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Outrage culture is often perceived as a recent phenomenon, but it’s nothing new. Granted, the last few years have shown an uptick in keyboard warriors banding together on social media to berate, harass, and cancel anyone who draws their ire. But these so-called trials by hashtag are only the modern manifestation of a much older problem, the infamous witch hunt.
Law enforcement might call it mob justice; lawyers refer to it as a verdict from the court of public opinion; talent agents say it’s a public relations disaster. Either way, a subset of the population will always jump at the chance to grab their torches and pitchforks (figuratively, or sometimes literally).
For one example of this phenomenon, look at the story of Richard Jewell, an innocent security guard who was portrayed as a person of interest in the bombing attack on the 1996 Summer Olympics. This led to months of public harassment, 24-hour police surveillance, multiple searches of his home by the FBI, and a “trial by media” that forever changed his life.
As the populace’s rage snowballs out of control, the concept of innocent until proven guilty is quickly discarded, and one suggestion of a scapegoat might be all it takes to focus that rage on an innocent individual.
If you were unlucky enough to end up in the crosshairs of a modern-day witch hunt regarding a crime you didn’t commit, what could you do to turn the tide in the court of public opinion, or at least find some temporary solace? We asked former federal law enforcement officer Cody Martin and lawyer J.E. Conery to share their approaches to this complex and challenging scenario.
Implicated in a crime by false rumors.
Yourself, your spouse, and two children (ages 5 and 9).
Clear; high 92 degrees F, low 70 degrees F
You work as a field technician for a company that maintains and repairs machinery throughout the Tulsa area. This often involves driving your work truck to remote locations outside of normal business hours. One afternoon, you get a call for a repair at a construction site northeast of the city.
You’re met there by one of your coworkers, Jackie, who will be helping with the work. You and Jackie have never been on good terms; she’s frequently impatient and rude, but you always do your best to be professional. At 5 p.m., the rest of the workers pack up and head home, leaving you and Jackie alone to finish up the repair. Around 6:30, you finish the work, say goodbye, and drive home.
The next morning, you awake to a phone call from your boss. Apparently, Jackie never made it home last night and her family is frantically searching for her. Her work truck is still parked at the job site with her cell phone inside, and you were the last person to see her. Shortly after this call, the police come to your house and ask you some similar questions. It seems no one has any leads on her whereabouts.
The next day, a friend texts you a screenshot of a social media post from one of Jackie’s family members. It mentions your name and strongly implies that you’re the one responsible for Jackie’s disappearance. Evidently, Jackie had previously told her family that you made all kinds of sexist, racist, and hateful comments to her in the past — things you’d never say in a million years.
It also notes that you were the last person to see her before her disappearance and calls for widespread community action because the police aren’t working fast enough. In a matter of days, the family is giving TV press conferences demanding your arrest, organizing protests, and mentioning your name and personal info in posts with the hashtag #JusticeforJackie. Nothing is specific enough to be defamation in the eyes of the law, but it’s certainly enough to lead to constant harassment.
To avoid getting wrapped up in the drama, your boss promptly fires you. Your wife’s employer seems to be considering doing the same to her. One of your kids was told “your dad is a murderer” by a classmate at school. News crews have started gathering outside your house, waiting to film and asking you leading questions. The police tell you they’re still conducting an investigation and don’t seem especially interested in intervening.
How should you go about dealing with all the rumors and accusations?
Should you attempt to address the situation head-on, holding your own press conferences and asking friends and family to spread the word about your innocence?
Is it wiser to avoid the spotlight and try to wait out the situation?
If the crime remains unsolved and harassment escalates into threats of violence against your family, would you ever consider relocating to a different state or even changing your name?
Like it or not, we now live in a world driven by the power and dangers of media sensationalism, both traditional and digital. As a result, we must be proactive in how our actions can either help or hinder professional and personal situations. Prior to any issues with my coworker Jackie, I need to take deliberate steps that go against the complacency most of us have when it comes to social media.
The first thing is to think before I post. I need to be mindful of not only what I post but also how I interact with other posts. Consideration must be made when it comes to how others will perceive my activity. I don’t want anything misunderstood or taken out of context.
In addition, I need to ensure my privacy settings are squared away to control who can see my posts, tag me in photos, and view my personal information. This includes taking precautions to not disclose personal information, such as my home address, phone number, email, or any details related to my daily routine.
