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Twitter, Facebook and the rule of law

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To have a country governed by the rule of law and not the rule of man requires that the law be known.  As few communication networks are as efficient for disseminating information as social media networks, it should not be that surprising that Twitter, Facebook and other networks can very effectively serve that objective. 

Twitter and Facebook will not and should not supplant the role of government and the courts to make the law known, but even the law makers themselves can and are making increasing use of social media to augment their efforts. 

#TellVicEverything

Before adopting too pious a tone in this column, I should note that I love a good Twitter meme as much as the next person and I too use Twitter for frivolous and self-aggrandizing purposes.  My point is merely that Twitter as a platform enables so much more.  David Bilinsky wrote on Slaw about the Nova Scotia courts and their use of Twitter to broadcast the availability of new decisions and of other important details pertaining to the activities of those courts. Over at the Supreme Court of Canada, while not itself tweeting, we can easily see that every one of its rulings are now tweeted by someone.  Not just links, but editorial comment as well, delivered in 100 character snippets by many prominent twittering others. In fact, constitutional scholars and leading Canadian appellate advocates regularly delve into extended twitter debates about the meaning of any given ruling.

Look, for example, at the 21 French and 39 English language tweets linking to the SCC.lexum.org presentation of S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes. Or the 90 tweeted links to the English language version of Reference re Securities Act.  Bear in mind also that CanLII’s presentation of these decisions will drive additional tweeted links. And the twitter conversation around the issues will be comprised of still hundreds more tweets that either eschew links or offer links to media or other analysis of the issues raised by the case or legislative source. 

These activities are fully consistent with the sentiment behind the preamble to the Reproduction of Federal Law Order which provides as follows:

Whereas it is of fundamental importance to a democratic society that its law be widely known and that its citizens have unimpeded access to that law        

To reinforce the rule of law and for the law to be widely known it must be openly and frequently brought into public view and made part of public discourse. It will be a long time before we see Donoghue v Stevenson “trending” on Twitter, or receiving tens of thousands of “likes” on Facebook. But sudden changes or dramatic turns in legal understanding brought about by a court judgment will and frequently do attract significant attention in both venues. And it is this attention, whether triggered by a court’s own twitter account or the accounts of court observers that enhance awareness of the changes and facilitate the process for understanding “new” law.

When you learn from Twitter, don’t forget to cite the source

As mentioned, we see examples of this with every new Supreme Court decisions, but one of the most dramatic examples in recent months came out of the Ontario Court of Appeal with the release of Jones v. Tsige and the introduction into the legal canon and popular vernacular of the “tort of intrusion upon seclusion”.  True understanding of the implications of this ruling will take analysis and further judicial consideration by subsequent courts faced with new actions, but a significant amount of discussion was triggered through Twitter alone within hours of the decision hitting the Ontario Courts website.  

The twitter-tracking site Topsy.com shows 81 separate tweets with links to the Ontario Courts presentation of the decision.

Among those doing the tweeting were leading technology and privacy law academics and practitioners, alongside dozens of twittering lawyers, media and more, all with a collective “follower” reach of over one hundred thousand individuals (not quite @AplusK numbers, but still not too shabby in a Canadian legal context).  These tweets spawned, countless blogs which themselves included links back to the cases.  All in all, Twitter likely had a significant hand in facilitating public awareness and understanding of an important development in the law.  

If a tweet falls in the forest…

The foregoing examples might begin to convince you that Twitter is a useful broadcast medium for court decisions, but to begin to buy-in to the idea of Twitter have a role in fortifying the rule of law, there should be evidence that people are in fact following the links.  

So are people clicking through?  I can’t comment on the Twitter click-throughs experienced by the Ontario Courts or the SCC in the examples mentioned above, but I can talk about CanLII’s experience.

It starts in 2008. We think we have managed to identify Tweet-zero: the first time a tweet linking to CanLII content resulted in someone reaching the site.  If we are correct, tweet-zero occurred in May 2008 and was courtesy of a long-time Slaw contributor.

In 2008, twenty-seven CanLII page views are attributable to links contained in Tweets.  In 2009, that number was 911.  It grew to 2591 and then 9206 in 2010 and 2011, respectively.  Forecasting 2012 results on the number and growth in page views over the first three months of the year, it’s reasonable to predict that totals will top 25,000.

Image 

Add to CanLII’s 25K+ page views the thousands (tens of thousands?) more that will be experienced by  Canadian court websites and it becomes increasingly evident that Twitter has the potential to be a potent medium for raising awareness and promoting understanding of Canadian law. 

And Facebook?  Well, CanLII’s internal statistics indicate that over twice as many page views originate from Facebook as from Twitter links, but as this example shows, the circumstances that attract attention on that network may tend more to the peculiar or salacious than the comparatively erudite debate found on Twitter. [Again, mea culpa. I like reading and talking about peculiar decisions] So while its influence can’t be denied, the case for its contribution to the rule of law may be a little harder to make at this time.

I am lawyer, hear me tweet

Tweeting is easy because even in the absence of a “Tweet” button, web-based content can be pushed to Twitter with a simple cut-and-paste of the URL, so the only function of Tweet buttons on sites like Slaw or even CanLII is to make that process even easier. Content is pushed, in the form of links, to where the conversation takes place, and links serve the function of bringing the individual, not the conversation, back to the content. 

And finally, because a tweeted link to primary law is only valuable if read, one might ask what methods are likely to encourage that action?  I hesitate to offer a list of “best practices” but I will offer examples of tweets I find compelling.

@CanLII

Where does CanLII fit in all of this?  Naturally CanLII encourages it. In fact, in September of last year, we added Tweet buttons to all our decisions. Yes, we do benefit from the increased traffic and awareness of our service that comes from the tweeting, but our decision to include the buttons was more a reaction to behaviours that we already observing rather than an attempt to engineer a paradigm for expanding juridical awareness.  We are happy to facilitate the activity but we do so only as a small part of a much bigger trend and a much bigger purpose.

At publication of this column @CanLII will have just marked its one year twitterversary and hopefully welcomed its 2000th follower.

So…do you tweet law links or follow those who do?

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** This post was written in March and first published on Slaw.ca on April 16th: http://www.slaw.ca/2012/04/16/twitter-facebook-and-the-rule-of-law/  More recent cases, including R. v. Tse, have shown even greater use of Twitter to spread awareness than the examples offered here.

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