Twitter Commentary and the Rashomon Effect

What is the Rashomon effect?

It’s what happens when more than one eyewitness to events re-tells events in a self-interested fashion.  Sometimes it is done deliberately, but often the overall effect is much more subtle than that.  Witnesses inevitably allow their own subjective, alternative, and self-serving views both of themselves and of events to creep into the re-telling.  The witness cannot help but impress their own “ideal self” into what transpired.

The name comes from a 1950 film based on four re-tellings of the same incident by four different and self-interested parties.

In The Australian Institute for Progress Ltd v The Electoral Commission of Queensland & Ors (No 2), Applegarth J wrote that:

“The Rashomon effect describes how parties describe an event in a different and contradictory manner, which reflects their subjective interpretation and self-interested advocacy, rather than an objective truth. The Rashomon effect is evident when the event is the outcome of litigation. One should not be surprised when both parties claim to have won the case.”

In the Twitter commentary that gave rise to this post:

Donut Operator who is a popular YouTube commentator and former police officer responding to Twitter commentary regarding an incident involving the use of force by an officer.  One of the things the primary sources of content that Donut Operator uses is validating and investigating Twitter commentary on officer involved shootings based on public record sources.  To his credit, he does an excellent job of not disguising his own bias with much self-awareness.

Just to be clear, I am not taking any sides.  I don’t even know what video they are discussing, nor am I really interested.  However, I think what Donut Operator says here is a very crisp and well articulated demonstration of the Rashomon effect.  He tells his version in a way that is demonstrably one sided – and to his credit – he is at least honest about understanding the subjectivity involved.

Witness A sees Witnesses B C and D saying their use of force was inappropriate and agrees that such use of force is inappropriate.

Witness Z sees Witnesses B C and D saying their use of force was inappropriate and disagrees and thinks such use of force is appropriate.

We have the same facts, but totally different stories.  And the differences are all based on subjective understanding and beliefs.