Updated Nov 27, 2021 - Technology

From Malcolm X to "Free Britney," new media shapes the justice system

Illustration of a gavel resting on a film reel.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

True crime documentaries, podcasts and social media campaigns are bringing new attention to real-world legal proceedings — and are often affecting the outcome.

Why it matters: New media platforms can instantly put a national spotlight on cases that have long been forgotten or buried under red tape.

Driving the news: Two men convicted of killing civil rights activist Malcolm X were were exonerated last week, shortly after a docu-series titled "Who Killed Malcolm X?" aired on Netflix.

  • The series brought newfound attention to the case, which was first opened nearly 60 years ago.

Britney Spears was finally freed from her conservatorship after 13 years, following a massive #FreeBritney movement that swept social media and was popularized via a documentary from The New York Times that aired on Hulu in February.

  • The film, The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, caused an all-time high in ‘free Britney’ searches, according to Google Trends.

On social media, real-world cases have become fodder for sweeping social justice movements, often spearheaded by celebrities with millions of followers.

Julius Jones was granted clemency last week, just hours before he was set to be executed for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) commuted Jones' death sentence to a sentence of life in prison.

  • The decision followed weeks of intense pressure from Kim Kardashian and other celebrities. Kardashian posted Stitt's email address to her Instagram hours before the decision, urging her 264 million followers to write to the governor about the case.
  • In the last week, there were 279k social media posts about Jones' case, generating up to 1.4 billion impressions, according to data from Keyhole.

Yes, but: These public projects don't always change the legal outcome.

  • And a new documentary, "The Phantom," examines holes in the case involving the 1989 Texas execution of Carlos DeLuna for a 1983 murder where police may have confused two Hispanic men. DeLuna is already dead and Texas is showing no signs of ending executions.

Flashback: Documentary films have long helped to shape criminal cases, even before the streaming era. Errol Morris' film "The Thin Blue Line" helped to exonerate its main subject.

The big picture: Social media, primarily Instagram, has become a hub for information and advocacy messages.

  • The Black Lives Matter movement, which became magnified in the wake of George Floyd's death and the ensuing protests during the summer of 2020, helped usher in a new level of social media advocacy.
  • Intensity around the movement heightened over the summer, during the trial of the man who killed Floyd, former police officer Derek Chauvin. He was found guilty.

What to watch: The not guilty verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse Friday has already been met with an intense social media uproar.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Nov. 23.

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