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Troy Davis: What Role Did Social Media Play?

Jackie Mansky |
September 23, 2011 | 3:56 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Controversy surrounds the execution of Troy Davis. (Creative Commons)
Controversy surrounds the execution of Troy Davis. (Creative Commons)
Outspoken Twitter users took to the web to document the execution of Troy Davis, the man accused of the 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail last night.

Despite doubts being raised about his conviction after several key witnesses withdrew their testimony, Davis was put to death by legal injection last night after the Supreme Court chose to deny his stay of execution.

According to BBC News Magazine, "Troy Davis", "Letter to Georgia" and NO EVIDENCE were all trending topics in the US throughout the night.

Ed Pilkington, a reporter for the Guardian, flooded his Twitter page with the latest updates of the story. With tweets like, “i don't say #troydavis was innocent. i say the case against him was not beyond doubt” and "‘Last night was a wakeup call to legislators - people are not happy with the death penalty’ - Richard Dieter, death row expert” Pilkington hoped to engage both the American and international public.  Following the execution he called upon his twitter followers to join the Guardian Flickr group and tweet thoughts to #RIPTroyDavis.

The public support including the tweets and online petitions were not enough to stop the execution however.

Brian Southwell, a professor at the University of North Carolina believes that twitter actually has less of an effect than one would think. Southwell said in an interview with the BBC, "I'm not sure that 1,000 tweets or Facebook posts have the same power as one phone call…We've lowered the bar for activism. Now it's a click away."

Yet while Southwell asserts that social media activism may not produce the same results as previous methods of protest, many see social media playing a different roll: molding the way that people view controversial issues, such as the death penalty.

The executive director of the Georgia Prosecuting Attorneys Council said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC)  that he believed that the public relations campaign around Davis managed to distort the facts of the murder case into an easily tweet-able, "seven witnesses recanted or they backed off their testimony" which the director believes allowed the NAACP and Amnesty International to portray Davis as an innocent man despite the fact that multiple courts have upheld the legitimacy of the Davis conviction for the murder of Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail and dismissed his claims of new evidence exonerating him.

Meanwhile, in the same interview with the AJC, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty International, that Davis’ case will cause the public to demand changes to the death-penalty law in the United States, if not overturn it altogether.

In the case of Davis’ execution, despite the support for Davis nationally and internationally, the death penalty has strong support in America, especially in Georgia, as reported by PBS. Still, in the long-term, should the tweets and posts continue, the format of internet sites like Twitter could serve as one voice shaping future public policy.

Reach Jackie Mansky here.

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