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Why Twitter Couldn’t Save Troy Davis

It's what you do once you've signed off and engaged the real world that is the true measure of your activism.

At 11:08pm Eastern time on September 21, 2011, death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis was executed in Savannah, Georgia, for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail, a crime he was convicted of more than 20 years ago. The battle to prevent Davis’ execution, based in large part on several of the original witnesses in the case recanting their testimonies, began long before the emergence of social media as a dominant influence in our society. Advocates ranging from Amnesty International to President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and former FBI Director and Judge William S. Sessions had taken up Davis’ cause, helping to carry the fight through state and federal appeals and three stays of execution, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The most recent—and final—battle to get a fourth stay of execution, and more importantly a new trial, enlisted social media, and specifically Twitter, in order to spur activism and awareness of Davis’ plight. The battle reached a fever pitch in the days and hours before the scheduled execution, thanks at least in part to celebrities with large and responsive Twitter followings, including Russell Simmons and Kim Kardashian, calling for a new trial for Davis. In addition to expressing disgust and outrage about the Davis case, Twitter users urged their followers to sign petitions and flood the offices of Georgia Judge Penny Freezeman, the U.S. District Attorney and others with phone calls and e-mails to get a stay of execution for Davis. As a result, Who Is Troy Davis was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter on the days leading to his execution (despite many Twitter users, including Simmons, questioning whether the social media site had deliberately blocked the #TroyDavis hashtag to keep it from trending).

Millions of Twitter users, including many of my followers, honestly believed that if they just tweeted about Troy Davis enough, and could get their followers, and their followers followers, to do so as well, they could get him a new trial at least, and maybe even prevent his execution altogether. Many are heart-broken, disillusioned and genuinely shocked that this turned out not to be the case.

I cared about Troy Davis—not just him, but the millions of others like him behind bars, including the more than 3,000 on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. I didn’t want Davis executed. In fact, I am unconditionally against the death penalty in general, regardless of guilt or innocence (in Davis’ case, I’m not convinced either way), because there is no way to eliminate the flaws in our justice system that inevitably lead to wrongful executions. But I never believed that tweeting about Troy Davis would save his life. Moreover, had his life been spared, it would have had far more to do with the respected and influential people and organizations who have advocated on his behalf over the past two decades of his legal battle than with how many tweets were retweeted over the past couple of months.

(To be perfectly blunt, as a Black man, I’d be terrified of a justice system that could be swayed by trending topics on Twitter. That’s the kind of passionate, popular-opinion mongering that drove the Salem witch hunts or incited mobs of people to think that a good lynching was a perfect way to bring the community together against a common enemy. Who needs a trial when we all know the truth about what happened and what should be done about it? Sorry, but I don’t want Twitter to have the power to override our system of trial by jury.)

Now, it’s true that Twitter and other social media (a quick search of Facebook delivered more than half dozen “Save Troy Davis” pages, groups and communities) has played a large role in making people aware of the Troy Davis case all over the world. But social media sentiment, no matter how passionate or how high it trends on Twitter, couldn’t have saved Davis any more than it could convict Casey Anthony—another high profile legal case where people seemed genuinely shocked they couldn’t get the outcome they wanted via tweets and status updates. (Not coincidentally, in the weeks leading up to Davis’ execution the #CaseyAnthony hashtag reemerged among the trending topics on Twitter, as her escape from conviction for the murder of her young daughter Caylee was often cited as an example of a racist double-standard in the justice system.)

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  • GG

    It was good to see folks feel SOMEthing for troy, but it’s interesting that I never saw most of these people during this struggle a couple YEARS or more ago (appx April/May ’09, to be more accurate)….
    It got feverish enough to be minimized to what felt like something of a (albeit virtual) photo op for celebs or ppl who felt like their voice held power &/or representation for large groups– folks who get popularity confused with fame. It became a “bandwagon” incident rather than what it should progressively represent & I disturbingly believe that many of those very ppl will forget about him as quickly as they did tedwilliams… “Who?” ….Exactly.

    • Johnmark

      adulterers should be stoend to death, and demanded to know what Jesus had to say. Presumably, they thought they had Jesus trapped no matter which way he responded. If he agreed that she should be stoend, that would undermine his teachings about forgiveness. If he said to spare her, they could accuse him of not upholding biblical law.Jesus refused to play their game, but when he said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he was referring to the Deuteronomy 17 provision (found in verses 2-7) 2If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and transgresses his covenant 3by going to serve other gods and worshiping them—whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden— 4and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, 5then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death. 6On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness. 7The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.that the witnesses should throw the first stones in an execution. In so saying, he saved the woman’s life, because none of her accusers could claim sinlessness. At the same time, we should note that Jesus, in effect, does decline to affirm the death penalty for this woman. The Mosaic Law clearly says, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Questions: We note, and certainly Jesus did too, that only the adulterous woman had been brought before him, and not the adulterous man. What might his response have been if both parties in this liaison had been charged? What might Jesus have said about the execution of Troy Davis? What might Jesus say about any case where a death sentence is issued?

