Mind the blast of a social media explosion

As I was finalizing this column, there were news reports that the so-called "affluenza teen," Ethan Couch, and his mother had been arrested in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Readers will recall the young man stole beer from a Walmart and crashed his father's truck into some stopped vehicles on a country road. Four were killed and another paralyzed. His blood alcohol level three hours after the crash tested at three times the legal limit for adults.

There was nationwide outrage when the judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation. But I have to wonder how many of us would be as familiar with this case if not for that term: "affluenza."

The idea that being raised in an incredibly wealthy background, with all the privileges and educational opportunities that brings, would be compared to some sort of disease that warrants favorable treatment in the criminal justice system is pretty stunning.

You don't have to be a lawyer to have a strong opinion about such a concept that you might want to share. And of course, today we all have the ability to share our opinions worldwide, through the use of social media.

The matter likely was destined for some national publicity because of the number of people killed - or was it? These types of deaths are not uncommon. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day almost 30 people in the U.S. die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. That's one every 51 minutes, a very regrettable statistic.

But "affluenza" - who ever heard of that? It was something new and controversial. In other words, it was a perfect topic on which to share your opinion. And today the mainstream media often follows the lead of social media.

But clearly the online discussion over that affluenza went "viral," which, as most of you know, means increasing mass attention because Internet users, through their social media accounts, are sharing the content within their network, prompting others to spread the content like a virus.

I am not about to criticize the lawyer whose client received that incredibly generous sentence. But if the expert witness had used another term, is it not fair to wonder whether there would have been such national focus on the case?

The case has illustrated in no uncertain terms that in the early 21st century, in addition to everything else a trial lawyer in a high-profile case has long had to consider, he now must contend with social media coverage, which differs significantly from traditional media coverage in that its commentators are bound by no journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy whatsoever.

Social media has changed a lot of things, particularly what can be kept quiet in a local community. Many family lawyers have a negative view of Facebook, for instance, because they see the pain and difficulties that unwise postings generate.

The power of social media cannot be overstated. Whether this seems like a positive development empowering citizen journalism or online mob rule depends on your interpretation of a particular situation.

Just ask Justine Sacco, the former senior director of corporate communications at IAC, an American media and Internet company. She made one stupid tweet about AIDS before boarding her plane to Cape Town, South Africa. Even though she only had 170 Twitter followers, by the time her 11-hour flight landed she was a focus of online rage from tens of thousands. There was even a hashtag circulating (#HasJustineLandedYet), and someone took her photo as she disembarked and tweeted the picture.

She immediately was fired and went into hiding for a time.

Just about all lawyers understand that an online presence is now a requirement in the legal world, and a firm must first establish a mobile-friendly traditional website, as the goal of so much social media marketing is to get people to click on the link to the firm site or to call firm directly.

But in taking that next step into social media, as we learn more and more every day, the hurdles can be much more perilous than merely technical.

The lesson here is simple, but becoming increasingly important to heed: Lawyers using social media must be extra mindful about what they post - and doubly cautious if they allow others to post for them.

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Jim Calloway is director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog Jim Calloway's Law Practice Tips at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com.

Published: Fri, Feb 26, 2016