Schadenfreude and confirmation bias

This is an edited version of an article I wrote for Ground Report in August 2011, when Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were still in prison.  What astonished me then – and still astonishes me –  is that people (we now call them trolls) enjoy attacking defendants in criminal trials – often using the most disgusting language.  By definition, defendants have the odds stacked against them already.  The state has almost unlimited resources that can be used to prosecute.  Defendants have limited resources and lawyers of variable quality.  Although there is supposed to be a presumption of innocence, confirmation bias often affects juries.  After all, if the defendants are innocent, why are they being prosecuted?  

In Italy, the presumption of innocence scarcely exists at all.  Its criminal justice system is a partly reformed hybrid with its roots in the inquisitorial system.  This means that in practice, the defence has to prove innocence, rather than the prosecution having to prove guilt.  The media is briefed by the prosecution from the moment of arrest (sometimes before) and throughout the trial.  This is alien to people from the UK because we have sub judice laws to prevent this.   

Schadenfreude and confirmation bias

Since 2007 online forums and news sites have overflowed with hateful comments directed at Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito. Blanket coverage of the case has coincided with the coming of age of the internet. Hostility is directed at the defendants and their families.  Often these comments incorporate homage to the victim, Meredith Kercher and suggestions that Knox and Sollecito should ‘confess’ (as if they should have welcomed the guilty role that the prosecutors and media have forced upon them).  The fact that they have defended themselves against a spurious case that cost them over seven years of their lives is presented as being in some way dishonourable to the victim.

Two factors – schadenfreude and confirmation bias have combined to enable a new and disturbing phenomenon – online vilification.  The World Wide Web is a powerful democratising force but it has also given a louder voice to the ignorant, the bigoted and the dangerous.

Schadenfreude or delighting in others’ misfortune is said to appeal to people with low self-esteem who feel better when those around them have bad luck.  Brain-scanning studies have showed that it is correlated with envy.  The magnitude of the brain’s schadenfreude response could even be predicted from the strength of a previous envy response.

The mob has always loved a murder and today’s media has an unparalleled ability to broadcast a story.  High profile crimes and their accompanying trials and outcomes have always been big news. In the years between 1196 and 1783, Tyburn, now the site of Marble Arch, was home to London’s gallows and thousands of criminals were executed there.  Londoners relished a visit to Tyburn to witness a hanging and these spectacles would draw thousands.  Large stands were erected and an admission fee was charged.  Schadenfreude was big business.

After 1783, hangings were moved indoors and spectators had to be content with baying from outside the prison.  Deprived of a ringside execution seat, the public’s fascination with murder shows no signs of waning, as the continuing popularity of the ‘true crime’ genre attests.  One crucial element is missing from books and movies – audience participation.

Confirmation bias has shaped the Meredith Kercher murder story like no other.  Perugian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini was well aware of the value of getting his story out first and wasted no time.  He set out his stall while Knox and Sollecito were held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer.  By the time they acquired a legal voice, the process of character assassination was well under way. They remained behind bars with no direct access to the media until they were eventually released.

Once a narrative has crystallised in the mind it is almost impossible to shift.  Facts that undermine the original message will be ignored.  Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman points out in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, that the halo effect, where we tend either to like or dislike everything about a person, is a petrifyingly powerful factor in our lives.  It means that first impressions not only count, but that almost nothing else counts at all.

Terry Pratchett through his character Lord Vetinari sums this up: “Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. . . . In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”

Biased interpretation explains how people, seeing the initial evidence, form a working hypothesis that affects how they interpret the rest of the information.  So Knox and Sollecito were up against confirmation bias in their first trial – big time.  The prosecution and the media saw to that. And their prior history as well-behaved students from middle-class homes fostered schadenfreude for those who enjoyed seeing them brought down a peg.

Enter the online world. Technology has made it possible to join the narrative from the comfort of your own armchair.  Web sites are set up, chat rooms enabled and a circus of slander adds to the problems of injustice campaigners.  They no longer have to simply hone their arguments, lobby opinion formers and alert the public to achieve their aim; they also have to confront sophisticated online haters.

For seven years the internet has provided a home for those who vilify Knox and Sollecito.  Since the bizarre reconviction of 2014 they have redoubled their efforts.

The war has ranged over online editions of newspapers, blogs, internet forums, Wikipedia and specific sites set up expressly to argue for innocence or guilt.  The activities of many of the core guilt campaigners ranged well beyond the internet forums that had brought them together.

