December 6, 2020

Trial by Social Media – A New Threat to The Administration of Justice

Could a well written paragraph, so full of accusations on an individual, fly in the face of centuries of Black letter law? Can an individual act as the judge, jury and the executioner in the courts of Instagram and Facebook? If this practice goes unrestricted, the laws of the land will be dragged down the streets with utter disrespect. Is this the development in technology and youth that Abdul Kalam envisaged for India in 2020?

A recent incident over a group conservation on Instagram triggered various controversies throughout all social media platforms. It was alleged that a group of boys were involved in sharing obscene content and making derogatory remarks about women. Following which, police complaints were lodged against various members of the said group. In a surprising turn of events, it was found that a girl had created a fake profile and was involved in one of the conversations that surfaced in the group.

This incident had seen a steep rise in various young women expressing horrid sexual abuse encounters of the past. Various individuals and mental health organisations, took to share these stories, preserving identities, in most cases. One of them was an ostensible victim, who claimed to have been abused by a minor boy, few years ago. Following this, many, in a show of support to the victim, abused the boy behind the incident. As a result of the threats that followed, the boy, only 17 years old, committed suicide. What was pathetic was post his death, a few insensible users had the gall to comment ‘Justice delivered’.

The definition of justice in the 21st century is evolving, pitifully.

Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 and Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights confer a legal right of presumption of innocence to the accused. The Indian constitution too, reiterates this as a principle of Fair trial, guaranteed under Article 21. This golden thread of criminal jurisprudence is essential in preserving the integrity of the courts and the dignity of the accused person. The public’s agitation over such sensitive issues often fails to approach the accused with a presumption of innocence. The downside of allegations on social media, is the absence of evidence. To believe baseless claims of one and demean another is a pathetic frolic of these platforms.

De Smith gave that “no proposition can be more clearly established than that a man cannot incur the loss of liberty or property for an offence by a judicial proceeding until he has had a fair opportunity of answering the case against him”. Audi Alteram Partem – no man should be condemned unheard, is an essential principle of natural justice. For justice to be done, both sides at conflict should be allowed to explain their stance. This principle found its place for the first time in Bagg’s case[1]. Since then, it has been an inalienable aspect of any prosecution.

If at all someone had reached out to that boy, to hear his side of the story, he would’ve probably been breathing today. But the sheer ignorance of the fact that the victim’s story isn’t the only one side and that the flip side of the coin beholds something else, has caused the death of this boy.

To quote jurist John Salmond: “It is public justice that carries the swords and the scales, not private justice”. If two individuals were to pronounce justice for their conflict, it would result in bias and chaos. Such would render the purpose of an established judicial system, redundant. Today, more than ever, our courts strive best to serve as a safe haven for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. At such a time, taking the laws in our own hands, is a complete mockery of the age old systems.

The purpose of this article was not to condemn those who have ably supported the survivors, not to scrutinise the women who claim to be victims, but to ponder upon the fact that social media has clouded our judgements to an extent that we find justice in the death of one, without ever getting a chance to hear his side.

Nobody on social media is a judge to another’s cause. We shall not take the authority to decide the authenticity of a claim. A matter as sensitive as this, cannot be thoughtlessly branded as true or false. Yes, an evidence for such a ghastly incident is almost impossible at most cases. But does that mean, mere accusations on another shall be considered sufficient proof?

In my opinion it is time we rephrased an important legal maxim: Nemo iudex in causa sua, which translates to – “No-one is a judge in his own cause”, into something that shall translate to “Everyone shall not act judge for another’s cause”. We as a society, should always be aware that any claim, however sensitive in nature, is not proven until a judge declares so. Although it is natural to be carried away and sympathise with the victim, as educated torch bearers of this glorious nation, we should always keep our highest faith in the judiciary and respect its principles.

Yet another aspect to be concentrated on is, a limited, yet sufficient regulation system that keeps a constant check on these platforms. The tendency of some content tends to deprave and corrupt the minds which are open to such immoral influences. These regulators shall have to apply the test of obscenity adopted by the Supreme Court in Ranjit D. Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra[2], thereby not curtailing the fundamental right to free speech. The jurisprudence behind free speech and is so robust that it at times, has taken a toll on justice itself. This mandates reasonable restrictions to accommodate varying social interests, especially on social media platform.

The only hurdle in the entire issue will be the global presence of the internet and social media, which makes it onerous to control, regulate and fix accountability for material uploaded from abroad and viewed in India.

Although the Indian Penal Code, under section 292 and the Information Technology Act, under Section 67, and various other legislations discuss the punishments for sharing of obscene content, there is no statutory body that governs the same on social media platforms. Print media is governed by the Press Council of India, TV Channels by the National Broadcasters Associations, and Advertisement agencies by Advertising Standards Council. What does the social media have? Self-regulation?


[1] Bagg’s Case (1615) 11 Co. Rep. 93b.

[2] AIR 1965 SC 881.

Author Details: N. Asmitha is a student at VIT School of Law, Chennai.

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