Using Social Media for Legal Research: How Google and Wikipedia Are Not “Just Noise”

by Tiffany Wong

On September 17, 2012, I presented at the APLIC-ABPAC and Parliamentary Researchers Conference held at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario on the subject of using social media for legal research. I quickly discovered while facilitating discussion through a sample research question that I was not quite able to convince a room full of skeptical parliamentary librarians into using Wikipedia for their research needs, namely research requests on any myriad of topics from current Members of Parliament (MPPs). Understandably, like many lawyers, parliamentary researchers are concerned that the information found on social media is:

  • Unreliable
  • Changes often
  • Out-of-date
  • Inaccurate
  • Biased
  • If new territory, time consuming

There was also the potential pitfall of the public perception of the legislature and MPPs relying on social media research. While all of the above are valid concerns, when it comes to legal research, I do not think that social media can be written-off entirely as “just noise.”

In my experience, when I researched new legal questions at a large corporate law firm on Bay St. in Toronto, I encountered two main types of legal questions:

(1) Researching a broad legal topic; and

(2) Researching “black letter law.”

During my session at the APLIC Conference, I walked the audience through a real-world example using social media to answer a broad legal question since it was the type of question most likely encountered in the legislative context.

How often have we been assigned to research a tort that we’ve never heard of? Or been asked to write a memo about a piece of new legislation that is about to be litigated for the first time? Sometimes, the quickest and most affordable way of finding the definition of a new legal topic involves a simple Google search (which predates Web 2.0/social media) or a quick scan through a Wikipedia entry. Although many researchers are reticent about using Wikipedia, the footnotes in each entry can be datamined to trace the research trail back to original or traditional sources. The benefit of legal research is that you can trace back to the “black letter law” (i.e. legislation, cases, and established legal principles) to confirm whether the social media commentary is accurate. When it comes to doing basic preliminary research, sources like Wikipedia can be useful in determining an overall key definition, the key players, and the key principles involved in the issue – it is a starting point for legal research.

After figuring out what the research topic is generally about, the researcher could then search keywords mentioned in social media to identify the name of a relevant legislation; a leading case; academic and professional blogs by law firms, professors and lawyers on the topic; and key dates and individuals. Usually at this point, I would be armed with enough information to note up a leading case or legislation in a more expensive database like Quicklaw and Westlaw – but at least I had done the preliminary background research using free online resources.

Useful social media sources are blogs (particularly by law firms, lawyers, newspapers, and academics), Twitter feeds (where following the right person could lead you to a re-tweeted blog post), and occasionally LinkedIn to determine the legal qualifications of a blogger or Tweeter. While many law firms and individual lawyer’s blogs are posted for marketing purposes, these blogs also provide expert analysis on legal developments that can be verified in the “black letter law” itself. By referring to social media, you would have at minimum a couple of case names, legislation and analysis to work with.

When used ethically, social media can add value to legal research. Social media can allow a legal researcher to:

  • Find commentary from thoughtful experts (e.g. There’s a useful blog about the US Supreme Court blog);
  • Confirm facts (e.g. Toronto’s Police Service has a Twitter feed, @TorontoPolice); and
  • Provide an indication of international and other jurisdictional developments.

The use and reliance on social media in today’s information- based society is impossible to ignore, especially when some of the freshest, most recent analysis by professional thinkers are posted online before they hit the presses in traditional print sources. Social media indeed adds value to legal research, if the researcher is savvy and media literate – using social media carefully by taking its content with a grain of salt.

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Comments

  1. For the past year or so I’ve been monitoring the influence of Wikipedia as a referral source to the primary law content on CanLII. Last year, approximately 2,200 Wikipedia articles
    containing CanLII triggered approximately 50,000 CanLII page views and in 2012 the number of articles with links exceeds 2,500 and we expect to receive around 75,000 page views as people click through Wikipedia to reach source documents on CanLII.

    Many of these articles edited to include CanLII links appear to be developed by a small but dedicated cadre, but the range of people adding links is as diverse as the articles themselves.

    You might think that the task of editing legal links edited into Canadian articles is only undertaken by Canadians, but increasingly it appears to be a worldwide effort. For example, just last week I learned of Prof. Jack Tsen-ta Lee and the Singapore Management University Constitutional and Administrative Law Wikipedia project and their efforts to build case citation templates to facilitate the process of standardizing Canadian citations with automatic links to CanLII. They completed their CanLII template yesterday.

    (Many thanks to Prof. Lee and all those at SMUconlaw!!)

    Tiffany is correct in her thesis that Wikipedia is much more than noise and that it warrants closer attention. I forget where I read it, but I’m partial to the claim that “Wikipedia is the best place to start and the worst place to stop”.

  2. The article is right about the usefulness of Wikipedia – but it might go on to note that one can test to some extent the credibility of the entry by reading the Discussion page and looking at the editing history, particularly if the topic is controversial (either in general or because of a dispute between parties.) Not only does Wikipedia itself recommend this process, but legal tribunals in Canada have suggested that it is a condition of admissibility (or close to it). See my recent case comment for more detail.