In particular, key ‘guilters’ embarked on a project to neutralise and silence prominent innocence campaigners by sending letters and emails to their employers attempting to get them dismissed.  This tactic succeeded in the case of former FBI agent Steve Moore, who was fired from a top security job at Pepperdine University, while many others suffered similar attacks, up to and including death threats.

The effectiveness of these campaigns was sometimes blunted because the writers hid behind fake cartoon characters although occasionally their identities were revealed.

Back in Washington State, a superior court judge whose daughter had attended school with Knox also spoke out.  Trolls complained to the Executive Director of the Commission of Judicial Conduct in Seattle.

The relevant Wikipedia page for the case, “Murder of Meredith Kercher” was controlled from its earliest days by editors who argued that Knox and Sollecito were guilty. They correctly recognised that for journalists new to the case, Wikipedia would be their first port of call, so control of this page would shape the narrative elsewhere.  All attempts by incoming contributors to create a balanced article were expertly repulsed.  Editors fought over changes in the Wikipedia ‘discussion’ or ‘talk’ page at mind-numbing length.

Even the decision to define the case as ‘controversial’ was debated for several pages as filibustering attained art form status.  Eventually innocence campaigners organised a petition to Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder.  Once alerted, he took a personal interest in the case and arranged for new contributors to assist in editing the page.  He commented, “I just read the entire article from top to bottom, and I have concerns that most serious criticism of the trial from reliable sources has been excluded or presented in a negative fashion.”  A few days later he followed up, “I am concerned that since I raised the issue, even I have been attacked as being something like a ‘conspiracy theorist.”

The page slowly began to improve but a wholesale revision was delayed until after the second verdict.  Even now a rearguard action against reason persists.  Three weeks after the 2011 acquittal, incoming editor, ‘SlimVirgin’ admonished one of the hard-line editors, “I think you have a conflict of interest editing here, because it’s clear from your many off-wiki posts that you’re an anti-Knox activist, and some of the posts have amounted to personal attacks on her, rather than simply discussing the case. You should not be editing a Wikipedia article about a living person when you’ve crossed the line into activism against that person. . . . I therefore think you should consider not editing this article again or any of the others about Knox.”

Meanwhile vilification continues unabated elsewhere.  High profile troll James Higham posting on his blog on October 21st 2011, called Knox, “the convicted murderess [temporarily released under the appeals system]”.  He continued, “ . . . half the world knows who the three murderers are – hundreds of pages of evidence convinced them better than any PR machine or appeal mistrial – and . . . . all these people around the world are waiting for Knox to go back to prison where she belongs.”

In the wider world, US television presenter Nancy Grace spoke out against the verdict, “I was very disturbed because I think it is a huge miscarriage of justice,” Grace said. “I believe that while Amanda Knox did not wield the knife herself, I think that she was there, with her boyfriend, and that he did the deed, and that she egged him on. That’s what I think happened.”  Grace is no stranger to confirmation bias, a dangerous trait for those who claim legal expertise.

Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito and their families are victims who will have to bear the burden of accusation and expense for the rest of their lives for doing nothing more than defending themselves against bogus charges by the prosecution and other lawyers and an online lynch mob.  Trolls attempt to taint them forever as killers and they continually claim that their supporters have ‘sprung’ a murderess with a ‘PR campaign.’

They may be the most visible cases of irrational online hate, but other examples are springing up daily.  On October 15th 2011 the Vancouver Sun asked, “Are online accusations the new public shaming?” and reported the story of Garnet Ford, a roofing contractor who had been branded a murderer.  Ford was falsely accused and lost his job before the police cleared his name.  Friends and relatives of the victim had seized on the idea that Ford was the murderer and he was immediately vilified on Facebook and suffered death threats.

The Vancouver Sun quoted British Columbia civil liberties advocate David Eby who said Ford’s situation is “the worst kind of defamation.  People think that putting something up on the Web is some kind of protected form of free speech; it’s not.”

“People need to think carefully before they repeat information,” he cautioned. Anything you post, or tweet, or disseminate on the Web is considered a publication.

Ford – and his reputation – is just one of the Web’s recent casualties. The problems Knox and Sollecito and their families face in trying to regain their reputations and secure their rehabilitation remain immense.  Online purveyors of defamation and hate will do well to remember that they can run but they can’t hide. Sooner or later the worst of them may find themselves in the dock.

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