On Preventing Web Mobs: The Prisoner’s Dilemma And “Tit For Tat” Reconsidered

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As I expected, it took all of ten minutes for my post about the web vigilante attack on Dr. Walter Palmer to bear fruit, as in tomatoes tossed at my metaphorical face. The reason, as I calculated in advance, was my decision to employ a Tit for Tat strategy in responding to what I believe is a deadly trend on the internet that requires a strong response to restrain it. A would-be commenter attempted to make my blog party to web mob efforts to do financial, personal and even physical harm to the hapless hunting dentist by publicizing various addresses and phone numbers. I published his e-mail address.

I’m not sorry.

The  issue raised by my conduct involves integrity. By giving out the e-mail address of a commenter (because the commenter unethically attempted to publicize personal contact information regarding Palmer and his family) when I state on the site that I will not do so, I both violated my own policies and engaged in conduct that this blog specifically declares unethical:

7. The “Tit for Tat” Excuse

This is the principle that bad or unethical behavior justifies, and somehow makes ethical, unethical behavior in response to it. The logical extension of this fallacy is the abandonment of all ethical standards. Through the ages, we have been perplexed at the fact that people who don’t play by the rules have an apparent advantage over those who do, and “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” has been the rallying cry of those who see the abandonment of values as the only way to prosper.

The very concept of ethics assumes that winning isn’t the only thing, Vince Lombardi to the contrary, and that we must hold on to ethical standards to preserve the quality of civil existence. Although maxims and aphorisms cause a lot of confusion in ethical arguments, this one is still valid in its simple logic: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

I am not withdrawing this position, but it is time to point out that there are exceptions to it, and indeed at least two distinct types of “tit for tat” responses. The first, which is the one described above, is a tit for tat response the lowers ethical standards. The second is one intended to raise and enforce ethical standards.

Tit for tat can be employed as simple revenge, and as a lazy justification to engage in unethical conduct on the false justification that the unethical conduct of an adversary changes the definitions of right and wrong. That’s the scenario condemned by the saying “two wrongs don’t make a right.” In the context of a longer time frame involving the development of a coherent, fair, and functioning system, however, tit for tat has ethical uses.

Human judgment is dynamic and interdependent; to exercise good judgment one must think ahead, several steps down the road, and one must think in terms of how those affected by a decision will react to it. This implicates ethical conduct, what I have referred to as “ethics chess.” We act, others react, events lead to consequences, and we often have to act again. When we fail to think ahead and anticipate all the likely consequences, including how others react to our actions, we make mistakes, and may act unethically.

Game theory focuses on dynamic and interdependent decision-making. Robert Axelrod’s book “The Evolution of Cooperation” endorses tit for tat as an optimal strategywhen there are going to be repeated games of “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” (you can find the rules here) over a long period, and in which cooperation with shared motives and objectives will lead to the optimum conditions and results. In this tit for tat strategy, each player cooperates in round one of a game and then repeats the other player’s move in each subsequent round: one player cooperates if the others do, but defects if the adversary does.  Axelrod’s computer simulations show that this strategy  induces cooperation. This is hardly a new concept: the Cold War was based on it, to name just one example.

It is the most effective way to remove a corrupting and damaging tactic from a system. Lawyer and legal ethics expert John Steele explained on The Legal Ethics Forum how he uses a tit for tat strategy—which he acknowledges is often unethical—to combat discovery abuse, a pernicious and unethical tactic many trial lawyers employ involving delay, intentionally burdensome discovery requests and responding to requests with badly indexed materials or excessive paper. He wrote:

“ I had got so fed up with the posturing and time-wasting of discovery spats, that once I tried explaining to opposing counsel that I would play discovery by cooperating in our first encounter and then by following whatever they did. If they cooperated rather than pounded the table and made unreasonable demands, I would cooperate too. If not, I would respond in kind. … I can vouch for the effectiveness the strategy. Very early on you learn that you if you ever want a break yourself, you have to be willing to give one, but if you always give breaks as a strict rule, you may never get one. You have to be willing to respond in kind. That doesn’t mean breaking any rules (I am talking here about things like agreeing to extensions and scheduling things to accommodate the other side), but it does mean exercising discretion in a way that makes cooperation more likely. It would be nice if things were different, but they aren’t.”

Discovery abuse is seriously detrimental to the justice system, and the ethics and procedural  rules alone are not sufficient to combat it. The phenomenon of web vigilantism is also seriously detrimental to the justice system, and  undermines free speech, privacy, personal safety and liberty. We have seen these mobs get people fired for a stray joke sent before boarding a plane; we have seen silly comments that should have been forgotten prompt worldwide ridicule; we have seen businesses destroyed by one rash comment by an owner, or by one misguided refusal of service. This phenomenon will get worse before it gets better, in part because there is no perceived cost or risk to the misconduct, and members of the mob feel invulnerable to accountability.

Well, it’s got to stop, that’s all.

When tit for tat is used as an excuse to engage in unethical conduct, then it is a rationalization and wrong. That degrades conduct; that lowers ethical standards. When it is used, however, to discourage, prevent and limit unethical conduct as an application of Game Theory, it is a justifiable utilitarian measure.
Members of internet vigilante mobs should be publicly identified, condemned, and subjected to their own abusive treatment of others. Until there is some kind of prohibition in the law, this is the only way to stem this dangerous and potentially deadly trend. Like the principle of witchcraft that declares that a destructive spell will be turned on the spellcaster three-fold, using the internet to destroy should incur the threat of mutual assured destruction.

“It would be nice if things were different, but they aren’t.”

