Fact Checking and Retaliation Against Sources

January 3rd, 2024
Let's say you're concerned about someone in your community, and are putting together a post detailing why you think others should be concerned as well. This sort of documentation is a core part of decentralized exclusion, how a large community without any formal leadership can still kick out bad actors. As part of writing this you're talking to people who they've have hurt, and your sources are understandably nervous about retaliation. Some of that is unavoidable, since once the post is public the accused will likely be able to tell a lot about who your sources are from what information you include, but there's also the issue of retaliation against your sources to keep you from publishing.

One way you could handle this is just to publish without giving the accused any indication that this is happening. I think this can very occasionally be the right decision, but not offering the accused an opportunity to point out places where you've gotten the facts wrong gives up a lot:

  • You only want to be accusing someone of doing things they actually did, and if some of your claims are false or misleading they don't belong in the post.

  • The stronger your core accusations are when you first go public the more likely your post is to succeed. You want to avoid putting the community into a muddle of "there are tons of claims and who can tell what to make of it all" where many will stop paying attention.

  • The more you can winnow your claims to what really matters before going public the less community time you waste. You really don't want hundreds of people needing to make up their mind about whether a particular set of screenshots indicates bad behavior if there's some other hard-to-dispute evidence that would be sufficient.

  • There's a general sense in a lot of my communities that defamation law is too strong and keeps people from publishing true and important information about people who are causing harm. In some cases even if the accused would very likely win a libel suit against the accuser we don't think threatening or filing one is appropriate. But this is not absolute, and if you publish false things because you didn't give the accused a chance to point out mistakes I think resorting to the law shouldn't get our normal disapproval.

But then what can you do? How can you give the accused a chance to privately dispute your claims while minimizing the risk to your sources that the accused will pressure them into getting you to abandon publishing?

While I haven't tried this, I think this should be possible to address with precommitments. You talk with your sources and get together what you think will be the final draft. When you write to the accused you include something like "to protect our sources from retaliation aimed at keeping the serious allegations in this post from becoming public, we have agreed with them that from the time we first share a draft until the post is published we will not honor any requests they make to withdraw claims." Imagine:


I can't publish these accusations without letting the other side raise potential counterevidence.


We're afraid of retaliation during the period when the accused knows this is coming but before it's public, with the goal of getting us to retract.


I'll commit to not honoring any requests you make to withdraw claims between now and publication, and to make the accused aware of this, so they know retaliation won't achieve their goals.

Let's say you try this, though, and a source does come back to you during pre-publication fact checking:


[to Author, in advance] They asked me to bring drugs into the country illegally.


[to Author, in fact checking] I did, but the drugs were over-the-counter medications and I thought this was legal.


[to Author, after fact checking has begun] Accused told me about the drug thing and asked me to retract my claim. I probably should have mentioned that they were OTC and they didn't know it was illegal.

With this strategy the author would ignore that the source agrees with the accused's clarification. And would also ignore it if instead it had been:


[to Author, after fact checking has begun] Accused told me about the drug thing and asked me to retract my claim, but they're thinking of a different time; I was talking about the opium.

If it's important to the source that the accused cannot retaliate against them to shut them up and they've decided to use the precommittment process I'm proposing, this requires giving up some flexibility. In this case the time to get clarity from the source on exactly what they're claiming would have to be before starting the adversarial fact checking process. Once it has started, all you can do is consider what you've heard from the source before fact checking and what you're hearing from the accused now, and choose between keeping the claim, weakening it, clarifying it, or dropping it.

Note that weakening it is quite tricky: you can't do it in a way that makes it sound like the source is claiming something different than they already endorsed before fact checking, so if you do want to keep the claim I think clarifying it will often make more sense. In this scenario I think I'd go with something like "my source told me the accused asked them to bring drugs into the country illegally. During fact checking the accused agreed that it wouldn't have been legal, but also said they were over-the-counter medications and at the time they made the request they believed bringing them in was legal." And then potentially adding "Due to the precommitments to our sources I described above, I have not asked whether my source agrees with this description of the situation, but even if the accused is correct I think it demonstrates a reckless attitude toward bringing controlled substances between jurisdictions."

Overall, this seems like it should work, but as I said above it isn't something I've tried. One way it seems like it could fail is that the accused might not believe that the author really will ignore anything they hear from the sources pre-publication, so I think the author might need to be especially clear with the accused and perhaps have a reputation of sticking to this sort of thing. I could also imagine the accused irrationally retaliating against the sources, but since that could also happen post-publication that seems like an unavoidable risk of sharing important information about someone vengeful, and not a downside of sharing something for fact checking? Do people see other ways this proposed mechanism would be likely to fail?

Disclosure: while I'm on the BIDA Safety Team I'm speaking only for myself. My wife is on the Community Health Team at CEA, but I haven't run this post by her and don't know her views.

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