Resolve Community Disputes With Public Reports?

Epistemic Status: speculative, looking for feedback

TW: Rape

You’re in a tight-knit friend group and you hear some accusations about someone. Often, but not always, these are rape or sexual harassment accusations. (I’ve also seen it happen with claims of theft or fraud.)  You don’t know enough to take it to court, nor do you necessarily want to ruin the accused’s life, but you’ve also lost trust in them, and you might want to warn other people that the accused might be dangerous.

What usually happens at this point is a rumor mill.  And there are a lot of problems with a rumor mill.

First of all, you can get the missing stair problem.  Let’s say Joe raped someone, and the rumor got out. People whisper to each other that Joe is a rapist, they warn each other to stay away from him at parties — but the new girl, who isn’t in on the gossip, is not so lucky, and Joe rapes her too.  And meanwhile, Joe suffers no consequences for his actions, no social disincentive, and maybe community elders actively try to hush up the scandal.  This is not okay.

Sometimes you don’t get a missing-stair situation, you get a witch hunt or a purge.  Some communities are really trigger-happy about “expelling” people or “calling them out”, even for trivial infractions. A girl attempted suicide because her internet “friends” thought her artwork was offensive and tormented her for it.  This is also not what we want.

Sometimes you get a feud, where Alice the Accuser’s friends all rally round her, and Bob the Accused’s friends all rally round him, and there’s a long-lasting, painful rift in the community where everyone is pressured to pick a side because Alice and Bob aren’t speaking.

And a lot of the time you get misinformation spreading around, where the accusation gets magnified in a game of telephone, and you hear vague intimations that Bob is terrible but you are getting conflicting stories about what Bob actually did, and you don’t know the right way to behave.

I have never gotten to know a tight-knit social circle of youngish people that didn’t have “drama” of this kind.  It’s embarrassing that it happens, so it isn’t talked about that much in public, but I’m starting to believe that it’s near-universal.

In a way, this is a question of law.

The American legal system is a really poor fit even for dealing with some legitimate crimes, like sexual assault and small-scale theft, because the odds of a conviction are so low.  Less than 1% of rape, robbery, and assault cases lead to convictions. It can be extremely difficult and stressful to deal with the criminal-justice system, particularly if you’re traumatized, and most of the time it won’t even work.  Moreover, the costs of a criminal penalty are extremely high — prison really does destroy lives — and so people are understandably reluctant to put people they know through that.  And, given problems with police violence, involving the police can be dangerous.

And, of course, for social disputes that aren’t criminal, the law is no use at all.  “Really terrible boyfriend/girlfriend” is not a crime.  “Sockpuppeting and trolling” is not a crime.

Do we have to descend to the level of gossip, feud, witch-hunt, or cover-up, just because we can’t (in principle or in practice) resolve disputes with the legal system?

I think there are alternatives.

My proposed solution (by no means final) is that a panel of trusted “judges” accepted by all parties in the dispute compile a summary of the facts of the case from the accuser(s) and accused, circulate it within the community — and then stop there.

It’s not an enforcement mechanism or a dispute-resolution mechanism, it’s an information-transmission mechanism.

For example, it means that now people will know Joe is an accused rapist, and also know if Joe has explained that he’s innocent. This prevents a few problems:

  • the “missing stair” problem where new people never get warned about Joe
  • the problem that Joe faces no consequences (now his reception will likely be chillier among people who read the summary and think he’s a threat)
  • if Joe is innocent, he’ll face less unfair shunning if people get to hear his side of the story
  • it prevents inflated rumors about Joe from spreading — only the actual accusations get printed, not the telephone-garbled ones

There are a few details about the mechanism that seem important to make the process fair:

  • Accused and accusers must all consent to participating in the process and having their statements made public, otherwise it doesn’t happen
  • Accusers should be allowed to stay anonymous
  • Everybody can meet with the judges at the same time, or one on one, if they choose; accused and accusers do not have to be in the same room together
  • Judges should not have any personal stake in the dispute, and should be accepted by both accused and accusers
  • The format for the report should be something like a password-locked webpage, an email to a mailing list, or a Google doc, not a page on the public internet
  • The report should be limited to what accused and accusers say, and some fact-checking by the judges — maybe a timeline of claimed events, maybe some links to references. But not a verdict.

I’ve heard some counterarguments to this proposal so far.

First, I’ve heard concerns that this is too hard on the accused. Being known to have been accused of anything will make people trust you less, even if you also have the opportunity to defend yourself.  And maybe people, not wanting to make trouble, will still use gossip rather than the formal system, because it seems like too harsh a penalty.

I think it’s fine if not every dispute gets publicly adjudicated; if people don’t want to take it that far, then we’re no worse off than before the option of public fact-finding was made available.

It’s also not obvious to me that this is harsher to the accused than the social enforcement technology we already have.  People are already able to cause scandals by unilaterally making public accusations. My proposal isn’t unilateral — it doesn’t go through unless the accused and accusers both think that transparency can clear their names.

Another criticism I’ve heard is that it gives a false sense of objectivity. People know that the rumor mill is unreliable and weight it appropriately; but if people hear “there’s been a report from a panel of judges about this”, they might assume that everything in the report is definitely true, or worse, that the accused is just guilty by virtue of having been investigated.

This is a real problem, I think, but one that’s difficult to avoid completely. If you attempt to be objective in any setting, you always run the risk that people will mistake you for an oracle. It’s just as true that objective news coverage can give people a false sense of trust in newspapers, but journalistic ideals still promote objectivity. I do think giving an impression of a Weight of Authority can be harmful, and is only somewhat mitigated by practices like not handing down any verdict.

