A professor from St. Francis Xavier University is looking into how Twitter is changing the public’s perception of the justice system in Canada.

In January, the judge in the trial of Christopher Falconer allowed reporters to live-Tweet the court proceedings, giving members of the public a rare opportunity to follow the case as it unfolded in the courtroom.

Margo Watt, a psychology professor at St. FX, and her students were some of the thousands of people who watched the Falconer trial online. He was found guilty on Jan. 28 in the first-degree murder of Amber Kirwan.

Since little research has been done on the topic of social media in the courts, Watt is now conducting a survey of those who followed the trial on social media, how it has impacted their understanding of the Canadian justice system and the potential impact of social media in the courtroom.

"Do people see it as different than just reading a newspaper account? Are there differences between people who follow Twitter exclusively versus people who sat in the courtroom or followed other sources of news and information on the trial?" she said.


Thousands of people followed CBC reporter Angela MacIvor's live-tweeted coverage of the Chris Falconer trial earlier this year. (Twitter)

“It opened up a whole new experience for myself and the students.”

Watt said she's aiming for a sample size of 250 people. The results of the survey will be released this summer.

‘I was addicted to it’

Twitter offered those who could not get in to the packed courtroom a chance to follow the Falconer trial step by step.

"I was addicted to it. I kept refreshing all the feeds. I wanted to see everything that was happening in the trial,” said psychology student Meagan Martell.

Martell wasn't the only one reading updates, minute by minute. Her forensic psychology classmates did the same. In no time, the trial became a hot topic of discussion in Watt's classroom.

“If you’re just watching the news they always give the huge headlines, 'This is the evidence they presented,' but you don’t see all the other little things that led up to that,” said psychology student Angelina MacLellan.

The students were also fascinated that tweeting was allowed in the first place.

"There's a very tricky line, and I think that if we are going to start to bring in more and more technology, then we need to limit it to those who know how to use it with a certain degree of respect," said fourth-year psychology student Quin Gilbert-Walters.

Technology and the courts

With technology advancing at a lightening-fast pace, courts are still trying to work out rules around sharing information from trials on social media.

As it stands, reporters needs to request special permission from the judge to tweet from the courtroom.

A new Twitter policy for all levels of court in Nova Scotia is in the works, the details of which are expected to be released soon.