The World is Your Jury: Crowdsourced Justice

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions… except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” The idea that everyone has a right to jury of one’s peers goes all the way back to that quote from the Magna Carta, in 1215, and it’s fundamental to the way we think about doling out justice in the US. The American courts understand it to mean that juries should be impartial and made up of a representative cross-section of the general population.

In other words, juries are meant to work kind of like crowds. Take a diverse group of impartial, independent people who are motivated by their sense of justice and citizenship to get it right, and you can trust them to get it right more than leaving it to the expert judge alone.

But now that we live in a world without walls, why not take this idea to the next level? Real-world juries are small, and not actually diverse (as anyone who has sat through courtroom jury selection knows). We now have the capability – online – of creating juries of hundreds or even thousands, drawing on their unique backgrounds to look at the evidence and come to a fair, wise conclusion. Not for criminal cases (trial of the crowd in capital cases has an ignoble history, to say the least), but for resolving disputes through arbitration.

Crowdsourced arbitration (dispute resolution)

Two people have an argument. Your friend borrowed $1000 from you to help start his business and now he isn’t paying you back. You lent your boyfriend your car to do an errand for you and he dinged it up. Your teacher caught you lifting one sentence from a piece published online and gives you an F on the paper. You and your brother both claim that Grandpa promised to leave you his golf clubs when he passed on.

It could be just about any kind of argument, really. It’s too hard or expensive to go to small-claims court, or maybe that’s not even a possibility at all. More and more people are taking these arguments to a new kind of court: the crowd.

Ujuj (read: you judge) is a great example. The person who feels he’s been heard registers on the site and records a video explaining his complaint. The other side records another video giving his side of the story. The jurors are people who volunteer to hear cases. The person complaining says what he thinks he should get, the jurors say what they think he should get, and the verdict is the average of their decisions. If it’s less than 33% of what he asked for, that means he loses the case and has to pay the other side 10% of his claim. What gives jurors an incentive to get it right? Prestige within the “ujuj tribe,” as they call it. The more cases you hear, and the more friends you bring in, and the more cases where you vote close to the final decision, the more impressive titles you earn. It’s a straight-up online community, but it works to create a diverse pool of jurors who do their best to reach a fair decision.

There are some tricks to doing crowdsourced justice right. You want to protect the two sides’ anonymity, so that handling their dispute online doesn’t mean the whole world is up in their business. You also have to make sure one side doesn’t recruit lots of supporters to sign on as jurors to vote on their behalf. Jurors need an incentive to get it right (payment, being part of a community, enjoying being a juror – for example, sites that kick people off for consistently being an outlier).

You need to find a way to make sure the pool of people deciding is sufficiently diverse, but also not totally clueless about the matter under dispute. iCourthouse is a way to get your claim heard online, but it’s not really much of a crowd. Sidetaker lets you get an online “trial” (i.e., opinion poll) for just about any kind of argument you can imagine (one recent example: “I would like my boyfriend to move in with me and my married friends, but my friends don’t agree. Is that fair?”), but the problem is that you can see how previous people voted, as well as their comments, so you might end up with an “information cascade” where people start voting the way everyone else is voting, rather than thinking for themselves.

Ideally you want the crowd to be both diverse and also have each person bring their own relevant, specialized knowledge to the decision. An interesting model that might have these traits is the mock trial sites, like eJury and Virtual Jury. These are actually not sites where you get a binding decision for your dispute, but rather sites that lawyers use to try out their arguments on an online jury before bringing them to the courthouse. Jurors go through a screening process before they’re allowed to join the pool, so you know they are a crowd of people each of whom brings some relevant background.

Another tricky piece is finding a way to really aggregate the diverse bits of knowledge that everyone brings to the problem. Ujuj does it pretty well, since it doesn’t just ask for a yes/no verdict. But still, even though you don’t want the jurors talking to each other too much, lest they stop thinking independently, you also want some fruitful cross-pollination of ideas. For example, how should the jury be able to ask the two sides questions of clarification. If you have a jury of hundreds or more people, you can’t overwhelm the people having the argument, but you want the questions to arise, and the answers to be shared with all the jurors. One idea is to have a representatively diverse subgroup be able to ask questions.

This is an idea that’s already in practice, but we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of what could be possible.

As the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises everyone, “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” What could be more speedy and impartial than using the whole public – a worldwide jury?

Mike SchultzJuly 17, 2015

Mike Schultz

I am a contributing author who writes about crowd wisdom. I love reading broadly and synthesizing diverse sources of wisdom, but it's so cool when you realize the crowd itself does that even better.