“… Our courts must be open to members of the public because history teaches that when things go on that are hidden from the public, people tend to think the worst, and history also teaches us that sometimes they are right.”
— Donald G. Collester Jr., retired New Jersey Superior Court judge
Apart from the fact that having “followers” on Twitter feeds my latent messiah complex, I’m starting to think Twitter might be a double-edged sword.
“Twitter is without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now,” the social medium’s website proclaims.
But think about that. Is it true?
During major developments like hurricane Igor, social media like Twitter was invaluable for spreading the word about up-to-the-minute developments, like reporting that a particular road had washed out or that a traffic light was gone.
You can’t say a whole lot in 140 characters or less allowed per tweet, but you can get the word out.
And you can see how it can have other handy applications, too, like announcing a big sale, or letting commuters know of an accident or a moose sighting, or for reporting breaking news like the end of a strike or the verdict in a trial.
But maybe Twitter’s website should come with a warning: if improperly used, Twitter can actually prevent the sharing and discovering of information.
How? Well, two examples reared their heads in the past few days, one involving the courts and one involving the prime minister.
First, to the PM. The Canadian Press (CP) reported Wednesday that Stephen Harper’s government is using Twitter to release certain snippets of information rather than going through regular channels such as issuing statements or news releases.
On Tuesday, his spokesman tweeted that Harper would be travelling to the United States to meet with President Barack Obama. The PMO has also used Twitter to comment on the evacuation of Canadians from Egypt, a CRTC ruling that could have a widespread effect on consumers and to confirm a cabinet shuffle.
That’s all well and good, but as the CP article noted, “The PMO’s use of Twitter as a formal communications tool above official channels is raising concern because it shuts out those who don’t use the site.
Also, Harper’s account links followers to the Conservative party website rather than the government of Canada site.”
So, apparently the PM doesn’t care whether he’s excluding the many Canadians who don’t use Twitter and he’s using it as a Tory propaganda tool, to boot.
Now, I’m on Twitter, but I’m not a Harper follower and have no intention of becoming one, so he can tweet away to his heart’s content and I won’t feel like I’m missing anything.
As a journalist, I have other means of gathering information. But what about the people who could miss out on valuable news from their federal government because they don’t use social media or even have access to computer technology? Don’t they still have a right to know what their prime minister is saying? Isn’t a government obliged to at least try to reach all of its citizens?
By all means, politicians, use Twitter, Facebook — all the communications tools at your disposal — but don’t be so arrogant as to ignore people who are poor or illiterate or who choose to live life offline.
A recent second Twitter story has even greater implications.
A judge in a Calgary court last week banned members of the public from attending a preliminary hearing in a torture case, for fear they would taint proceedings by using Facebook or Twitter to spread details from the hearing that were protected by a publication ban.
“I wonder sometimes how the online rush to judgment could affect someone’s ability to receive a fair trial,” I wrote in a column on Sept. 11.
Obviously the Calgary judge is wondering the same thing.
But there’s got to be a better way to ensure the integrity of a trial than by denying the public access to the courts.
First of all, some journalists are already using Twitter to report the news from court, as we saw in the Col. Russell Williams case.
Professional reporters are trusted to inform the public how the justice system works, and Twitter is just another means they have of conveying that information.
They are well aware of the importance of obeying publication bans, and I’ve never known anyone in this province who has wilfully ignored one.
So, the members of the public who use Twitter are not necessarily going to be subjected to a barrage of false information online, but to a steady stream of facts, as well.
Second, judges can forbid the public from using social media to repeat protected information from court, and fine or otherwise punish anyone who disregards that instruction.
Similarly, just as jurors are often discouraged from following media coverage of the trials they’re involved in, so too can they be instructed to lay off the Facebook updates and Twitter feeds until the trial is over.
Ban the public from court and who’s next? Journalists?
Social media is here to stay and the justice system has to get a handle on it.
My fear is that, in acknowledging that social media sites are used to disseminate information, the justice system will use them as a tool for restricting its flow.
Keeping Canadians from being able to witness justice in action serves nobody’s interests.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.