Study related to Falconer trial released

Twitter users report feeling more educated about justice system by following process

Published on July 25, 2014
Christopher Alexander Falconer.

PICTOU – People who depended on Twitter the most to follow the first-degree murder trial of Christopher Falconer say they aren’t confident they could have reached a guilty verdict.

Dr. Margo Watt, a psychology professor with St. Francis Xavier University, said a recent study examining how media following criminal trial proceedings via social networks like Twitter influence people’s perceptions of the Falconer trial and its outcome, shows that high Twitter followers felt more educated about the criminal justice system and were less persuaded by the evidence that ended in a guilty verdict for the Pictou County man.

“They were less convinced by the accuracy of the verdict,” she said. “These people felt more informed, like they learned something and were more engaged in the trial. Yet, this was also the same group that was aware of his prior criminal history.”

Thirty-one-year-old Falconer was found guilty of first-degree murder this past January in the death of 19-year-old Amber Kirwan who disappeared from downtown New Glasgow in October 2011. The trial was held in Pictou Supreme Court and followed by many media outlets that tweeted minute-by-minute updates on the evidence. 

Watt said 500 people responded to the survey and 82 per cent of the respondents were women. They had surveys answered by someone in every province of Canada and from people in China, United Kingdom and the United States.

All of the participants were divided up based on their reliance on Twitter for coverage of the trial. A few (61 participants) completed the survey even though they did not follow the trial by Twitter.

Those who used Twitter were broken up into sub-groups based on their usage that included categories of low, moderate and high.

Across the board, Watt said Twitter followers in general felt more informed by using Twitter in particular because they were able to ask journalists questions about the criminal justice system or the trial.

“Twitter has an educative value and users felt they learned something over and above what was being said in the media,” she said, adding that this could be beneficial because recent reports have stated that people need to become more educated about the criminal justice process and how it works.

“From a criminal justice perspective, if Twitter makes people more engaged then that is a good thing,” she said.

The study also showed that people followed many different sources of media throughout the trial, but high Twitter uses were less apt to use newspapers as a source of information.

Respondents from Pictou County were also looked at and it was determined they didn’t indicate as severely punitive a reaction as one might expect based on what the literature suggests for such cases she said. Forensic literature suggests that when people judge people in their community, if someone looks guilty, they judge harshly. However, if they aren’t so sure if the guilt, the punishment is less severe.

“Pictou County people didn’t reveal as much punitive action as one might expect,” she said. “They didn’t seem to find the evidence to be so compelling. The literature suggests that if his guilt had been more assured, his community would have showed a more severe punitive reaction.”

Overall, she said, the study suggests that Twitter can be a valuable tool in the criminal justice system.  

“It appears Twitter is an educative tool and it gives people a better understanding,” Watt added. “It appears that users are not as easily persuaded and less likely to have polarized opinions and less influenced by prejudicial information.”