 

19 thoughts on “On Preventing Web Mobs: The Prisoner’s Dilemma And “Tit For Tat” Reconsidered

  1. I have always believed that engaging in the same unethical behavior that our enemies use turns us into our enemies. On the other hand, I have also noted that cheaters do, in fact, seem to prosper at a higher rate than non-cheaters. I have come to believe that being a nice guy, while very soul-satisfying, is also effective only up to a point. Beyond that point, tit-for-tat becomes not just A viable option, but THE ONLY viable option. But, I also believe that fear is a remarkable motivator. Because of fear, Mutually Assured Destruction worked for many years, known as the Cold War, and MAD’s root, was fear.

  2. As the old saying goes, it is unwise to bring a knife to a gunfight. Even worse to show up barehanded.

    In the war against Internet shaming, I may have to rethink “The ends justify the means.” It is nearly evil enough to make that ethically defensible.

  3. Do you have a consistent method of determining when someone is legitimately trying to apply game theory as opposed to just using it as an excuse?

    I’ve been somewhat leery of your general distaste for tit for tat, largely because of the prisoner’s dilemma, but I couldn’t disagree with the way it’s often used in practice.

  4. Jack,

    I appreciate where you are coming from. In a similar vein, I have formulated Two Golden Rules of Lawyering.

    Rule #1: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    (Not very original, but always good to keep in mind.)

    Rule #2: Do unto others as they have done onto you.

    Basically, it is as you say. I try to be as cooperative with other lawyers as much as possible, because karma’s a bitch. If you hammer a lawyer for missing a deadline, you will invariably fuck something up down the road yourself.

    On the other hand, if they want to pull those sorts of games (unless it is really a drop dead deadline like the statute of limitations or an appeal deadline, as opposed to being a day late answering the Complaint), then I can be the biggest pain in the ass that they have dealt with in a long time. I learned from some of the biggest jerks in the state.

    So, I get where you are coming from and where you were going with that. But, I am much meaner to mean lawyers in the justice system than I think I would be to jerks in real life. The simple fact is that people are jerks sometimes, myself included. To get outraged about that is like being pissed that water is wet. Lawyers, too, are jerks sometimes, but I think it is generally unnecessary and unproductive. I am less tolerant of it, because I expect professionalism of myself and others.

    -Jut

    • Sounds about right, speaking as a lawyer who’s been jerked around and been a jerk more than my share of times in 20 years of practice. I don’t like it, but if you’re going to get in my face during a deposition or threaten to break my arm or tell me you’re going to try to have me fired, don’t complain when later you need a favor and I tell you to ah, perform an anatomically impossible sex act.

    • And I don’t advocate Tit for Tat in the handling of everyday jerks. Jerks banding together to destroy according to some formula of political correctness, however, is a special and emergent problem.

  5. I think that your dilemma (or is it a conflict?) is due to the difference between the ethics of peace and the ethics of war. In peace, it’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but in war, it’s “Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you”. The trick, of course, is knowing it’s time to wage war, and when it’s time to sue for peace. It’s usually better to publish peace (“Blessed are the peacemakers”, after all) but there is a time for war.

    The relevant question is: do the mob’s tactics both justify and necessitate a warlike response? You’ve essentially said “yes”, and I agree, but it is a hard question.

  6. Mocking, ridicule, and refusing to patronize a relic of the Victorian big game hunting era is appropriate. Hounding and outing to harm anyone online and their loved ones, is worthy of the thought police and scare tales of the KGB.

    I don’t think the lion needed to be hunted, like I think Mr Nugent has said. They’re apex predators and under enough threat, we aren’t going to get a huge herd of lions wandering the great plains like the Bison, or like often over populated whitetails here. He and/or his guides should face legal actions, which take time. But witch hunts cause far more harm than one nasty hunter. Internet speed is good for some things, but not when common sense and balance are needed.

    Outing anyone’s contact into, to open the threats and violence is just plain evil. … and cowardly.

  7. To me, “Tit for tat” suggests that to argue that behavior A is ethical because the other did it first (especially if it’s then declare out of line) is fallacious. However, to say that one’s own behavior is not ethical, but recognizing that the application of reciprocity may play a part of a greater good… or that not applying it will allow greater dangers further down the line… it doesn’t excuse it, it’s still distasteful, and utilitarian as hell. But it’s not exactly the same thing.

    Adapting your commenting policies to warn others that similar behavior will be treated similarly would be consistent and ethical, though. If you intend to carry through in the future, that is.

  8. If your opponent doesn’t have respect for ethics and other social rules then some other kind of method has to be used. People without internal controls have to be controlled externally. That’s just common sense. Tit for tat lets the enemy determine the rules but there’s a good chance that playing by the opponent’s rules leaves them with poor defenses. They choose the method they think is foolproof.
    That’s one reason Breitbart appealed to me. He didn’t let the enemy get complacent.
    And, yes, I do view it as a war.

  9. Jennifer Beals is under fire now. She left her dog in her car, in her sight the whole time, while she picked up her cleaning. It was under five minutes, and she had all four windows partially open. It was 73 degrees. The ‘how dare she!’ ‘Make her sit in a hot car!’ The completely ignore the fact that in the ‘damning’ video, the person complaining to Beals has on a jacket and a cap, and Beals is in long sleeves herself. ‘The dog could have died!’.

    More hatred and jealousy of the rich, disguised as fighting for justice.

    The five elephants who were gunned down and had their tusks cut off the same week Cecil got killed were ignored. I can’t help but think that it’s because they were not killed by a rich American.

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