Social media shaped Zimmerman trial start to finish

ebenn@miamiherald.comJuly 15, 2013 

SANFORD -- Scott Pleasants, a college professor testifying by Skype in the murder trial of one of his former students, couldn't keep a straight face when the whoosh-whoosh sounds of incoming calls derailed the testimony.

His head, projected in real time on a big screen in the courtroom, was soon completely obscured by pop-up requests from incoming callers. Tech-savvy pranksters watching the George Zimmerman trial on live television bombarded Pleasants' Skype account July 3 while he tried to answer defense attorney Mark O'Mara's questions via Internet video chat.

Whoosh-whoosh.

Whoosh-whoosh.

Despite the seriousness of the proceedings -- Zimmerman, Pleasants' former criminal-justice student, faced life in prison for the killing of Trayvon Martin -- the professor and courtroom

observers were suppressing laughter, the presiding judge was annoyed and only O'Mara seemed to have a clue about what was going on.

"I gotta tell you," O'Mara said. "There's now a really good chance that we're being toyed with. Just so you know."

The Skype incident -- Pleasants finished his testimony through an iPhone propped on the witness stand -- encapsulated the way technology and social media played into every twist and turn of the Zimmerman trial.

Although the trial was nationally televised gavel to gavel, something Americans have grown accustomed to since the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial almost 20 years ago, many thousands took to Twitter, Facebook and blogs to opine, vent and bicker about the case.

"The case touched so many chords, it became a contemporary media event as people tuned in to find out if their view of reality would be affirmed," said Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The advances in social media and technology made it possible for people to follow the case but also debate it.

"Once a story goes viral, it takes on a life of its own," Hunt said.

An indication of just how viral it went: On July 3, as the world watched the Egyptian military overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, "Zimmerman Trial" was steadily getting about 20 times the Google search traffic than "Morsi Egypt," according to a tweet from New York Times statistician Nate Silver.

The web's fascination with the Zimmerman case started soon after the former Neighborhood Watch leader fatally shot Trayvon, 17, of Miami Gardens in February 2012.

At first a barely covered news story in Central Florida, Trayvon's death was thrust into the national spotlight, heavily powered by social media. One of the first big hits came when Michael Baisden, who at the time hosted a nationally syndicated radio news program, posted a story link to his 585,000 Facebook and 65,000 Twitter followers. That helped jumpstart public interest and activism, online and off.

Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, quickly turned to the Internet, too, creating a change.org petition to demand the arrest of Zimmerman. The movement garnered more than 2.2 million virtual signatures. The public outcry seemed to work: Zimmerman was arrested 44 days after the shooting.

As media latched on to the racially charged case, news outlets raced to be first in posting discovery evidence, like Zimmerman's call to police where he reported Trayvon as suspicious shortly before the killing.

A reporter for Miami's WTJV-NBC6 and a Miami-based network producer were fired after they spliced out parts of the audio recording that, many said, made Zimmerman sound racist: "This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black." The second part of Zimmerman's statement came in response to a dispatcher's question about the person's race.

As details of the case circulated -- an unarmed teen shot dead while carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona drink -- the hooded sweatshirt Trayvon wore became nearly iconic, with scores posting, sharing and tweeting photos of themselves wearing similar garments.

Miami Heat's Lebron James and Dwyane Wade famously posted pictures of themselves and the team donning hoodies in support of Trayvon. Others used photos of Trayvon as their Facebook and Twitter avatars, often with the words "Justice for Trayvon" across the images. As the trial neared an end Friday, thousands changed their online photos to black, using the hashtag #blackout in a sign of Trayvon solidarity.

Zimmerman and his legal team also turned to the web to rally their backers. Zimmerman created a website, The Real George Zimmerman, in which he made his claim of self-defense, quoted historical figures and included a prompt for contributions. The site is inactive.

O'Mara, Zimmerman's lead counsel, launched another one, gzlegalcase.com in April 2012, dedicated to raising funds for the legal defense, releasing documents and updates on the case, and acting as a voice for Zimmerman. The site was an uncommon move in criminal trials, but Zimmerman's team said it generated large amounts of traffic and donations and could be the new-normal in such cases.

"We contend that social media in this day and age cannot be ignored," a message on the site reads. "It is now a critical part of presidential politics, it has been part of revolutions in the Middle East, and it is going to be an unavoidable part of high-profile legal cases, just as traditional media has been and continues to be. We feel it would be irresponsible to ignore the robust online conversation, and we feel equally as strong about establishing a professional, responsible, and ethical approach to new media."

University of Miami School of Law lecturer Jan Jacobowitz said attorneys must use the social-media tools at their disposal in order to effectively represent their clients.

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