How Twitter democratized the Indian courtroom

As a lawyer practicing primarily in Mumbai, I keep up to date with the latest developments in courts across the country as well as the Supreme Court of India. I don’t do this by referencing magazines or reading newspapers, but by scrolling through threads on Twitter. As absurd as it may sound, this is an extremely efficient method of tracking and prosecuting large lawsuits being fought in courts across the country.

Live tweets have brought more transparency to India’s courts. Every word that falls out of a judge’s mouth during a hearing finds itself in front of a sizeable audience in no time. This has helped the layperson understand how courts work and how judges think. It has helped people understand the considerations that go into deciding a case. This was most evident when the Supreme Court heard the challenge to the 103rd Amendment, which granted reservations to economically weaker sections. Perhaps for the first time, the news-consuming populace of India witnessed in real-time a constitutional court investigating what was largely a political issue for the masses. In addition to reporting on the hearings, the live tweet enlightened readers on all aspects of the matter.

It has also shed light on the many problems that plague the justice system and judiciary. This is most evident in how often Indian judges come under fire for sexist and misogynistic statements or observations they make in court or in a judgement. There was a time when a higher court judge would say something questionable or unacceptable and get away with it – not anymore. However, this has also occasionally backfired. Bonafide questions from the Chamber of Justice, reported without the necessary context, are often used to target judges or the institution as a whole. This is exactly what happened during the hearings related to the Karnataka hijab ban, both in the Karnataka High Court and in the Supreme Court of India. In both instances, questions from the judges on various legal and factual issues were taken as an indicator of their personal opinion and were therefore used to attack and troll them on social media. Therefore, although the public and advocates have supported this new medium and style, most judges still view it with concern.

Twitter was to legal reporting what the Gutenberg machine was to print. It has transformed the way legal news is reported and consumed in India. Detailed and accurate legal reporting is now reaching an unprecedentedly large audience that craves a detailed account of what’s going on in our mostly opaque judiciary. This is most evident in the increasing growth of legal news outlets such as live right and Bar & Benchpractically operating as a duopoly in space.

Thanks to Twitter, they have the “live” factor of broadcast journalism, effectively conveying the news by live-tweeting it as it happens. It is a historical phenomenon how Twitter has enabled legal news sites to expose India’s court cases to the world. One is confident that this will also be mentioned in the journalism textbooks of the future.

Live Tweet court cases have turned litigation into a live sport. Gone are the days of reading lengthy reports focused on a case’s conclusions. Live Tweets offer people the opportunity to follow a case step-by-step without having to be physically present in court or logged into a virtual court hearing – if the court in question allows virtual hearings at all. And even after the advent of virtual dishes and live streaming, live tweeting has found a consistent audience. For the same reason, although most sporting events are broadcast live, tickers remain popular – they allow people to follow developments without disrupting their daily lives.

None of this would have evolved naturally or can be replicated on any other social media platform. Twitter, with its enforced word limit, resulted in reporters tweeting succinct arguments — the length of a tweet is roughly the length of a sentence. In addition, Twitter allows adding tweets in a continuous thread. This allowed reporters to quickly tweet arguments without having to worry about arranging them in an organized manner or adding background or context. A reader could always scroll through the thread to get the context in which arguments were presented. These threads could also be embedded in news reports on the site, adding value to the public record. Additionally, Twitter is not a paid service and has a user base full of news junkies. It was only natural that live-tweeting court cases would become a hit. Most importantly, Twitter allowed audiences to interact with the news, not just read it, as they could reply to the tweet threads and start conversations with other users online. None of the other social media platforms could have contributed.

Even if Twitter fails and shuts down under the unpredictable leadership of Elon Musk, as has been feared by users of the platform, its impact on legal news coverage in India will be seen for years to come. In the event of its demise, the vacuum it leaves could be filled by platforms similar to Mastodon, or the Thread format could be integrated into the websites and mobile applications of popular legal outlets. Concept and idea are now inextricably linked to court reporting.

The author is a lawyer practicing in Mumbai and New Delhi

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