A Kent State University professor under investigation for alleged ties to the Islamic State has been dominating local headlines.
The Kent Stater, KSU’s student publication, published a story on Jan. 19 stating that the FBI was investigating associate history professor Julio Pino for involvement with the Islamic State.
The media quickly picked up on this story in a matter of hours with headlines popping up today on Fox and CBS News.
The problem with this story, and many others like it, is that because of its viral nature and the public’s tendency to jump to conclusions, people may — and likely will — assume this man is guilty as charged before any trial takes place. Even though his involvement is alleged, Pino’s reputation — guilty or not — may already have sustained irreparable damage.
The Kent Stater article is careful to use measured and reasonable language in their reporting saying that the FBI is investigating Pino for “alleged involvement with… ISIS or ISII [sic],” but the reactions on Kent Wired’s online Twitter plug-in suggest there are plenty of readers whose minds are already made up.
Pino told the Kent Stater that he knows there are stories circulating, but his “current status … [is] a citizen of the United States with all the rights and obligations that entails.”
Kent State President Beverly Warren seems to understand how quickly bias can spread. She sent out a university-wide email saying that although Pino’s comments do not reflect the university or their values, the development is “an ongoing investigation” and said “it is not prudent to speak further about the case.”
In a follow up piece, Pino told the Kent Stater, “I follow the law. I advocate that others do so also. And I ask others to respect my freedom of speech as I respect theirs.”
The issue here is not Pino’s guilt or innocence. It’s the media’s disruption of the due process granted to all U.S. citizens. While that concern isn’t new, it’s been exacerbated by the proliferation of social media.
Consider the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and the Reddit witch-hunts.
Suni Tripathi, a Brown University student, was briefly misidentified as a suspect after the FBI released grainy images of the two bombers. The student went missing a month before the bombing, which — paired with his ethnicity — led some internet sleuths to name him a suspect.
His family said they were “being harassed” and by the time names of the actual bombers came out days later, Tripathi was considered a terrorist by much of the public. His name was linked to attacks by major news organizations. He was found dead of suicide a little over a week after the bombing. His grieving family was burdened with the stigma of having their son’s name associated with the Boston Marathon Bombing.
The Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” is a ten-hour-long case study of trial by public opinion. The documentary presents a compelling argument suggesting that police framed its subject, Steven Avery, during a murder investigation. By showing clips of news reports and interviews with citizens in the county where the trial took place, the directors illustrate how quickly the public’s biases set in regardless of facts or evidence.
Following the documentary’s release, the pendulum swung the other way with legions of outraged fans of the program petitioning the White House for Avery’s release and harassing the “villains” of the documentary through social media. Again, rather than waiting for researched facts, the public leapt to a collective conclusion on the matter.
It’s good to consume media, but in doing so, we must remember that truth is often slow to service our desire for instant gratification. Social media has given everyone a voice, but not everyone’s voice is authoritative. To speak on an issue before there are facts to support an argument is an exercise in ignorance.
Sites like Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are all wonderful platforms for expressing yourself, but not for convicting criminals or sniffing out terror suspects.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11, says “everyone … has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial.”
We need to reprioritize as a society. When speed becomes more important than accuracy, those who end up in the spotlight suffer.
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