“That’s How She Talks”: Animating Text Message Evidence in the Sexual Assault

July 17, 2018

Text messages are often more accurate in detailing a chain of events than a witness’ post-occurrence memory and time-of-trial reconstruction of the incident(s).  Yet text messages are not neutral; they may be subject to manipulation or alternative interpretations depending on how they are displayed and “animated,” i.e., brought to life.

This capacity to give different meanings to plain text is core to “That’s How She Talks.”  The authors conduct what is in essence an anthropologic assessment of two trials in which text messages were prominent evidence.  After detailing vividly the use of texts in each trial, conclusions were drawn:

Even as the animator performs particular utterances, they make claims about the positions and beliefs of the authors. Text messages are unique in that they reflect a record of words that have been authored and exchanged, but the prosecution and defense engage in a contest to reconcile those words within competing narratives. They deploy different bodies and rhetorical tactics to animate the texts. Most notably, the author of the text message does not necessarily animate the transcript. This stands in stark contrast to trial testimony, in which witnesses are both author and animator of their own words and experiences, and cannot quote others lest they violate rules of hearsay. By introducing text messages via different animators, attorneys create the space to question the principals’ position, beliefs, and commitment to the texted utterances (Goffman 1981). Text messages only become a form of corroborative evidence when prosecution and defense counsel suggest specific meanings in their animation.

The old saw about comedians is that it is not the joke but the delivery that counts.  “That’s How She Talks” makes a convincing case that the delivery or “animating” of the texts is where the story gets reinforced or altered.


"That's How She Talks": Animating Text Message Evidence in the Sexual Assault Trial, 52 Law & Soc'y Rev. 401 (June, 2018)