Trump trial illustrates jury challenges in the social media age

By Thomson Reuters Apr 22, 2024 | 5:08 AM

By Jody Godoy

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s criminal trial in New York has barely begun but one of the highest-profile court cases in U.S. history has already highlighted the challenges of insulating a jury from social media.

As opening statements are set to begin in New York on Monday, the salacious case involving a hush-money payment to a porn star — the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president — will test the limits of what a judge can control.

To keep the trial fair and jurors safe from intimidation or influence schemes, the court aims to maintain the secrecy of their identities, shield them from online attacks and ensure they are not swayed by coverage and social media comments.

But Justice Juan Merchan has virtually no ability to police what is posted by most users on social media. According to

Pew Research in 2023, 90% of U.S. adults own smartphones, and the same percentage say they are online every day.

“In some ways the social media aspect of the case makes those concerns even more serious,” Manhattan criminal defense attorney Michael Bachner said.

Trump has millions of online followers, and some were behind death threats to election workers after he lost the White House in 2020.

Merchan sought to keep prospective jurors’ identities concealed during jury selection. Their names were not disclosed except to Trump, his lawyers and prosecutors.

Merchan soon prohibited media outlets from reporting the potential jurors’ employment after excusing a juror who said she felt intimidated because some personal details were made public.

One person whose online speech Merchan believes he should be able to control is the defendant himself. He has ordered Trump not to make public statements about jurors, prosecutors and court staff or their families, though he is free to air his thoughts on the judge and district attorney.

Prosecutors have accused Trump of violating the order multiple times, including in a Truth Social post on the jury pool. “They are catching undercover Liberal Activists lying to the Judge in order to get on the Trump Jury,” Trump posted.

Merchan has scheduled a Tuesday hearing on those claims. Trump has said it would be an “honor” to be jailed for violating the order.


As the trial progresses, jurors also must try to comply with a court order to avoid coverage of the case, including on social media and mobile devices.

“To be honest, my generation is on social media a lot,” one potential juror told Merchan. “So, if I’m scrolling, I usually see it.” But she assured the judge that she could avoid reading headlines about the case that popped up on her phone.

In a recent civil case involving former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, jurors learned of a decision by the judge to dismiss the case from news alerts.

Christina Marinakis, chief executive at trial consulting firm Immersion Legal, said the barrage of headlines and social media notifications on jurors’ phones has been a huge problem in her cases.

“This is another reason we have alternates, because somebody is going to see something during the course of the trial that may cause them to get dismissed,” she said.

Six alternate jurors were selected for the Trump criminal trial.

The court could turn to a tactic most famously used in trials of organized crime figures to prevent jury tampering: sequestering jurors.

While technically an option in this case, it’s not one judges invoke lightly given the extreme disruption it would mean for jurors to live in a hotel under court supervision.

“It’s kind of a dire thing to do. You have to really have a good reason to do it,” Bachner said.

(Reporting by Jody Godoy in New York; editing by Tom Hals and Cynthia Osterman)