America’s addiction to high-profile trials like this, along with true-crime entertainment, has been a long-term affair. It started on cable news and channels such as Court TV. Now it’s increasingly moving online, where TikTok is the latest entrant to compete for eyes.
“It’s really a case of old wine and new bottles,” said Stephen Gillers, a professor at NYU School of Law.
TikTok users live-streamed the verdict Friday, including one stream from Yahoo News that had more than 88,000 viewers.
The shootings happened in the wake of protests that erupted when a White police officer in Kenosha, Wis., shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black Kenosha resident, during an attempted arrest in August. Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
While his trial played out in the Wisconsin courtroom, it was also being discussed and dissected daily on social media, where people were watching live streams of testimony and flooding TikToks and Facebook Lives with comments about his fate, the judge and the legal teams.
TikTok exploded in popularity during the pandemic and features videos, most under 60 seconds in length, that range from cooking tutorials to dance routines to customer service rants to movie parodies. It’s also become a place for users to find news, which is sometimes presented by social media influencers.
The clips of the Rittenhouse trial on TikTok are often chopped up and reposted by news organizations and by armchair trial watchers, mixed in with commentary. The hashtag #rittenhousetrial has 6.1 million views on TikTok.
Last week, an ABC News live stream of the trial on the app had more than 14,000 viewers, and commenters jumped in with their every thought.
“free kyle,” one user wrote.
“he’s not innocent he admitted to killing them lol,” another user said.
On Monday, the live stream from ABC News, showing closing arguments, had more than 28,000 viewers.
TikTok creators are offering their opinions on the trial in reaction videos, with their images transposed over videos of the trial. Others are breaking down the day’s highlights to catch people up on the court proceedings.
It builds on a growing trend of true crime on the service, where some TikTokers have expanded their followings by researching and presenting details on ongoing or long-ago cases. The app has pockets where people discuss true-crime news and try to help solve cases, too.
When police were searching this summer for the missing Gabby Petito, who was later found dead, TikTokers made popular videos offering tips and news breakdowns of the case.
In Southern California, TikTok tips helped track down a suspect in a murder case.
It’s no surprise that Rittenhouse’s trial has taken off on social media, said Kelli Boling, an assistant professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has researched true-crime audiences.
She’s found people are fascinated by true crime for myriad reasons, including trying to better protect themselves from potential violence and a desire to see justice served. The interest is not a novel concept by any means, she said.
“We couldn’t quantify it in 1920; that doesn’t mean society wasn’t obsessed with it,” she said.
The proliferation of social media in the space has complicated things for juries in trials such as Rittenhouse’s, NYU’s Giller said. The rules regarding media consumption of trials remains the same — jurors are still not allowed to consume outside media about ongoing trials.
“We’ve been dealing with these problems of parallel proceedings for a long time. and have attempted to ensure the latter doesn’t taint the former,” Gillers said. “It just becomes harder when the social media discussions enter the picture.”
Heather Kelly contributed to this report.