Even sharing or being tagged in photos can provide metadata, identifiable landmarks, background details, etc. Someone can analyze background specifics, use Google’s Reverse Image Search, or even utilize harder-to-access machine learning algorithms to do the work for them. Using strong, unique passwords, and enabling two-factor authentication on each of my accounts adds extra security.
When I post, comment, or interact with any social media platform or forum online, I always assume that this can be not only traced back to me, but used against me, so I act accordingly.
Another safeguard is recording our conversations. I know that my coworker Jackie doesn’t like me, and based on her hostility, I’m going to make sure I have recordings of all our interactions since Oklahoma is a one-party state. I’m rarely alone with her on a job site but if I am, I’m going to make an audio recording of the entire duration of our time together, including my departure.
I’m not going to get fancy here. I’m going to use the Voice Memos App on my iPhone. I always carry my phone in the front of my work shirt anyways, since I don’t like to carry it in my pants pockets. This is easy to prep ahead of time to make sure I can hit record when the situation arises.
If I can’t make a recording, I need to make a written record of our interactions. Keeping things simple, I can make a voice memo or use the Notes app on my phone using voice-to-text to record the details of what transpired including specific comments, actions, and other relevant information.
And finally, I also want to make sure I have a digital record of my whereabouts during the day. Since Jackie has a history of making up stories and saying inflammatory things, I am going to use Google Maps Timeline to track when and where I have been.
With the right settings, Google Maps will keep a record of all the places I visit throughout the day, including the routes I take between locations. Another benefit is that it records the time I arrive and leave each location, as well as the route and time it took to get from one place to another. This can be invaluable when trying to prove when and where I have and haven’t been.
Combating accusations in a digital world requires us to use digital evidence to defend ourselves. Data, such as recordings, written records, and location tracking, can help provide evidence and establish a clear timeline of events. The balance is doing it in a way that is intentional and prioritizes privacy.
Whenever there’s a full crew on site, Jackie’s not a problem; it’s the times we’re left alone that her true colors start to show. Today’s no different. We had little-to-no interaction during the workday, but when the rest of the crew left at 5 o’clock, she started acting hostile. She’s more aggressive than normal. Her comments are becoming more threatening, and her physical presence is growing more and more animated, so I’m glad I’m recording what she’s saying. As we finish up our work, Jackie finally ends her incoherent tirade by saying, “… I’m telling you, one of these days, you’re not going to leave this job site in one piece.”
As I’m heading out, I snap a few pictures of the job site before I head home. I do this as a hedge against someone complaining that work wasn’t completed, but it also gives me a record of when I left and at what time I finished up.
Based on the threatening statement Jackie made, and how “off” she seems to be acting, I’m making the decision to notify our boss. This isn’t anything formal, just a phone call to have a record of the incident. I’ll make sure to do this immediately upon my departure so that the details are still fresh in my mind. In addition, I plan on sending a follow-up email, just to have a digital record annotating my concerns.
I make it a habit to fill up the work truck on the way home, and I always thank myself the next morning. This helps create a digital trail of my post-work activity. These records serve as additional evidence of my whereabouts at specific times if it becomes necessary.
My concealed carry pistol is also worth addressing. I’ve made the decision not to disclose to my employer that I carry concealed at work. I carry within company policy and the laws of Oklahoma. However, if law enforcement becomes involved and I’m questioned about the events of the day, I’ll only disclose this information under the advice of an attorney. While I have nothing to hide, I know I’m well within the law and I want to make sure my rights are protected.
Now is the time to go on the offensive, but I need to be strategic in my actions. Local law enforcement is “working” the case, but the wheels of justice are turning slowly. They offer for me to voluntarily come in for an interview, but I’m not doing that unless I have to and I’m accompanied by an attorney.
I haven’t been charged with a crime, so a court-appointed attorney is currently off the table. This leaves me spending my savings on hiring an attorney out of pocket. This is not a time to be cheap, but I do have limited cash available to put toward this effort. I might consider reaching out to organizations like the Innocence Project (innocenceproject.org), which could provide legal support, but it’s unlikely they’d be able to help since there are no concerns about due process and violations of civil liberties aren’t in play yet.
Another option is to try to find an attorney who will work on a contingency basis. Since I won’t have the money to pay a top-tier attorney upfront, a contingency attorney could offer me another alternative. If I can find one to work under this arrangement, they won’t collect any fees unless they win my case.
