Just like the industrial revolution disrupted social relations in the 18th Century, technological advancements have continued unabatedly to effect landmark changes in the ways things are done. In fact, in recent times, so many new normals have developed to the extent that they are now indeterminable.
One more recent contribution to human development is the Internet, which has given birth to several other wonderful uses by which human communications have become faster, rendering outdated the traditional means of communication and news reportage. Today, the postal agencies have almost run out of business, becoming redundant, and hardly would the youths of today know what we used to experience in sending messages and letters in the olden days when a letter to a relative in spaces less than 100 kilometres would take days, if not months, to be delivered. At times, such letters would even get lost in transit and their owners might not get them forever. Some letters were not delivered for more than a hundred years only for them to surface when the owners had died. Many lovers were separated as a result of their inability to communicate.
All this the Internet has resolved with mouth-gaping impacts as messages could be delivered in less than one minute between two or more persons in distances running into thousands of miles. Two or more discussants can even discuss or hold meetings now while looking at one another as if they were physically present. A great contributor to human interaction and communication is social media. This has been described by a digital platform called WhatIs.com as “a collective term for websites and applications that focus on communication, community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration”. Some popular examples include Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Telegram and LinkedIn. In another way, according to Maya Dollarhide in “Social Media: Definition, Effects and List of Top Apps,” published at https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/social-media.asp accessed on 26/0/2023, “Social media is a digital technology that facilitates the sharing of text and multimedia through virtual networks and communities. More than 4.7 billion people around the world use social media. In 2022, the number of social media users worldwide grew by 137 million, or about 3%.
The largest social media platforms are Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and WeChat. Social media typically features user-generated content and personalized profiles that lend themselves to engagement via likes, shares, comments, and discussion.” Since its evolution, human interaction has never remained the same as it has impacted businesses in a way more than ever imagined. Today, sales are carried out online while millions of businesses are transacted without physical engagements with payments made without physical cash. All these could not have been imagined more than a hundred years ago and definitely, sceptics would have described it as impossible while the extremely religious would have seen it as magic forbidden by the scriptures. Social media has affected legal relations and created lots of opportunities in the way we do things in the judicial sector too. Today, we hold court sessions virtually and this became more pronounced and a permanent feature of the judicial process as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted the whole world. Now we have the erstwhile unthinkable as trials are conducted with parties living more than a thousand kilometres away and judgments are delivered by judges using Zoom or any other platform.
Applications are argued without having lawyers in full robes, in the comfort of their offices, reducing time spent in traffic or unnecessary expenses of travelling. Court decisions are now more accessible as lawyers have created millions of platforms by which they share court rulings and judgments. Reporting the courtroom process has become less cumbersome as information on court proceedings can be more easily disseminated. Recently, the use of emojis as a sign language is being gradually recognized in several jurisdictions. The judiciary has embraced this modern wonder and the lives of our judges have not remained the same unlike what they used to be in the ancient days when judges were recluses that could only be seen in courtrooms alone. As they are human beings living among us, they are also users of social media who not only exploit its advantages but are affected by its negatives. It is commonplace that anything that has positive uses will have negative effects. Among its negative attributes is disruption of the right to privacy, hacking, lack of emotional connection as connectivity occurs among strangers who have no human relations, cyberbullying, decrease in quick-witted skills, negative feedback for brands and addiction.
More terrible is the fact that the world of social media is given to lots of manipulation, fake news, blatant falsehoods, and destructive narratives that would look real and possible until time exposes their untruths. In many cases, before this happens, a lot of damage would have been done. It is, therefore, a cardinal rule that judges are to decide cases based on evidence led before them and not to market gossip or personal knowledge of facts that may not be consistent with hard-core evidence. They are not to decide cases based on newspaper reporting or narratives in the public space that millions of people might have believed to be correct. Judges are mandated by law to give precedent to evidence as justice must be done and not only be done but must be seen to have been done. Unfortunately, we have a situation where judges of today have been seriously affected by social media manipulations that evidence has become a victim of their personal beliefs and preferences. Some judges have become popularity conscious that they decide cases according to what they feel the public wants to hear. How on earth would a judge crave a bias against an accused person and to satisfy the complainant and the applauding public, would go against the law and deliver a questionable judgment that has no basis in reason?
