Presumption of Guilt

Until very recently in human history, it was common for people to be accused of wrongdoing and be condemned and sentenced based on public opinion, with little or no chance for a fair trial. A person could point a finger at another person, accusing him or her of doing something wrong – for example, turning someone into a newt – and, if general opinion was favorable to this claim, the accused would not stand a chance.

Legal systems over the ages tried to fight this by introducing and enforcing the concept of presumption of innocence, popularly known as “innocent unless proven guilty”. The burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused. No longer can one be held guilty simply because another person said so, or because the crowd in the public square cheered loudly enough. In modern times most legal systems, definitely those in the free world, hold this principle sacred. Presumption of innocence is one of the foundations of a modern and fair society.

At the risk of sounding politically incorrect (and hopelessly outdated), I find that recently this presumption of innocence is reverting back to the good old presumption of guilt.

In the age of social media, public shaming is making a nasty, and viciously ruthless, comeback. Finger pointing is back, and given the viral nature of social networks, global public opinion is quick in assigning guilt. The accuser does not need to prove guilt and the accused gets no chance to prove innocence. Monica Lewinsky was one of the first, and most eloquent, in calling out “the price of shame“, and this was way before Facebook and Twitter; things have only gotten worse since.

This “presumption of guilt” can be illustrated by two recent events in Israel. A famous real estate business woman was accused of wrongdoing by some of her customers. She is still being investigated by the tax authorities and no charges have been filed yet. But public opinion is squarely against her, calling on authorities to dismantle her company and gloating over her yet-to-be-proven fall from grace.

The second example is a senior officer in the army, who was accused by a former female soldier of rape. The case is still being investigated (the officer a polygraph test; the woman hasn’t), but the officer was suspended and public opinion, including politicians, are declaring him guilty. Again, he may well be guilty, but until such guilt is proven in court, he is innocent, but not in the eyes of the public.

I don’t know if anything can be done to reverse this trend. With every Tom, Dick and Harry enjoying unlimited access to voice opinions online for everyone to see (and that includes me!), it seems almost impossible to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. We are back in the days of public square shaming and burning at the alter.


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