Two words that rarely appeared together in our vocabulary until about 20 years ago. Now it seems, we are hooked on it. It inhabits our every day lives in ways we could never have imagined.
Everything is up for sharing – from childbirth to death, every aspect of our lives can be scrutinised, held up for comparison and discussed like never before.
This week has been a busy one on the social media scene:
Australian Sarah Stevenson live streamed the birth of her first child on You Tube. And more than one million people tuned in to share her 30 hour labour.
Prince Harry warned of the pernicious effects of social media, calling it more addictive than drugs or alcohol. And this was in the same week that saw the launch of his and Meghan’s new Instagram site.
Sir Lynton Crosby’s firm came under fire this week for its use of pro-Brexit social media advertising. The ICO are now investigating its use of personal data for political purposes.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s 14 year old daughter, Apple Martin, created a storm when she complained (on social media) that her mother should not share photos of her (on social media) without her consent.
And just this morning, the Liverpool Echo has taken the media and social media platforms to task, asking them not to share the notoriously unflattering photographs of the women at Aintree’s Ladies Day. This annual sharing of women in various states of undress, disarray and inebriation has been social media fodder for the last few years – now it seems the tide is turning.
We have all seen the damage social media can do, from its negative impact on our children’s self esteem, to being the main carrier of fake news, to adversely affecting criminal trials, the last two decades have borne witness to is ever-pervasive influence.
Reading this, you might be tempted to think that it’s all a relatively recent phenomenon. But don’t be fooled. Although technology has changed, the psychology behind the success of social media has always been there.
We were reminded of this when we came across the story of “Sally Arsenic”. The story of Sally Arsenic was told as part of the BBC’s Murder, Mystery and My Family documentary series, in which historic convictions are re-investigated and re-tried by current judges and barristers.
Sally Arsenic – whose real name was Sarah Chesham – was hanged in 1851 for the attempted murder of her husband. She had also been previously charged with murdering her three sons, and the son of her husband’s ex-girlfriend. She was said to have poisoned all five with arsenic, hence her nickname.
The case was notorious at the time, and more than 6000 people came to witness her public hanging.
But what is most shocking about this case, is the fact that she was convicted not only on very unsafe evidence, but on the undue influence of the media coverage at the time. She was sensationalised by the press and portrayed as a murderess before even having gone to trial.
In 1848, The Times newspaper described her thus:
‘it is beyond a question that an accepted and reputed murderess walked abroad in a village unchallenged and unaccused’
And it was not just The Times. The social media of the day – gossip – knew no bounds. And its influence was great.
Sarah was deemed guilty by all, before setting foot in the witness box. Her reputation was sullied, even her erstwhile “best friend” claimed that she had told her she was unhappy in her marriage and looking for a way out.
Against such overwhelming trial by media, Sarah was on a hiding to nothing. She had no defence lawyer, but that mattered not. Gossip and press coverage had tried her and sentenced her.
By re-examining the case last year, Jeremy Dein QC found Sarah’s conviction to be an unsafe one, citing not only lack of evidence, but the unfair influence of gossip and the media at that time.
Sarah’s descendants have now written to the Justice Secretary, seeking a posthumous pardon to clear their ancestor’s name.
You can see the programme in full here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0003w1t/murder-mystery-and-my-family-series-2-episode-8
Anderson Chance 5th April 2019