Some judges even create their evidence different from what was adduced in court by the parties. Some judges have become victims of cyberbullying that they want to be in the good book of rampaging social media goons and only listen to what the mob is saying on social media to decide where the scale of justice would tilt. Dispensing justice is a godly attribute and duty that social media marketplace narratives should not be a basis for its exercise. Judges are required to carry out their duties without fear or favour and this is contained in the oath they take during swearing-in ceremonies.
They are representatives of God on earth that should do the utmost to ensure that the innocent is not unjustly punished. This brings to the fore the need to regulate the use of social media by judges. According to the authors of an article titled “Use of Social Media by Judges – Discussion Guide for the Expert Group Meeting (5-7 November 2018, Vienna)” published at https://www.venice.coe.int/files/un_social_media/unodc.pdf, “given the nature of the judicial office, the use of social media by judges raises specific questions that should be addressed. This is because the way judges use social media may have an impact on the public’s perception of judges and confidence in the judicial system and can potentially lead to situations where judges are seen as biased or subject to outside influences. In addition, the use of social media also poses potential threats to judges’ privacy, safety and may place judges under attack of negative comments and cyberbullying.” It is due to the above that the 2002 Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, have been developed to regulate how judges use and the extent they can interact with social media.
This shall be critically examined at another time but suffices to say that judges are required to “have regard to the values of independence, impartiality, integrity and propriety” while carrying out their constitutional duties. While it is true that judges “should not be isolated from society and should strive to create an environment of open justice”, it is also the case that they cannot afford to have negative perceptions destroy the image of independence, impartiality, integrity, propriety, equality, competence, diligence and uprightness by which alone the public can invest its confidence in them.
The need to find a balance between these competing priorities has become topical with the world evolving rapidly in technological developments and communications. Social media has helped our judges in delivering on their constitutional and statutory mandates. Without it, their functions would have been greatly hampered but it seems that social media must be seen as a tool and not a source of information on facts to decide cases.
It is also required that interaction on social media should be limited when judges are involved and while there is nothing wrong with a judge being on a social media platform specifically meant for judges, it might be wrong for a judge to be on a social media platform where all manner of people are listed. This gives room for undue accessibility to rumours and gossip that the judge has no means of controlling. It is also the case that the judge is, on such platforms, exposed to unnecessary interaction with and access by less scrupulous elements who may want to exploit access to a judge’s number to create undue familiarity with him to manipulate him for favours.
Engaging in social media discussions with the general public exposes a judge to ridicule as mannerless individuals who lack decorum and emotional intelligence pass all manner of scurrilous diatribes on one another without having regard for the status of a judge. Ancient judges were known for their stern withdrawal and occasional meetings with them commanded oracular respect and worship. Some judges of today have desecrated the office as they display an open garage mentality in the way they do things. They openly engage in political discussions on social media that you even know their biases without having to do any research on them.
Their identities are recklessly exposed to the public and they even do not fear for their safety. A situation where a judge recklessly confessed to enjoying public approbation of his decision in a criminal case involving a death sentence and thereby awarding more sentences than statutorily prescribed gives less than desirable. The barometer for deciding cases can never be the opinion of the market women, social media rats or infantile bloggers who may condemn the judge for what their own established biases are. The gauge is the hard-core evidence before the court as prescribed by law. It is shameless to dispense injustice when a judge is hired and paid to do justice among men regardless of social status, rank, beliefs, sex, religion or creed. A judge that decides cases according to social media opinion is nothing but a social media rat. Let him resign from his elevated office and become a blogger.
The terminal aspect of my engagement today is the undue recognition and treatment often signified by various social media releases/ statements by some of our courts, particularly the Apex court. My strong admonition is that the courts must know when to ignore such social media insinuations. The truth is that the more you respond, the more emboldened the authors and bloggers become in terrorizing the courts. Not every innuendo deserves a reply.