My last and final option will be to explore the crowdfunding route. While these platforms have helped other folks raise ridiculous amounts of money in their defense, I’m not confident they’ll work in my scenario. There’s a level of transparency that must be met, and I need to be careful how I navigate the scenario. Regardless of the option I go with, I’m going to have to spend my own money upfront for legal advice to make sure I’m not digging a hole I can’t get out of.
I also need to stay on top of everything that’s being posted, published, or aired. To do this, I need to take screenshots or video clips of all false posts, reports, or accusations. I will also start collecting all emails and other documentation that could help establish my innocence. I’ve done a bit of this work ahead of time, but now it’s time to start putting it all together.
Initially, I’m choosing to stay quiet to prevent any unnecessary attention. As the accusations and frenzy become more widespread, there will be a time I need to address things. When this happens, I will be open and honest about what’s going on and any potential “skeletons in the closet.” Transparency and proactivity can often help to mitigate the damage caused by exposure to these things. I’d also prepare responses to possible negative information that could surface. I’ll use my social media channels to refute pertinent allegations. I need to stay focused, explain the situation, and present any evidence I’ve gathered to counter the allegations in detail.
At the point allegations start turning into harassment, I have more decisions to make. One is whether I need to delete my online presence. I’ve decided against this because I believe it’ll only make it look like I have something to hide. Instead, I’ll continue to use them to address the situation and attempt to gather public sympathy and support.
As it relates to my job, and my unjustified firing, it’ll have to be a fight for another day. With everything else that’s going on, I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with that situation. Even though Oklahoma is an “At Will” state, there may be a chance I have a case for wrongful termination. However, the time will come to address this.
If things continue to escalate and we receive credible threats or if there’s an increased probability of violence, my number-one priority is ensuring the physical safety of my family. The first thing I will do is report this activity to the proper authorities. I’ll also coach and reemphasize what my family needs to be aware of and how they need to respond in various situations that may arise.
Some of my family members have brought up the idea of relocating, but I’m not sure there would be any benefit at this point. I also believe it will be easier to gather hometown support by staying in place.
We, unfortunately, live in a world where we need to operate in a constant state of preparedness for those unexpected “what if” scenarios. We need adequate preparation, prompt responses, and thorough recovery. This disaster management mindset transcends a lot of different situations that may occur in our lives. Whether it’s a man-made or natural disaster, personal crisis, or professional challenge, being prepared, responding promptly with solid information, and using what we’ve learned to improve is key. By maintaining this focus, we can better navigate through any difficult situation and increase our chances of successfully overcoming it.
This is a cautionary tale that should never have to be told, but one which is becoming more frequent in our anonymous social media landscape. How can we protect ourselves from mob rule and the modern-day witch hunt? Are there ways in which we can prepare ourselves or at least mitigate the damage?
It was the end of a scorching August. A customer needed some heavy equipment repaired, so I met Jackie at the work site. We both arrived around 5 p.m. The workers were leaving for the day, so it was just me and Jackie. We completed the repair around 6:30, I left the site … and Jackie was never heard from again. And that’s the end of it. Or so I thought.
Nothing is as simple as it seems, though, and if I could turn back the hands of time, I’d do many things differently. I would’ve done almost everything differently.
Jackie never liked me, and at times I thought she was setting me up for a discrimination lawsuit against the company. She’d often tell horrible lies, make claims that I was rude to her, and made sexist, as well as racist comments. My friends and family can attest that’s not my character. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. I have a great job, a loving family, loyal friends, and am genuinely a happy person.
Never in a million years did I think I’d ever have to defend myself against being accused of anything other than being the upstanding person I know I am. That’s not boasting — that’s a fact. Believing that everyone else shared my values was my first and biggest mistake.
Only with the benefit of hindsight can I clearly see the missteps I made. I hope that you’ll not only listen to my story, but also use it to protect yourself. In the blink of an eye, this could happen to you, and then it’s almost impossible to put the brakes on in time to protect your good name, your family’s safety, and get your life back on track.
Looking back, I recall that not only did Jackie not like me, but she also actually didn’t like most people. I decided early on to not give in to her negativity and kept the relationship professional. Jackie’s attitude toward me and the way she portrayed me to others often made it seem like I was a troublemaker.
But why? Did she have bad experiences with men? Was she jealous? How could that have been the case because we were on equal footing at work? Did she just not like me? At this point, it’s all irrelevant. Jackie was gone, the court of popular opinion was in session, and the jury was already rendering its verdict based on Jackie’s lies. I was guilty even before I could call my first witness.
