Once upon a time – this was in another century, if not on another planet – serious news organizations did their best to prevent the spread of unsubstantiated rumours. This was also a time when judges and prosecutors strongly believed that the presumption of innocence should never be tampered with.
Then social media arrived, with their good sides and their bad sides, and introduced a new culture, a culture where anyone can publish anything about anybody, with the Internet acting as a giant, unfiltered, viral poster. A person's reputation – her most precious possession – can be destroyed in a click. Malevolent gossip once confined to the neighbourhood, the schoolyard or the workplace has taken on an international dimension – it's the difference between a handmade explosive and a nuclear bomb.
The publication, in the Toronto Star, of a story about a cellphone video that allegedly shows Toronto Mayor Rob Ford inhaling from what looks like a crack pipe, reaches new heights. The story, akin to public lynching, is based on a video being peddled by Somali drug dealers that was seen by two Star reporters and an American website that specializes in low-level gossip – never mind that it could have been Photoshopped and that there's no way to know what was in the pipe. A few years ago, this would have been considered gutter journalism, and no respectable newspaper would have touched this kind of "information."
The crass side of the social media culture has quietly pervaded other areas, too. It can be felt, for instance, in the nasty insinuations and the vicious personal attacks that characterize open debates on the Internet and even in some mainstream media, or in the justice system, which now allows unsubstantiated allegations against individuals to spread without lawyers' associations raising as much as a finger against this violation of the presumption of innocence.
A case in point is Quebec's Charbonneau corruption inquiry, where a succession of "star witnesses" with questionable credibility have been labelling various public figures as accomplices in illegal deals with the encouragement of the commission.
Shortly before the Christmas recess, a commission investigator published, without explanation, a list of more than a hundred names (including politicians and business people) who had been seen at an exclusive private club that counted, among its many members, a contractor now facing fraud charges. Six months later, these persons are still tainted by this astonishing case of guilt by association. But the Quebec bar seems to be looking the other way – only a handful of defence lawyers have protested against this abuse. The media, which are madly in love with what's become Quebec's most popular TV show, have been hardly critical.
Meantime, it's open season on any politician who's remotely suspected of having received an illegal donation once or twice in a 20-year career or who would have been seen in a meeting attended by someone who would later be charged with fraud.
In this kind of atmosphere, Crown prosecutors and the police have become overzealous. Gilles Vaillancourt, the former long-time mayor of Laval, is facing charges of "gangsterism" – an accusation usually reserved for murderous bikers and mobsters and that carries a maximum sentence of life behind bars. Taking or offering bribes is sordid, yes, but is it equivalent to maiming and killing people like real gangsters routinely do?