Do We Really Want a Social Media Platform Owning the Courthouses in a World of Virtual Justice?

Metaverse avatars of a court in Columbia

Judges around the world are turning to media-tech as they struggle under a backlog of cases made worse by the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic.  An official court hearing held recently in the metaverse offers fertile ground for metaphor as we take our first steps onto what could become a very slippery slope. 

Martin Luther King, Jr., restated an ancient legal maxim, perhaps saying it best, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail when he wrote, “justice too long delayed is justice denied”. 

Judges and Justice officials are seeking the aide of technology designed for the media & entertainment industry to address the delays caused by serious backlogs in court dockets around the world.  This backlog in court-cases and administrative review of government process, made much worse by several years of social lock-down imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, poses serious risk to communities globally.  But perhaps not as much risk as the technology itself.

For victims and accused alike, a delay in criminal cases caused by inaccessible witnesses can create further injustice.  For civil cases, in which money is typically the measure of justice, the ability to compel a witness to testify can be essential to conveying what went wrong, who is at fault and the value of damage caused.

In what is generally called, “Remote Testimony” courts around the world have sought to evolve with the times, often citing the hardships or impracticalities involved when requiring witnesses to travel long distances or otherwise appear in person at the courthouse.  Video recorded testimony and live, close-circuit television has substituted for in-person appearances across both civil and criminal,  becoming routine in many courts.  With the added concerns for public health and the welfare of courtroom attendees that arose from the global pandemic, an increasing use of video-conference platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet has been seen by many jurists as essential for the administration of justice.

Now, some justice officials are looking for the next big thing.

The Next Big Thing?

On February 15th, 2023, a court in Colombia held the world’s first legal hearing in the Metaverse, a virtual reality space owned by Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta Platforms, Inc (the rebranded parent of FaceBook).  Up to that point, the struggling platform has hosted only “mock” trials and comic parodies of court room decorum. 

But in a case brought against the Columbian Ministry of Defence and the National Police by a regional transport union in the Magdelena Superior Court of Columbia, the parties all agreed to the plaintiff’s proposal to hold the hearing in Meta’s virtual reality. 

The two and half hour long hearing was conducted by Magistrate Maria Victoria Quiñones from Santa Marta in Columbia.  However, it could have been convened from almost anywhere.  Or more aptly, from almost nowhere, which is the factual, oxymoronic reality of virtual reality.  All of the participants were, of course, represented by cartoon avatars which may, or may not, have resembled the natural persons involved in the case.  Magistrate Quiñones’ avatar, in typical Meta-cartoon style, was complete with black robes and a gavel.

The avatars themselves were generated by Meta-designed software borrowing heavily from motion-capture technology developed for the entertainment industry together with AI-assisted graphics engines.  The courtroom in which the avatars conducted themselves was, of course, not a courtroom at all.  The hearing was hosted over the Horizon Workrooms, a virtual reality application developed by Meta Platforms, Inc. and a component of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for our future.

A photo image of Mark Zuckerberg next to his Meta-generated avatar.
Mark Zuckerberg (left), Founder/CEO of Meta Platforms, Inc and a Meta-generated avatar of Mark Zuckerberg (right). Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty; Avatar: Courtesy: Meta.

The hearing was live-streamed over YouTube to an audience of nearly seventy thousands viewers.

“This is an academic experiment to show that there it’s possible… but where everyone consents to it, (my court) can continue to do things in the metaverse,”  Magistrate Quiñones is quoted as saying by Reuters. 

That academic experiment included another controversial piece of technology that has rapidly proven its ability to mislead, mis-direct and mis-inform; in other words:  to lie. 

Magistrate Quiñones announced during the hearing, through her avatar that, “For a better understanding of some concepts about the metaverse, this judicial body will rely on AI, making use of ChatGPT22, a chat system that is nothing more than a language model, which has taken off in recent months, becoming popular among the community.”

Magistrate Quiñones later told Reuters of the constitutional legitimacy of the virtual tribunal, but acknowledged that the experiment had not been popular, citing 70% disapproval among viewers.

Francisco Bernante, who presides over Colombia’s criminal bar association, told Colombian news magazine Semana that the Magdalena Superior Court was “one of the most disruptive courts in Colombia regarding the application of information and communications technology”.

Bernante said he thought the metaverse was particularly useful for legal cases where people wanted to avoid confrontation, as it is often the case in conciliation proceedings.

But judicial scholars around the world are not yet aligned with this opinion.


In the metaverse, you simply cannot look your accuser in the eye, or make them blink.


Multiple scientific studies and the majority of justice systems, historically, have found that non-verbal communication and direct interaction are essential to forming accurate judgements about the truth and veracity of what others say.  The Media C-Suite has found no scientific study or journal article that posits the opposite argument.  The ability of human beings to observe non-verbal communications and match what we hear with what we see is a critical component of weighing whether or not to trust or believe what another human being is telling us.  For juries, and particularly for Judges, this ability to see and examine a witness is critical to forming a judgement on what the facts really are, not what they virtually are. 

An avatar is not a human being from which other human beings can discern non-verbal communications and indications of veracity.  In the metaverse, you simply cannot look your accuser in the eye, or make them blink.  The actual witness may be fidgeting, sweating, with shifty eyes and an obvious smirk on his or her face, but the virtual reality avatar you see in the metaverse cannot convey anything more than what Meta Platforms, Inc. has programmed it to. 

In any metaverse courtroom, what you see in not what you get.  It may be Donald Trump sitting as judge, complete with black robes and gavel, as avatar or the person controlling one.  And while that might make for great entertainment, whether tragic or comic, it is decidedly not what Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind.

3 Comments

  1. In his wonderful and seminal book Thinking Fast And Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes experiments (ie which have been successfully conducted) that definitively show how juries who are able to see witnesses testify are actually at a disadvantage compared to juries who can’t see them – this is because when they can’t see the witness, bias is not able to interfere with the jury’s judgment to the same degree. It’s a great book – i recommend it highly.

    • Dear Gavin.

      Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow was highly influential indeed, particularly within political, intelligence and economic circles. His works on bias and the human use of heuristics in our thinking process remain important in the fields of both statistics and artificial intelligence. In fact, Kahneman’s work, for which he received a Nobel prize in 2002, is popular among those engaged in quantitative analysis, including the practitioners of sabermetrics, particularly baseball scouts and coaches.

      His more relevant works for this article are likely to be found in the 1982 book, Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases and his 2021 book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement.

      I did not include his works in this article for two reasons. First, his works focus on the philosophy of human decision making in terms of economics with his own bias on objective, statistical analysis (slow thinking) being superior to experiential deliberation (fast thinking). His work asserts that data from purely verbal or written material is superior for the purposes of analysis of the statements themselves, rather than the truth of those statements or the reliability and motives of the speaker. This assertion is, ironically, a result of his own bias for quantitative analysis (“slow thinking”) over qualitative analysis (“fast thinking”). He himself recognises this bias.

      Second, the “experiments” cited are not empirical studies on judgement of veracity that can be consistently replicated by other researchers.

      I do believe that Professor Kahneman would have a lot to say about the subject of this article.

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