Wikipedia Is Influencing Judicial Decisions, Study Finds

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Individuals awaiting trial after being charged with a serious indictable offence are usually under a lot of stress, which would only be compounded if they thought the judge presiding over their case was regularly consulting Wikipedia as a source of authority.

Whilst the encyclopaedic website that was launched in January 2001 is a source of masses of information, its open-editing model, which means anyone can alter its content, doesn’t make it a dependable reference for academic research or for grounding legal arguments in for that matter. 

However, a group of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) recently conducted an experiment to gauge whether the go-to online source for many is having an effect on trial outcomes in Ireland.

The academics found that the presence of a Wikipedia article about a case generates an increase in citations by 25 percent, and further, not only is the site being used to link to legal authorities, but they also showed that the argumentation set out in the articles is influencing judges.

Reflected in rulings

The Trial by Internet: A Randomised Field Experiment on Wikipedia’s Influence on Judges’ Legal Reasoning report explains that researchers developed 150 new articles based on Irish Supreme Court decisions, and then randomly uploaded half of them to the website and kept the others aside.

The researchers subsequently found that the creation of an article on Wikipedia does lead to it being cited more often in judicial decisions, and that the text of the arguments set out in the online encyclopedia is being echoed in the rulings handed down by judges.

The study also notes that the circumstances in which a case listed on Wikipedia is being cited as an authority is in order to support a judge’s argument, rather than being used as a point of contrast, which shows judicial officers are using the site to confirm their position.

In conclusion, the researchers assert that the experiment has highlighted “a gap that needs to be filled: judges need an easily accessible source of knowledge that is also authoritative”. And they suggest this could be improved by having legal professionals as supervising editors on Wikipedia.

Common law jurisdictions

Led by Neil Thompson, the group of MIT researchers chose the Irish legal system to inquire into as it’s much smaller than the one in their country, so it was easier to monitor, but it was also because the system in Ireland shares similarities with the US and UK legal systems.

As the researchers have done with the US setting, one could surmise that as Australia has a similar legal system to those in Ireland and America, and as there are numerous Wikipedia articles on local cases, it’s likely these same practices are occurring in this country.

The findings of the paper suggest that “across many common law jurisdictions, Wikipedia – and, by extension, the legal analysis of unknown internet users – might already be playing an important role in shaping judicial decisions,” the researchers concluded.

Image: Wikipedia logo is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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