  • Kim

    very good article…

  • KJ

    Wow- Shows how blind I was. I was one who was using the hash tags heavily but my intentions were to get people to think enough about it to do the research and take action. I’m an avid volunteer but work did not allow me to be more hands on involved these last months but I was doing everything I could from my desk. My phones and fax machine are getting a break today to make up for recent overuse, and in my mind that’s what I figured everyone else was doing in between getting our work done. I truly hope that people did not really thinking that tweeting was the action because that would be such a sad reflection of our society. If what you say is true Mr. Edmond, the work that need to do is much greater than I thought. It’s not just mobilizing from change- This would say that we need to spend more time teaching people what that really means and how to do it.

  • KJ

    Wow- Shows how blind I was. I was one who was using the hash tags heavily but my intentions were to get people to think enough about it to do the research and take action. I’m an avid volunteer but work did not allow me to be more hands on involved these last months but I was doing everything I could from my desk. My phones and fax machine are getting a break today to make up for recent overuse, and in my mind that’s what I figured everyone else was doing in between getting our work done. I truly hope that people were not really thinking that tweeting was the action because that would be such a sad reflection of our society. If what you say is true Mr. Edmond, the work that needs to do is much greater than I thought. It’s not just mobilizing for change- This would say that we need to spend more time teaching people what that really means and how to do it.

  • warren otis fisher

    sadly,your thoughts on TROY DAVIS ring so very true. i too agree that the death penalty is unfair for all people (and expressly african americans). killing even one innocent person is too many murders by a state. it’s bad for america and it’s a poor commentary on americans.

    i have seen the justice system up close; and ….. woe be unto him that falls into her net. your name, money and person may be gone (forever). the burden of proving one’s case against a machine like the justice system is fraught with peril. but, what does one do ….? we the people, of the people and for the people sometimes gets lost in our politics.

  • Chuck P

    Nice article, i can agree with you on 90% of what you wrote. Personally, I feel that “WE” as a group of people should continue to use social media sites to raise awareness of cases like the Late Troy Davis, and other injustices. It might not be the same as a sit-in or a boycott, but the way we function and communicate as a people has changed multiple times since back in the civil-rights era. I will not cast aspersions on the people that were tweeting last night about the case, what I will say is that it should have started years ago. This wasnt the first time his case was up for an appeal, but it sure seemed that way. I wish that people with “star-power” would use their appeal to incite their base on other issues that we pass over unless it directly affects us.

  • Yinka

    I think Twitter is being given too much power. If people genuinely thought that hashtagging and tweeting and blogging would change Troy Davis’s outcome, then they should go back and repeat high school Civics, US History and government classes.

    • Emma

      Please stop this execution now. There is so much doubt that only icutsjine would would be gained. Further investigation is needed to prove that Troy Anthony Davis is guilty; there is too much evidence to the contrary.

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  • Kai

    I agree with you that using social media would not have saved Troy Davis from his sentence. Social media did have it’s influence on awareness about him. However please note Twitter did in fact stop his name from trending. (Did @Twitter Kill #TroyDavis? – http://tinyurl.com/3w7lwdf) For a social media site with 200 million users to actually block others from knowing millions were talking about Troy Davis is cause for concern. If they can stop people from knowing what people are talking about, how easily can they give 200 million people something to talk about? What effect could twitter have in the coming elections? What if they decide to block information on candidates that people are talking about? It’s all very concerning. I suggest you research what impact social sites like Twitter really do have on society?

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      Kai;

      Lots of people are asking if Twitter blocked the #TroyDavis hashtag. There is a lot of speculation and suspicion. But no one can say that they actually did this. Until it can be proven, it’s a non-issue. And even if it is true, it would have had zero impact on the Troy Davis cause. Twitter couldn’t save Troy Davis, and it certainly couldn’t kill him.

      I highly recommend the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser. I think you’d enjoy it.

  • AE

    Fantastic. Thank you for this contribution.

  • Lisa

    I have to disagree with this article. Social Media is now a key aspect of “the real world”. Here is why BE is wrong, “Making The Case For Digital Activism: How Social Media Helps Causes” http://ourlegaci.com/?p=2020

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      Lisa;

      Social media CAN help boost awareness of causes and spur people to act. But without real-world action, it is not a substitute for activism itself. Too many people believed otherwise with the Troy Davis case, and thus are shocked and disappointed with the outcome.

      Alfred

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  • Cliff

    While I disagree with some of your philosophy, you are spot on when it comes to the social media. A few keystrokes does not equal sacrifice to advance a goal. Regardless of where one stands politically, I hope that they will take the time to educate themselves on the issues, and then vote in an informed manner rather than just following the latest internet rambling of someone who may or may not have knowledge on an issue.

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