As many foresaw and as the judge warned, the rape trial involving the two Ulster and Ireland rugby players has caused a significant backlash on social media. Throughout the trial but especially once the verdict was delivered everyone seemed to become an expert and Facebook and Twitter were filled with people proclaiming to know whether the verdict reached by the jury was or was not correct and what this result should mean. On twitter, the hashtag “Ibelieveher” was taken up by many and almost immediately started trending. On the opposite side of the debate people were demanding punishment for the complainant following the jury’s decision. The ambiguity of a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict, meaning either that the jury thinks the defendants are innocent or that they are just not certain enough of their guilt to convict, provided fertile ground for a social media debate of epic proportions. As is often the case on social media what was missing was any nuance.
Whilst the result of the trial must now be accepted, without any definitive proof it is likely we will never know what actually occurred on that night. To claim with any confidence that you know for certain what happened is absurd. Many of the posts that carried the “Ibelieveher” hashtag contained “evidence” that supposedly back up the claim that she must have been telling the truth. Except, in absence of having actually been there on the night or even having sat through the entire trial this “evidence” was made up of snippets of the media’s heavily summarised telling of what was a very long and complex trial. Ensuring victims of rape are not discouraged from coming forward is a noble intention but the best way of achieving this is not to unequivocally condemn those who have been cleared in court and there is a chance that they may not deserve your condemnation.
It is also perfectly legitimate to hold the opinion that reform of the justice system with regard to the way we deal with rape trials, which are notoriously unlikely to lead to a conviction, is necessary. What is not appropriate is to point to this trial as a definitive example of a time when the system got it wrong, because that ultimately is unknowable.
The other main interpretation on social media of the verdict was the entirely incorrect assumption that because a not guilty verdict had been delivered that the complainant must therefore have definitely been lying and that she should now face some form of punishment or at least be “named and shamed”. This is either a grave misunderstanding of how our justice system works, or more likely, trolling of the worst kind.
It has been suggested that the trial may have improved with anonymity for the defendants. This may actually have been beneficial to everyone involved, not only shielding the defendants but also removing the celebrity interest that was the ultimate cause of this social media storm with speculation that saw abuse directed at all parties in the case.
Comments have been turned off for this post. Whilst we would welcome a full and frank debate on the issues, discussion of the specifics of the trial is currently out of bounds for legal reasons, as specified by the Judge. Defamation suits are already underway from the defence’s legal team. We are keeping an eye o the legal situation and will enable comments if the situation changes.
Finn Purdy is a student from Belfast, currently studying at Trinity College Dublin.