Social media, the new court of law: A case study of James Charles v Tati Westbrook

Have we evolved and built a sophisticated and complex justice system only to return to the times where the people could dictate somebody’s fate with a thumb up or a thumb down?

The digital era which is supposed to embody the very notion of advancement and modernity ironically resuscitated the most archaic “justice system”: an effective and uncontrolled social justice. Some people talk about ‘Cancel culture’ or ‘Call-out culture’.

Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan, described cancel culture as “an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, or give money to [somebody]”.

Since the invention of social media, many cases have opposed or concerned different people and were entirely handled, often, by very young judges seriously armed with their gavels – I mean mice –. One of those cases recently opposed two heavy players of the online beauty community: James Charles and Tati Westbrook.

Facts & procedures

The day after the Coachella weekend, James Charles was accused by Tati Westbrook of promoting the products of her principal competitor in the vitamin business. Angry about that, Mrs. Westbrook went in the Court of the first instance of YouTube and uploaded a video – which has been deleted since – spilling about her outrage. Interestingly, Mrs Westbrook took also the time to make very serious accusations towards Mr Charles, as it happens, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and the use of his fame and power to manipulate straight boys into making them believe they were gay.

That video revealed itself to be disastrous for Mr Charles as it caused him the loss of 3 million subscribers in one day. On the other hand, Mrs Westbrook was rewarded – as justice being applied? – of nearly 5 million new subscribers.

Consequently, Mr. Charles seized YouTube’s Court of appeal and rejected all of Mrs. Westbrook’s allegations.

An unrelatable “justice system”

The initial decision about this trial, which caused Mr Charles’ temporary demise, is very interesting. The first thing that is worth noticing is that Mrs Westbrook never presented any proofs supporting any of her serious allegations. That underlines one of the serious problems about this rising “justice system”: the total non-application of the principle of adversarial proceedings. That principle indicates that in order to apply the law or to take a decision, both parts must be heard.

Moreover, these decisions are not based on any facts or proofs but solely on emotions. Consequently, this “justice system” uses doubtful and very unrelatable “instruments” that can lead to the condemnation of an innocent person. A very important rule is violated here: the presumption of innocence.

Another issue of this new “justice system” is the nature of the condemnations. Ironically, our judges 2.0 often fall into the superhero paradox which is fighting “violence” with “violence”. A judge is not a superhero but merely “the mouthpiece of the law” as Montesquieu stated it. Unfortunately, social media is mostly used by inexperienced children who do not always master the subject they are being exposed to. Thus, they can be easily manipulated and tricked into “cancelling” someone without ever taking the time to check if that person is indeed guilty of the crimes he or she is being accused of.

That points out another big issue: the lack of proportionality in sentences. It appears to be very complicated, in an uncontrolled judiciary system, to make sure that the sanctions are applied in accordance with the gravity of the crimes. Clearly, that is not often the case on social media. Mostly, the sanction applied exceeds by far the gravity of the crime committed.

There can be benefits in this new form of justice

This phenomenon can be considered as a sort of democratization of justice. That would mean that internet users have a voice that they can use to fight injustice and crimes. For instance, “social media justice” has revealed itself to be precious and useful in the Volkswagen dielselgate case. However, such a power must be controlled and efficiently directed. Therefore, why not imagine social media trials only for companies and organisations? Such specialization could lead to the prohibition of targeting and shaming regular people which can lead to irreparable consequences.


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