ALEX COHEN, host:
Now to the case of Eric Volz. Volz is an American living in Nicaragua, and two months ago he was convicted of raping and murdering his Nicaraguan ex-girlfriend. Volz was sentenced to 30 years in prison. American TV networks have been all over this story.
(Soundbite of American TV networks)
Unidentified Woman: We begin with the American who was sitting in a Nicaraguan jail convicted of murder…
Unidentified Man: Being buried alive. That's what an American citizen said what life is like inside a maximum security prison in Nicaragua.
COHEN: The American media attention exploded after a campaign for Volz's release was launched on the Internet. Here with more is DAY TO DAY's tech correspondent Xeni Jardin.
XENI JARDIN: Twenty-seven-year-old Eric Volz is one of many Americans drawn to the beauty of Nicaragua. He ended up staying, selling beachfront real estate and launching a magazine about local culture. Life was pretty good until last November. His 25-year-old Nicaraguan ex-girlfriend was raped and murdered. Of the four suspects, Volz was the only non-Nicaraguan. He became the prime suspect.
Maggie Anthony is Eric Volz's mother.
Ms. MAGGIE ANTHONY (Eric Volz's Mother): After the hearing, Eric was chased by a mob that wanted to kill him. They were chanting inside: Let the gringo out so we can kill him. So we really believe that was a direct result of just a frenzy that just kind of happened as a result of the press.
JARDIN: Nicaraguan tabloids were printing inflammatory headlines like Voltz Guilty and Pure Lies from the Family, so Maggie Anthony says they turned to a close family friend for help. That friend, Richard McKinney, is a Microsoft employee who had some experience with technology and media. He says at first they thought it best to avoid more media attention.
Mr. RICHARD McKINNEY (Family Friend): Our lawyer said, you know, the best course of action is just to let the evidence speak for itself and let's not make the situation worse by introducing the media.
JARDIN: Because if that spun out of control, the story could turn into a Nicaragua versus the U.S. firestorm, but things did not go as they hoped. Here's a clip from an online video in support of Voltz.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Woman #1: Jackie?
JACKIE: Yeah. I'm sorry, I just got a text from Simon. It's a guilty verdict.
Unidentified Woman #1: Jackie.
Mr. McKINNEY: And basically at that point we all looked at each other and realized we had to change our course and our strategy.
JARDIN: McKinney knew that his 24-year-old daughter Nicole, who works in an ad agency, knew a thing or two about viral media, creating online campaigns with YouTube, MySpace and blogs.
Mr. McKINNEY: I remember when I called her, I said, Darling, we need to light a fire on the Internet, and she said let me work on it.
JARDIN: And they did. A Free Eric Volz MySpace page materialized. Letters written by Eric from jail appear like blog posts on a Friends of Eric Volz Web site. Supporters produced this YouTube video called "An American Wrongfully Imprisoned In Nicaragua."
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man: We're here trying to set the record straight. You know, this has been a very surreal experience.
JARDIN: Soon blogs picked up the story, and big media like CNN and NBC followed. Around the same time, congressmen and State Department officials took notice. In Nicaragua, there isn't a strong Internet culture yet, but locals expressed themselves online too, in newspaper forums, and an anti-Eric Volz video popped up. In this clip, the court clerk reads the verdict condemning Volz.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Woman #2 (Court Clerk): (Speaking Spanish)
JARDIN: There's yet another response video attacking that attacker, and beyond the case itself traditional media in Nicaragua is at odds with a new global social media. Communications expert Howard Rheingold is the author of "Smart Mobs."
Mr. HOWARD RHEINGOLD (Author, "Smart Mobs"): The poor people who earn a dollar a day, they don't have access to the Internet quite yet, but they've always had access to the networks through which rumors spread, and they hit the streets. Some of those people on the streets know someone who's connected to the Internet, so I think increasingly we will see those two worlds merge.
JARDIN: Those worlds are merging in other legal cases too. Supporters of American video blogger Josh Wolf, who spent 226 days in U.S. prison, created a massive online campaign in part with his recent release. Just as conversational media could be used to exonerate the wrongfully imprisoned, Rheingold worries that it could be used the other way.
Mr. RHEINGOLD: So the question is, is that going to raise the quality of the public sphere so that public opinion can be formed in a somewhat rational manner that has some connection to facts, or is this simply going to be a medium that can be manipulated and in which people become inflamed over falsehoods?
JARDIN: For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.