Leveraging Social Media for Litigation Psychology

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November 9, 2015

By Amy Singer, Ph.D. and  Kemberlee Bonnet

Social media is allowing researchers the chance to study human behavior in a new context, as users are freely revealing more and more information about themselves at both the individual and community levels. Researchers can analyze interactions that a person has with another individual or their announcements or “rants” at the public level. The information is given to us without restrictions, allowing researchers to collect data unobtrusively. 

In data collection in the context of litigation psychology, it is important to consider that jurors bring with them their own life experiences, attitudes and outlooks that ultimately guide the decision-making process at trial. As trial consultants, we explore potential jurors’ thoughts, feelings, prior knowledge and experiences on a given topic as part of our analyses in that decision-making process. It is remarkable that this information can be discovered, not only in live voir dire, but through social media, and can be explained by psychological theory and phenomena.

Mining social media has its potential to extract valuable data patterns that can be beneficial researchers. We have put together some of the interesting psychological phenomena and theory applied to social media participation and a glimpse of how they guide attorneys in trial strategy.

Transparency Effect

One of the most fascinating and unusual phenomenon that manifests in the use of social media, is the transparency in personal expression. Researchers are using this information to their benefit and are now collecting data via online focus groups, discussion boards and social networking sites, as this raw and unfiltered data is like gold to a social scientist. In litigation, this phenomenon enables attorneys to obtain case-specific information via data mining or online focus groups, expressive information of which is direct and less censored. As trial consultants, we advise attorneys to take advantage of the unfiltered opinions and outlooks on the given issue that individuals would not provide in a live focus group or voir dire. The data is used to scientifically create successful trial strategies and voir dire techniques, specifically, to de-select jurors from a panel.

Social Influence

Another psychological theory pertinent in social media participation is Social Influence Theory. Social influence typically occurs when one’s emotions, opinions, decisions or behaviors are affected by others, and can be seen in conformity and leadership, for example. Most social influence studies have been traditionally conducted in laboratory settings, but research through social media is giving us a more generalizable and up-to-date context.

Social influence takes on many forms. One way in which the theory reveals itself is via “influencers”. An influencer on a jury panel is seen by the rest of the panel as an “expert” on a given case-specific topic and this individual has typically had similar life experiences that are critical to deciding the case. He or she will most likely express that familiarity with the experience and their opinions and views regarding those experiences.

Social media research and online focus groups enables us to identify influencers before a trial begins. For example, via online focus groups and discussion boards we have successfully identified the type of data that an influencer provides and ways in which to spot and steer clear of them if they are in favor of the opposition. Influencers are extremely important, as they help sway the group decision one way or another.  We analyze cognitions, affect and life experience to help identify these, importantly, negative influencers and de-select the ones that will most likely yield the least favorable outcome (negative influencers), while keeping positive influencers under the radar to opposing counsel so that they can remain on the panel.

Attitudes

In Social Psychology, attitudes are considered to be the fundamental orientation to evaluate people, situations and ideas. Attitudes are not always consciously accessible, but nevertheless guide decision making. Importantly, attitudes can foster identification with social groups.

Attitudes are difficult to measure via self-report and that form of data collection is less reliable, due to social desirability effects. This can be combatted, however, in measuring attitudes via social media. On social media, it is fascinating that implicit attitudes become apparent, via the transparency effect.

For example, stereotypes associated with a defendant can have a significant impact on a jury’s verdict. Jurors on a live face-to-face face panel might go out of their way to suppress prejudicial attitudes. Nevertheless their attitudes, however implicit, still remain. In social media participation, those attitudes tend to manifest themselves, thanks to the transparency effect. Social media focus group research can tap into those attitudes because these participants are less likely to go out of their way to filter their responses. Such information is valuable to litigators whose case may involve, for example, a racially-charged crime.

Conclusion

Transparency and greater external validity leveraging social media is all well and good. However, many of my clients ask: “what does this really mean”? As Sigmund Freud once said, “once we name a thing by its rightful name, we begin to alter its  power”. The research questions become: What are we identifying? How do we analyze this phenomenon? How do we interpret this data?  What is our criteria for measurement? Fortunately, today’s litigators can use computer programs, such as Wizpor® to provide text analysis, sentiment analysis and channel analysis for predictive mined data.

The prevalent use of social media has produced extraordinary amounts of social data, as social media provides easily an accessible platform information sharing. Social media is beneficial in that you can collect real-time data, as peoples’ posts reveal the most-recent events, opinions and attitudes. If you are looking to find out about what a potential juror might think about your case, online interaction will help you obtain the valuable information from your target population in our society; information that would otherwise be nearly impossible to obtain at the face-to-face level.

The best way to tap in to all of these constructs is to work closely with a litigation psychologist well versed in applied research.  These experts are skilled at the analysis of psychological constructs using the societal trajectory of interaction.

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