Trial by Internet: A Randomized Field Experiment on Wikipedia’s Influence on Judges’ Legal Reasoning

Forthcoming in Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Jurisprudence, editor Kevin Tobia, Cambridge University Press

29 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2022

See all articles by Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson

MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL); MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy

Brian Flanagan

National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUI Maynooth) - Faculty of Law

Edana Richardson

National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUI Maynooth) - Faculty of Law

Brian McKenzie

Maynooth University

Xueyun Luo

Cornell University, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management

Date Written: July 27, 2022

Abstract

In the common law tradition, legal decisions are supposed to be grounded in both statute and precedent, with legal training guiding practitioners on the most important and relevant touchstones. But actors in the legal system are also human, with the failings and foibles seen throughout society. This may lead them to take methodological shortcuts, even to relying on unknown internet users for determinations of a legal source’s relevance.

In this chapter, we investigate the influence on legal judgments of a pervasive, but unauthoritative source of legal knowledge: Wikipedia. Using the first randomized field experiment ever undertaken in this area—the gold standard for identifying causal effects—we show that Wikipedia shapes judicial behavior. Wikipedia articles on decided cases, written by law students, guide both the decisions that judges cite as precedents and the textual content of their written opinions. The information and legal analysis offered on Wikipedia led judges to cite the relevant legal cases more often and to talk about them in ways comparable to how the Wikipedia authors had framed them.
Collectively, our study provides clear empirical evidence of a new form of influence on judges’ application of the law—easily accessible, user-generated online content. Because such content is not authoritative, our analysis reveals a policy-gap: if easily-accessible analysis of legal questions is already being relied on, it behooves the legal community to accelerate efforts to ensure that such analysis is both comprehensive and expert.

Suggested Citation

Thompson, Neil and Flanagan, Brian and Richardson, Edana and McKenzie, Brian and Luo, Xueyun, Trial by Internet: A Randomized Field Experiment on Wikipedia’s Influence on Judges’ Legal Reasoning (July 27, 2022). Forthcoming in Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Jurisprudence, editor Kevin Tobia, Cambridge University Press, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4174200 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4174200

Neil Thompson (Contact Author)

MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) ( email )

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HOME PAGE: http://www.neil-t.com

MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy ( email )

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Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
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Brian Flanagan

National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUI Maynooth) - Faculty of Law ( email )

Maynooth, County Kildare
Ireland

Edana Richardson

National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUI Maynooth) - Faculty of Law ( email )

Maynooth, County Kildare
Ireland

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/people/edana-richardson

Brian McKenzie

Maynooth University ( email )

Xueyun Luo

Cornell University, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management ( email )

Ithaca, NY
United States

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