Friday, March 1, 2013

Court of Public Opinion...

I recently blogged about the spat between Elon Musk (of Tesla Motors) and the New York Times.  Musk was convinced that the Times was lying about the results of a test drive they made in a Tesla car, smearing the company's good name and reputation in the process.  Instead of suing the Times through our court system, Musk appealed to the “court of public opinion” by publishing an open letter to the public.  His letter was publicized by hundreds of news sites, newspapers, and blogs.  In the resulting kerfuffle, the New York Times reconsidered its stance and reversed its previous support for their reporter, withdrawing the story.  Elon Musk won that “case” in a manner far more convincing to the public than anything I can imagine emerging from a case pursued in the traditional courts.

I thought that case was interesting, which is why I blogged about it.  Security expert and cryptographer Bruce Schneier saw it as one example of a pattern of behaviors enabled by the Internet.  It's part of the rise of an alternative system of jurisprudence.  An excerpt from his recent article on Wired:
The court of public opinion is an alternative system of justice. It’s very different from the traditional court system: This court is based on reputation, revenge, public shaming, and the whims of the crowd. Having a good story is more important than having the law on your side. Being a sympathetic underdog is more important than being fair. Facts matter, but there are no standards of accuracy. The speed of the internet exacerbates this; a good story spreads faster than a bunch of facts.


The court of public opinion has significant limitations. It works better for revenge and justice than for dispute resolution. It can punish a company for unfairly firing one of its employees or lying in an automobile test drive, but it’s less effective at unraveling a complicated patent litigation or navigating a bankruptcy proceeding.
Mr. Schneier is onto something here.  I found myself thinking along these lines recently, as I'm currently in a dispute with a large environmentalist organization.  Seeking justice in a court of law is an intimidating, expensive, and very uncertain proposition.  Seeking justice in the court of public opinion just might be a better alternative – though not one that occurred to me immediately.  Apparently I'm more of a hidebound traditionalist than I thought I was :)

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