If someone were to look at the facts, it indeed was possible for me to have harmed Jackie, or worse. The guilt or innocence of a person, even with only circumstantial information, is often based on three things: motive, means, and opportunity.
I had the means because I’m stronger than Jackie and could have easily overpowered her. I had the opportunity because we were alone at a remote work site. I did not, however, have the motive because I never thought twice about doing anything to Jackie even though she’d trashed my name. That’s the gray area, though, because I can now see how someone could think slander was motive enough for me to take action.
But to make a coworker disappear? That’s where the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” should ultimately clear me … at least from prison. I’m in a different kind of prison now, and I’d like to think that I could’ve better prepared myself to head this thing off at the pass and help find Jackie instead of allowing the world to think I caused her disappearance.
Oklahoma tornadoes begin with a few swirling winds, and my storm is no different. The morning after we were called to the work site, I woke to a ringing phone. It was my boss. She sounded panicked and told me that Jackie never made it home from the job site. Jackie’s truck was still there, and her mobile phone was found on the floorboard.
She ended the call by saying that I needed to stay home because the police wanted to talk with me, considering I was the last person who saw Jackie. The police came by, asked me a few questions, requested permission to search my truck (which I gave), and left. I expected that they’d have follow-up questions in a day or so but could never have imagined in my worst nightmare what was to come.
Later that morning, a friend text me a screenshot of a social media post from one of Jackie’s relatives that mentioned me by name and implied that I’m responsible for her disappearance. Apparently, Jackie also spread her lies about me to her friends and family. Shortly after I read that text, my phone rang.
It was my boss who called back to tell me that I was fired and that the company had no interest in being caught up in the drama. I spent 10 years with that company, and they fired me with a phone call over something I wasn’t even a part of? A few minutes later, my wife called to tell me that she was coming home. She hadn’t been fired, but her boss wanted her to stay away from the office “until things cooled down.” I was stunned.
Why would anyone at her office even know about the social media posts? I turned on the TV and got my answer — Jackie’s family had called a press conference to solicit help from the community. Initially, I thought that was appropriate and something I’d do. What I didn’t know was that earlier in the press conference I was mentioned by name and accused of being responsible for her disappearance.
I became lightheaded, weak, and nauseated. How could this be happening? Then, the kids returned home from school. One of them was crying because he was told that his daddy was a murderer. It was their first week. How would they get through the year without a constant barrage of insults and stares? At the end of the day, news crews gathered around my driveway.
Neighbors were in their front yards gawking, some being interviewed. Never had I felt so alone and ill-prepared to deal with something as serious as this. In a single day, I lost my job, my wife was on the verge of losing hers, my kids were harassed, and the entire greater Tulsa viewing area heard Jackie’s family call me out by name and now know where I live.
Over the next three months, our family endured threats and accusations from Jackie’s family, strangers, and an activist police department that was only looking at me. And to my horror, they succeeded. I’m sitting here in my 8×10 cell awaiting trial and can only dream about what might’ve been. My wife and kids ended up fleeing the state and are starting over somewhere in western Colorado. I was adamant that my wife not tell me where she’d gone. We keep in touch through pre-paid prison phone calls.
I’ve thought a lot about what I would’ve done differently to prepare and protect myself. For starters, I should’ve had better situational awareness at work and made sure I kept my distance from a woman who didn’t like me. I should’ve gone out of my way to be as nice to as many people as possible and, more importantly, made sure others witnessed me doing that, especially Jackie’s friends.
An email or text trail could’ve been helpful in building a credibility case in my favor, but one has to be extremely careful and always write with the knowledge that texts and emails might be shown to a jury in open court — no jokes, no political discussions, and for damn sure no disparaging remarks about coworkers nor the company.
It may seem over the top, but with someone like Jackie I might’ve even recorded our conversation at the work site. That’s allowed under Oklahoma law provided one party knows they are being recorded. Additionally, because I was going to a remote work site, I should’ve established a trail of digital breadcrumbs.
It could’ve been as easy as sending a quick text to tell someone where I was going and when I expected to finish. I could’ve taken a picture of the work site when I arrived and left so the date and location would be in the phone’s metadata. If during the job there were signs that something was off, I could’ve asked Jackie if anything was wrong. If she became aggressive, I would’ve excused myself, gotten in my truck, and called my supervisor.