But I think information-sharing is the mildest form of restorative justice.  Restorative justice is dispute resolution within a community, or between offender and victim, rather than being mediated by the state.  It usually involves some kind of penalty and/or restitution from the offender to the victim, or some kind of community penalty (like shunning in various religious congregations.)  Given the failures of the criminal-justice system, restorative justice seems like an appealing goal to me; but it’s hard to implement, especially in modern, non-religious communities of young people without firm shared norms.  If you’re uncomfortable merely publishing accusations and defenses, there’s no way you’re ready to impose restitution within your community.  Maybe that’s appropriate in a given situation — maybe loose friend groups aren’t ready to be self-governing communities. But if you have aspirations towards self-governance, from small-scale (communes) to large-scale (seasteading and the like), figuring out dispute resolution is a necessary step, and it’s worth thinking about what would be required before you’d be okay with any community promotion or enforcement of norms.

I’d actively welcome people’s thoughts and comments on this — how would it fail? how could the mechanism be improved?


15 thoughts on “Resolve Community Disputes With Public Reports?

  1. I don’t have any failure modes or improvements to give you, but this is plausibly an improvement on the rumor mill et cetera and I praise you for putting the thought into coming up with it.

  2. If you’re a judge, and your close friend Alice accuses Bob of wrongdoing, or your close friend Charlie vouches for Alice and says good things about her trustworthiness, your impartiality is likely to be compromised, and even if it isn’t, Bob has no way of knowing that, which is a significant obstacle to implementing this system in small communities.
    In a large community, if the dispute resolution process is widely known and the page of accusations is broadly accessible, there’ll be people you only know of as “the guy who got accused of X”, condemning them before you even meet them, when you otherwise might not have heard the rumors – you have to know the right people for that, but you only need to be a community member to have access to a (to many, fascinating and entertaining) list of potential acquaintances who’ve been accused of wrongdoing. And if access to the document is restricted to a central circle, it might not have much bite – would-be accusers wouldn’t know to use the system, and the accused could laugh it off as a weird request from a small faction.
    I don’t know that there’s a right size of community that avoids both classes of problems.

  3. Is this even legal? I imagine that if you publish a report saying that Bob raped someone, he can sue you for libel.

    • Ah, but it doesn’t say “Bob raped someone”, it says “Someone accused Bob of rape”, which is true. In the US, truth is a defense against libel claims.

      • People might be worried about supplying statements, though, because they could have to defend against libel. If John accuses Bob publicly, via the shared report, and Bob sues John for libel, then John has to be able to back up his accusation in court.

        Additionally, if the judges let John stay anonymous then I *think* a libel suit can force the judges to reveal John’s identity.

  4. While not perfect, this solution at least sounds like it doesn’t make the current situation *worse.* And the current situation is as you describe, a complete shitshow.

  5. I suspect that, in your list of four problems that this prevents, it only actually prevents #2? Like, I don’t see how it effectively addresses missing stairs, and I’ve got some experience of conflicts where all facts were readily available that lead me to predict it has at best marginal impact on slowing unfair shunning and inflated rumormongering.

    I like the generator of it a LOT, though—the core idea of making information itself the antidote to the negative social problem is appealing. I just suspect this particular operationalization breaks fairly easily.

  6. I don’t actually have a novel comment on the proposal, I think the prior comments set out some perils pretty well.

    I am however surprised at the premise. You implied that most groups of young people have some experience with fairly heavy stuff that you classify as “drama”. This is not my experience. I’ve been in several different communities at various times and only one had a “drama” issue of this nature that worked in the described way which might have benefited from the proposed solution (I think it would have been quite helpful in this one case).

    Not sure what the take away from my comment is exactly, but it’s likely that at least one of us (and probably both) is applying a community selection process that exposes us to communities with non modal levels of drama.

    • Actualy, upon further reflection I can definitely come up with more than one case, but still lower frequency than you observed it.

  7. How would judges be selected? Would there be one, pre-chosen set of judges? Or would the judges change depending on the case to avoid favoritism? What happens if the two parties can’t agree on any of the judges?

    Would the judges have to undergo any training or testing before taking the reports? How would they acquire the evidence- interviews? written reports from both parties? Eye witnesses? What happens if the stories wildly diverge?
    What if someone retroactively has an issue with one of the judges after summery is passed? What happens if new evidence is brought to light? Is there a point at which accusation summaries are no longer circulated (5 years after the initial accusation? If the accused properly ‘repents?’)

    Is there (or should there be) anyway to encourage both parties to participate in the sharing measure?

    Lol- it might not look like it- but I really like the idea! I may still be naive enough to believe that if everyone had enough information (and empathy to processes the information) many social problems would be solved.

    • No, I’m envisioning judges changing depending on the case to avoid favoritism, and if the parties can’t agree on any judges, no report gets published.
      Judges going through conflict mediating training or circling training might be good, especially if they have to have discussions between two very angry people.
      Interviews with accusers, the accused, and any eyewitnesses who choose to contribute sound good. Judges should try to resolve inconsistencies with “ok, but Bob said the opposite of what Alice said, Alice, what’s your explanation?” and if there’s really no unified story, you have to leave it in dispute. Probably this process needs to be fleshed out more.
      New evidence should result in an update to the report and circulating the update.

  8. What incentive does the accused have to go along with this if they’re actually guilty? Wouldn’t they just claim that they don’t think any of the proposed judges are impartial (or no one likes their judges), and then you’re back to broken stairs?

    • That’s actually the most damning problem with this proposal, I think. It doesn’t do anything against people who are guilty and know it. You could modify it to allow accusations to be published if they’ve tried to get in touch with the accused and can’t get a statement from them, but that does things to the balance of power too.

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