-hunt’ is a trial by media, a ‘social media witch-hunt’ where the accused is determined as guilty, not on evidence, not based on charges brought against them, but based on sensationalism by anyone with a keyboard.

The reaction to the Toby Turner rape allegations has been predictably substantial, specifically across non-mainstream media platforms or social media. It is hardly surprising that someone who made their name on the internet, is held accountable by it. The general conversation has rightly been supportive towards the alleged victim,  and has led to wider conversation about the nature of power-imbalance within relationships and sexual assault as a whole. However, there is a flip side. whilst these conversations are undoubtedly positive; belief in the survivor’s story can naturally manifest as a belief in the accused’s guilt and, when the trial is being held by social media, irreparable damage to their reputation.

Continuously through this discussion online, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has been shouted across the internet by either those who believe Turner to be innocent, or those who place weight on the principle. The US legal system is built on the presumption of innocence, all trials are based on the premise that people are innocent until proven guilty. But how does this work when there isn’t a traditional trial? How does this work when a story breaks on the internet, and the punishment is dealt out by millions of usernames on a screen with the ability to make or break a reputation?

Turner’s case is merely an example of the ‘trial by media’ phenomenon. The accusations against him have not made it into mainstream media, nor have any charges been brought against him (to the best of my knowledge). His situation is vastly different to many other’s that could be discussed; but is reflective of a trend, where accusations against persons are so sensationalised and publicised, that maintaining a presumption of innocence is increasingly difficult as everyone taps their keyboards to have their say. Maybe the courts haven’t tried this person, but the public has.

This trend is particularly prominent in cases where people are accused of sexual abuse, where there is so much importance placed on believing the victim, that presuming the innocence of the accused falls second. It’s a difficult and contentious area, and one worthy of further discussion. The importance of believing victims who come forward in these cases is indisputable, regardless of whether it is to the police or over social media; however, with increasingly microscopic media coverage, public outrage, and in some cases mass hysteria, do we also have an obligation to protect the accused from a presumption of guilt and prevent a potential ‘witch-hunt’?

References and Further Reading

For information relating to the Toby Turner abuse allegations:

An Interview with Jon Ronson, author of ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’:

For a brief history of the Salem Witch Trials:

An article discussing the importance of believing rape claims:

Note: The next post will follow on from the above, exploring the importance of believing sexual abuse accusations.