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Two Truths and a Lie about Truth, Technology and Justice

Today, AI and Faith Board Member David Brenner considers two truths and a lie about truth, technology, and justice.

Do you remember that old ice-breaker “Two Truths and a Lie”? People divide into two teams. Team One states three things that are supposedly true, but one is a lie. The other team tries to guess which is which.

For starters, does this ice-breaker even work anymore? Essential to the game is sharing a common understanding of the difference between a truth and a lie, and the fun of trying to decide which statements are which. But we live now in a time of “my truth;” assertions of fact that often begin “I feel like . . .”;  and plain lies that once would have outraged but now are dismissed as ordinary stratagems. Meanwhile, social disruption and algorithmically sorted social media encourage us to lodge in an angry “no man’s land” between truth and falsehood. How do we hang on to a solid understanding of truth as it plays out in our social discourse, our faith congregations, and in the secular space where truth matters most, our court system? 

To explore this, let’s give Two Truths and a Lie a go in the context of truth, technology, and criminal justice. Let’s say we’re having a dinner party conversation that includes some  attorneys, a rabbi, a pastor, and some other friends. So far the conversation has ranged broadly across numerous headlines of bold, bad conduct:  Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos fraud; Sam Bankman-Fried and the collapse of the FTX crypto empire; the disproportionate and  unjustified deaths of black men at the hands of the police; the January 6 attack on the Capitol. “Ok,” someone says, “Two truths and a lie”!  

Team 1 proposes these “truths”:  

Statement 1:  People can say whatever they want out in the world, but at the end of the day, when they are charged in a courtroom, the criminal justice system by and large gets at the truth.

True or False? 

Statement 2: The system is working partly because technology like cell phones, surveillance cameras, and email/social media posts are providing hard evidence of what happened.

True or False? 

Statement 3That’s a good thing because judicial outcomes are dependent on accurately determining what happened.

True or False? 

So Team 2, where’s the lie? 

Team 2: We got this. 

There’s a lot of recent evidence Statement 1 is true – the system is working — even though we were afraid not. Look, Elizabeth Holmes was convicted and got 11 years. The jury didn’t buy her argument that hyping objective falsehoods is the everyday currency of Silicon Valley and that she wouldn’t be on trial at all if she was a man. Sam Bankman-Fried thought he was still playing in the land of crypto funny money, and that a shrug and apology from offshore would cover the missing billions. Then the cops showed up with a warrant for fraud – oops, it turns out just because crypto is not yet regulated that you can’t do whatever you want. The City of Memphis fired those cops, disbanded their hard-edged crime unit, and has charged them with murder for what they did to Tyre Nichols. And almost all the January 6 Capitol rioters are pleading guilty with abject remorse (at least in the courtroom), many are serving actual time, and those that haven’t pleaded are getting convicted of sedition, which hardly anybody has even been charged with for 100 years. 

So we say Statement 1 is true. 

Team 1:  Ok, we think so too, for these recent high profile cases you cite. But maybe our belief is  just relief that things haven’t completely broken down! 

So what about Statement 2? 

Team 2:  We think technology is starting to make it riskier to commit bad acts and show us what actually happened.  So our guess there is “true” too. 

Take cameras – they’re everywhere now, especially phone cameras. So onlookers can video things they don’t like, like the George Floyd video, or even things they perversely do like, like the neighbor who videoed poor Ahmaud Arbery from his pickup truck. That video was the critical evidence that got the neighbor and the father and son defendants convicted.  

And it’s not just smart phone cameras. Police cameras can help even when they don’t deter. Two of the five Memphis police officers charged in the Tyre Nichols case wore activated body cameras which showed the beating but also recorded the cops fabricating their justifications afterward.  

There was a city security camera overlooking the Nichols beating that caught the big picture. Spreading use of public and private surveillance combined with AI-powered analytics like facial recognition software and license plate tagging will increasingly surface compelling evidence from a sea of data.  

Then there’s the location recording aspect of smart phones which can create a permanent time-and-place record of the accused’s movements. We’ve been hearing a lot about this in the Idaho co-ed murder case that’s all over the media now.  

Or think about how email, texting and social media posts have replaced actual conversation. Instead of questionable testimony recalling what somebody said, there it is in digital black and white. Like those Memphis cops and the Capitol rioters, people say and post things in the heat of the moment without thinking about the consequences. Then other people who agree or disagree call out those posts, further preserving them. Much of that evidence never goes away.  

So surveillance footage, online activity, cameras in every hand, and AI-powered analytics to pinpoint and enhance evidence within them — all these technologies make us think your Statement 2 is also true – the system is working because technology is creating hard evidence everywhere. What people say and how they act is much more visible and lasting. 

Team 1:  Are you sure, because how much do we really know yet about how technology is affecting the outcome of trials? Here are a couple of things we’re not so sure about: 

  • When on-the-scene videos and photographs are available, do they just overwhelm traditional evidence like eyewitness testimony and multiple perspectives on what happened? 
  • Is there a rush to judgment when so much publicity is given to dramatic visual evidence  in high profile cases long before the case ever gets to trial? 
  • And what about during trial? Juries are only supposed to deal with evidence admitted by the judge, but can or will jurors isolate themselves from their habitual social media viewing and texting? 

But ok, if you think Statement 2 is true, you must think Statement 3 – that good judicial outcomes depend on deciding what actually happened, is the lie. Why do you think that? 

Team 2:  That’s easy. The outcome of most court cases seldom has anything to do with a judge or jury deciding what happened because most criminal cases never go to trial. They end with a plea agreement. That happens because most people can’t afford the cost to defend a criminal case and we as a society aren’t willing to fund enough public defenders to do more than process cases as plea arrangements based on brief, informal investigations.  

Plus with so much polarization and confusion over what are opinions v. actual facts (what I “feel like” happened), who wants to trust their future to a judge, much less a jury?  

Team 1:  You’re right – Statement 3 is supposed to be our lie, given how many cases plead out without a trial decision on what “actually happened.”   

But as we think further about it, we’re wondering now if hard evidence like videos and GPS may actually does allow public defenders to better assess the risks of going to trial and defendants to make an informed decision about taking a plea.  As cameras and digital evidence proliferate and people’s actions become more permanently visible, i the system will work better than before, at least where such evidence is available to prosecutors and passed on to defendants. 

Team 2:  Hey, your team is making the statements that are supposed to be true and false but you keep equivocating! So, I guess both our teams are really concluding these are complicated questions for which a true or false answer isn’t so easy. They’re more like opinions than facts until research and further experience help us understand better how our justice system will hold up to these technologies. 

Team 1: Yup, whether tech is going to help or hurt justice is complicated! And there are many more tradeoffs here we haven’t even touched on, like the impact of this technology on privacy and risks of bias and false positives. 

But here’s something I think we can all agree on:  If we as a society lose our ability to tell truth from lies, or just stop caring about what is objectively true, that’s going to be a real problem for a justice system that is dependent on judges and juries when you actually do get to a courtroom. 

Team 2: We agree! And we’d take it a step further. This isn’t just an education problem – it’s a problem of heart and motivation – spaces where faith leaders like us have a key role to play in encouraging exacting standards of truth for our congregations and believers. In the Hebrew Bible, not bearing false witness is literally written in stone in the Ten Commandments.  And in the Christian New Testament, we have Jesus underlining truth as a foundation of his ministry.  In fact, he died because of false testimony! We’ve got a lot at stake, and a lot to offer, in this conversation! 


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