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Wikipedia Articles Influence Judges, MIT Study Finds

Judges are more likely to cite legal cases in their decisions if there's a Wikipedia article on those cases.

Wikipedia's logo, a globe made of puzzle pieces with letters from various languages' alphabets
Wikipedia

Wikipedia pages influence judicial thinking, with judges citing legal cases 20% more often after new Wikipedia articles describing them were written, researchers at MIT and and Maynooth University in Ireland have found.

The study, detailed Wednesday, shows that legal minds are similar to those of students, hobbyists, celebrity fans and just about anybody else trying to look up information on the internet. Wikipedia, with millions of articles, is a broadly useful resource whose pages often rank high in search engines' results.

The study also shows how important it is that Wikipedia articles, which are written by anyone with an interest in a subject, be carefully vetted and considered carefully.

"It is not difficult to imagine a well-resourced litigant encouraging his legal team to integrate their own analysis of a relevant precedent into a Wikipedia article on the case at an early stage of litigation," said Neil Thompson, an MIT researcher and lead author of the study.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit behind Wikimedia, has active efforts to fight disinformation and is viewed as generally trustworthy enough that YouTube has relied on it to combat conspiracy theories.  Wikipedia contributors work to clean up problem areas and resolve disputes, but Wikipedia isn't immune to issues like a woman who fabricated Russian medieval history rich with bogus detail.

The foundation didn't respond to a request for comment.

In the study, law students wrote more than 150 new Wikipedia articles about Irish Supreme Court decisions. Half of them, randomly selected, were added to Wikipedia. Then, MIT computer scientists tracked how often judges cited those cases in their precedents in their own judicial decisions and whether their own arguments used language similar to that on those Wikipedia pages.

The comparison of the unpublished and published Wikipedia pages showed the 20% increase in citations of cases that were documented on Wikipedia. That's a statistically significant increase, MIT said.

The effect was particularly strong for cases that supported the judge's decision. "Because randomized experiments are the gold standard for this type of research, we know the effect we are seeing is causation, not just correlation," Thompson said.

The connection was weaker for higher courts, though. That's probably because "Wikipedia is used more by judges or clerks who have a heavier workload, for whom the convenience of Wikipedia offers a greater attraction," the MIT researchers concluded.

The researchers see a role for professional societies to keep Wikipedia useful and free of errors. "We hope they'll see our results and form committees of experts to engage with Wikipedia and other information sources to work to make them more authoritative," said co-author Brian Flanagan, an associate law professor at Maynooth University, whose students contributed the Wikipedia articles.

Flanagan also said other, more authoritative sites could help, pointing as an example to the Oyez Project at Illinois Tech's Chicago-Kent College of Law. That project shares US Supreme Court activity online, including legal briefs and close to 10,000 hours of courtroom audio.

The study focused on the Irish Supreme Court because there are relatively few Wikipedia articles about its cases and because the Irish judicial system is structurally similar to the US hierarchy.