It’s a fact of life in modern courtrooms — journalists tapping away at their smartphones, providing a play-by-play of what the judge, witnesses and lawyers are saying and doing.
But how much does all of that tweeting matter to those following the trial online?
That’s the question that Dr. Margo Watt, a professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, wanted to answer. All she needed was a perfect case study, and she found it in the trial of Chris Falconer, who was accused (and eventually convicted) in the 2011 murder of Amber Kirwan. The woman disappeared after leaving a pool hall in New Glasgow.
“It seemed like people who were following the case on Twitter had a different perspective on it than those who read the papers or watched the coverage on TV,” Watt said.
After recruiting more than 500 participants for her study, Watt was on her way to discovering one important fact: The more people followed the case on Twitter, the more likely they were to be skeptical of the guilty verdict and the evidence against Falconer.
Equally interesting was the fact that many of the most frequent users of Twitter were also well aware of Falconer’s past criminal history, a fact that would normally predispose someone to believing in his guilt; instead, many were undeterred by past convictions.
Regardless of the outcome and evidence in the case, Watt said the fact that people were so engaged was positive in and of itself.
“If we can get people more educated and informed in the legal process, that’s a good thing,” she said.
Overall, Watt said that those who followed the case on Twitter felt more engaged and informed when it came to understanding the criminal justice system.
Of course, there was also the added benefit of being able to follow the case from anywhere in the world.
“Someone in Fort McMurray could follow the case as easily as someone in Pictou County,” Watt said.
The research has already been published in a textbook and Watt is hoping that it will soon grace the pages of an academic journal.