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Twitter campaign tells Supreme Court that #MurderIsBad in Shell case

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The case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, where it will generate thousands of words’ worth of legal briefs and commentary. Yet in the court of public opinion known as Twitter, the issue boils down to eleven letters and a hashtag: “#MurderIsBad.”

Officially, the Kiobel case involves the proper interpretation of the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789-era law letting foreign citizens sue companies in U.S. courts, if the companies “committed [actions] in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

In other words, if a multinational corporation with a U.S. presence commits human rights abuses in another country, can its victims sue the corporation for damages in a U.S. court?

Defendant Royal Dutch Petroleum—the oil and gas company most Americans know as Shell—is arguing no, and ScotusBlog’s discussion of Kiobel raises a variety of complex legal issues connected to the case, including those of national sovereignty, “legal colonialism” and the matter of whether U.S. courts can or should insist that U.S. laws apply everywhere throughout the world.

Meanwhile, the group People Against Legalizing Murder (PALM), which started a website and Twitter hashtag campaign, both called “Murder is Bad,” says the Kiobel case boils down to this:

“In the 1990’s when Nigerians began to nonviolently protest Shell’s oil development [in that country], Shell collaborated with the Nigerian military regime to violently suppress opposition. More than 60 villages were raided, over 800 people were killed, and 30,000 more were displaced from their homes.

“On October 1st the Supreme Court heard the case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, in which Shell is arguing that because they are a corporation, they can’t be held accountable for these murders in U.S. Courts. If they get their way, corporations will be free to commit crimes against humanity overseas without fear of answering to an American court. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in coming months.”

PALM says it initially started MurderIsBad.com as part of an email outreach campaign to Shell employees, but that didn’t work:

“We went to work creating this website in order to provide employees with information about the case, as well as an easy way to tweet their feelings about it at key US news anchors (and Oprah Winfrey). We emailed all 71,010 employees about it. Within minutes, we began receiving emails from Shell employees who were intrigued and wanted more information, but couldn't access the site—because Shell’s IT Department had blocked it.”

But Shell employees can always read it from home, and the site still functions primarily as an automatic Tweet generator.

Visitors with Twitter accounts can choose one of five national journalists or celebrities—Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Oprah Winfrey, Rachel Maddow or Ann Curry—and then select one of six tweets to send said journalist, including “Whether a person or a corporation commits it, #MurderIsBad,” and “#MurderIsBad, even in Nigeria, even by Shell.”

Though less than a day old, the Twitter campaign appears to be slowly gaining traction, with the #MurderIsBad hashtag getting about 70 tweets in an hour. The hashtag “Kiobel” on its own has a slightly larger Twitter footprint.

But success in an attention-getting Twitter campaign doesn’t guarantee success before the courts, or even that the courts will know about it.  @Carolineoutside noted the PALM campaign and asked: “Social media activism ramping up for #Kiobel case http://murderisbad.com/  Wonder what SCOTUS will see.”

Photo by Adam Cutler/Flickr