SANFORD Even 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 the pop-up requests of 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 and most recently the Jodi Arias case, 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 to jump-start public interest and activism, both 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.