Schadenfreude and confirmation bias – coming soon to a computer near you
Internet hate is the new hobby of the bored and ignorant. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, writes Nigel Scott.
At the time of writing, a Google search for ‘Amanda Knox’ comes up with almost 35 million results. This number has increased sevenfold since the summer. A cursory glance at many of these pages will reveal comments sections overflowing with incredulity at the recent trial’s ‘not guilty’ verdict. Hostility and worse is directed at the defendants and their families. Often these comments will incorporate homage to the victim, Meredith Kercher and an accusation that Knox and Sollecito were somehow responsible for their own fate and should have accepted the guilty role that the prosecutors and media assigned them. The very act of having defended themselves against a trumped up case that cost them four years of their lives is presented as being in some way dishonourable to the victim. Other recent defendants, such as Casey Anthony in the US have attracted similar vitriol but her case for innocence was far harder to make than that of Knox and Sollecito in Perugia.
The lack of credible evidence and the peculiar nature of the prosecution case quickly attracted innocence campaigners to the cause. Their activities were redoubled when the 2009 guilty verdict appeared to defy the evidence. Innocence campaigns have a long and noble history and miscarriages of justice are sadly, all too common. Guilt campaigns are new and they are the children of the internet.
I believe that 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, especially when involving a member of the upper classes. In the years between 1196 and 1783, Tyburn, now the site of Marble Arch, was home to London’s gallows and thousands of criminals met their fate there. Londoners relished a visit to Tyburn to witness an execution and these spectacles would draw thousands. Large stands were erected and an admission fee was charged. Schadenfreude became big business.
From 1783 until they were abolished in Britain, 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. However, one element is missing from books and movies – audience participation.
Confirmation bias has shaped this 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 damage had been done and 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 meme will be ignored. Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman points out in his recent 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. As Terry Pratchett’s character Lord Vetinari puts it, “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 four years the internet has provided a home for those who vilify Knox and Sollecito. For the last two of these years the attacks were directed against a couple who had been declared guilty in 2009. Web war was redoubled as the breadth of the injustice became more widely known and campaigners for guilt dug their heels in.
The debate 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 requesting that they be dismissed. This tactic succeeded in the case of a former FBI agent, who was fired, while threats were also made to sundry academics and teachers.
The effectiveness of these campaigns was somewhat blunted because the writers often hid behind fake cartoon character identities but sometimes real names were used and retaliatory action could commence.
Back in Washington State, a superior court judge whose daughter had attended school with Knox also spoke out. Guilter approaches were then made to the Executive Director of the Commission of Judicial Conduct in Seattle. The judge remains in post.
The relevant Wikipedia page for the case, “Murder of Meredith Kercher” was from its earliest days controlled by editors who were convinced of Knox and Sollecito’s guilt. 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 verdict, incoming editor, ‘SlimVirgin’ admonished one of the hard-line guilters, “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. Polemicist James Higham posting on his blog on October 21st 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 was bold enough to speak 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 tendency for those who profess legal expertise.
At this point it is probably worth restating that in Italy as in Scotland there are 2 levels of not guilty: reasonable doubt (not proven) and innocent, “per non aver commesso il fatto”, (for not having committed the crime). Knox and Sollecito’s verdict was the latter and furthermore they were released instantly on the direction of the judge, an unusual procedure that is a slap in the face for the prosecution. Until publication of the judge’s ‘motivation report’ due ninety days after the verdict, this is the clearest indication we have that Knox and Sollecito have not been ‘released on a technicality’ but that the court believes that they were not present when the murder occurred and that no credible evidence has been produced to suggest that they were.
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 and who did nothing but defend themselves against scurrilous charges by the prosecution, the ‘victims lawyers’ and the online lynch mob. There are those who want to taint them forever as killers and their supporters as having ‘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 the Vancouver Sun asked, “Are online accusations the new public shaming?” and reported the story of Garnet Ford, a roofer who had been branded a murderer. He had been falsely accused and had lost his job but police speedily cleared his name. Friends and relatives of the dead man had seized on the idea that Ford was the murderer and the accusation and his photo were spread on Facebook. He was immediately subjected to 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 – may be the Web’s most current casualty but he won’t be the last. 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.