If I couldn’t reach my supervisor, I would’ve called the police. That would’ve done two things: 1) It would demonstrate that I cared for the wellbeing of my coworker; and 2) It would create a record of the date, time, and location. One never knows what goes through a person’s head or if they are in the midst of a health crisis.
It was late August and any one of a number of things could’ve happened from heat exhaustion to a missed dose of medication that could result in delirium. On the way home, I could’ve left another digital breadcrumb and used my credit card to get gas in full view of security cameras.
I didn’t have one, but if there was a weapon in my vehicle, I could’ve immediately volunteered that information. Having a gun isn’t illegal in Oklahoma. If it later turned out that Jackie was shot, ballistics would’ve likely cleared me. The reality is that if the authorities questioned enough people, they would’ve discovered that I owned a gun anyway.
Would that have been risky? Absolutely, especially if your employer has a policy against weapons in company vehicles. Better to lose your job than your freedom.
The authorities weren’t on my side, so I was very guarded in my interactions with them. I was polite, but careful knowing that every single thing I said would be included in their case file. I could’ve contacted the Oklahoma Bar Association, which can help find legal services for low-income people. I wasn’t “low income,” but I could’ve lucked out and found a pro bono clinic. I wasn’t a part of a union, but if I was, the union might’ve provided advice at least for a wrongful dismissal claim against the company. The company might not like the negative press of firing someone who was accused for no reason, so they might’ve let me keep my job.
Help yourself. Don’t go through such a nightmare alone. In fact, never do anything alone in your personal life, especially if you’re adventurous and go camping, fishing, or off-roading. At a minimum, leave that digital trail to help others find you in case of an emergency.
If your smartphone’s battery is running low, quickly send a text message to several of your trusted contacts and state the date, time, place, and whatever information that could help someone find your location. Sending this information to multiple people creates redundancy, in case one doesn’t see the text. If you have data coverage, share a “pin” of your current location from your preferred map app, or check-in through a social media site like Truth Social, Facebook, or Instagram. Whatever you do, just be careful and don’t go it alone or your life could change in the blink of an eye.
In emotionally charged situations such as this one, simply reiterating your innocence won’t be enough. Any evidence you present may be written off as an attempted cover-up, and even if law enforcement and the legal system are on your side, trials are slow and arduous.
Looking back to the true story mentioned in our introduction, Richard Jewell endured 88 days of baseless rumors, accusations, and harassment after being named as a “person of interest.” Even after the true culprit was arrested and Jewell’s name was cleared, he lived with a sense of uncertainty for the rest of his life. In an interview with the New York Times, he said, “I’m a lot more cynical than I used to be. I’m not as trusting as I once was.”
To protect yourself against false accusations, you’ll need to think like an investigator. Be ready to build a portfolio of evidence that can be used in your defense and discuss your “what if” plans with trusted friends and family. Be proactive, not reactive. In a perfect world, you’d be considered innocent until proven guilty through hard evidence, and members of the public would treat you the same way they’d wish to be treated during the investigation — but we all know our current world is far from perfect. As with any survival situation, you shouldn’t be paranoid, but you should always be prepared.
Cody Martin has over 18 years of experience in federal law enforcement, physical security, and risk mitigation. As the founder of Risk Strategy Group, he leverages his expertise to provide comprehensive solutions to corporations, nonprofit organizations, schools, and civilians, helping them navigate security threats and achieve their goals. His achievements include contributing to the creation of a national course focused on Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Recognition and Response, serving as a subject matter expert in firearms and officer survival, and assisting with the physical security of politicians and ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Martin’s certifications, multi-agency cooperation, complex investigations, and training background underscore his commitment to safety and security. Learn more about his work at riskstrategygroup.com.
J.E. Conery has practiced law in the legal departments of some of the world’s largest oil and gas services companies for 30 years. His professional experiences provided a rich background for the development of the characters, plot lines, and writing style in his debut novel, Project Azalea, which can be found online at amazon.com. Conery attended Loyola University New Orleans, where he earned his B.A. in philosophy and his law degree. Though he lives in Houston, Texas, he’s a native son of Louisiana, a lifelong duck hunter and fisherman, and finds solace in its beautiful swamps. Disclaimer: Conery is a freelance writer, and the information contained in this story is a work of fiction, a reflection of his own thoughts and ideas, and in no way should be taken as legal advice. Any similarities to real people or places are purely coincidental.
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