Discussion Forum: The Power of e-Apology in Online Contexts

Discussion Forum: The Power of e-Apology in Online Contexts

The dispute resolution literature has revealed the significance of apologies in various contexts, ranging from individual apologies to ones initiated by corporate and governmental entities. These apologies have been made with respect to a wide range of disputes, including commercial grievances, and instances of malpractice and discrimination. In these various settings, the presence of apologies has been correlated with positive outcomes, satisfaction levels and perception of fairness. As use of online dispute resolution increases, the question arises as to the impact an apology transmitted online could have on ODR processes and outcomes. We have been engaged in research on this topic in the past year and are looking forward to exchanging views with others on this topic.


We would like to begin the conversation this week with the following question: 

With advancements in technology, the spread of smartphones and availability of multimedia and social media, people regularly use digital communication to transmit both intimate and mundane messages. Under these conditions, should we expect to find any differences between apologies given offline and online? 

Presenter Bios:

Dr. Leah Wing

Co-director, National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution and Senior Lecturer, Legal Studies Program, Department of Political Science, U. of Massachusetts/Amherst, USA.
Leah has taught dispute resolution since 1993 and her present research projects focus on the power of apologies in e-commerce online dispute resolution, crowdsourcing and spatial justice, and technological responses to digital harm doing. She recently completed collaborative research on three National Science Foundation funded projects on online dispute resolution. She serves on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Online Dispute Resolution and Conflict Resolution Quarterly, and has served two terms on the Association of Conflict Resolution Board of Directors. Since being certified as a mediator in 1983, Leah has provided mediation and training consultation to a wide variety of organizations and institutions, specializing in the relationship between power, identity, and conflict transformation. She is the founding director of the Social Justice Mediation Institute.

Orna Rabinovich-Einy

University of Haifa, Faculty of Law

Orna Rabinovich-Einy is a senior lecturer (with tenure) at the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa. Her areas of expertise are alternative dispute resolution (ADR), online dispute resolution (ODR), and civil procedure, with research focusing on the relationship between formal and informal justice systems, dispute resolution system design and the impact of technology on dispute resolution. Rabinovich-Einy is a fellow of the Haifa Forum of Law and Society, the Haifa Center for Law and Technology, and the Center for Information Technology and Dispute Resolution at UMass, Amherst. Rabinovich-Einy holds a doctorate in Law (J.S.D.) degree from Columbia University. She was admitted to the Bar in Israel (1998) and in New York (2001), and was certified as a mediator in New York by the Safe Horizon Mediation Center (2003).


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Thanks for coordinating this discussion.

I've always been intrigued by the power of an apology. In the past few years I've read books on apologies and collected comments from people about what apologies seemed to be authentic, well received and/or appreciated.

Many of the points made earlier appear to be on point.

A routine apology is rarely effective. What comes to mind for me is, "And I DO apologize for that", which in my mind means that someone told me I have to do this.

I believe it's completely within the realm of reason to have an effective apology in an online forum. For me, that would mean the apology would acknowledge specific details of my experience which were caused by the apologizing entity. i would need to appear sincere, personalized, and to express regret.

A promise to make things right, either with a tangible action or a symbolic one, along with a statement of what would be done next time to avoid the harm would finish it off.

A sincere apology paves the way for forgiveness. Relationships are strengthened when two entities face the facts of a situation and find tangible ways of restoring good will.

I see benefits. The video adds a measure of authenticity that is missing from a written apology. What drawbacks? That he squirms? Well, embarrassment is a real component of many if not most apologies. What's wrong with that?  

Does anyone in this forum have experience settling cyber impersonations with an e apology? Or experience using e apologies to resolve social media problems among teens?

When my son was a high school junior, he was impersonated on Twitter by two classmates. The school suspended them, ignoring my pleas for an e apology. Administrators said that they couldn't ask students to do anything on social media. Parents wouldn't stand for it. Then the principal tried to stifle any community conversation about the incident at all, despite the fact that hundreds of racist and homophobic posts in my son's name had been on the public Internet for four months. Administrators said that the impersonators deserved their chance to be rehabilitated. The principal appeared to care more about maintaining the school's reputation than about helping my son. It is the top-ranked public high school in Michigan, ninth-ranked in the country, according to Newsweek. 

Now, I am volunteering on a committee looking at the district's climate and culture. Slowly, the district is moving to adopt restorative practices. I am looking for model policies that incorporate e apologies as one restorative option. I am looking for examples involving teens and social media, especially cyber impersonations. I am looking for relevant research. Thanks for your help!   

The issue of impersonation causing online conflicts has been, sadly, a problem since the early days of public use of the Internet.  In fact, it was central to one of the first cases that was handled by the earliest iteration of ODR, the online ombuds office that Ethan Katsh and Janet Rifkin created and discuss in their groundbreaking book, Online Dispute Resolution: Resolving Conflicts in Cyberspace (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2001).  And even today the BBC reported on a related story:  http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-34736941 

The power of anonymity that the digital medium makes possible can be harnessed in ways that amplify the speaking of truth to power--such an important tool for social justice--while it also is often used in destructive and cruel ways to spread falsehoods.  Thanks to all for stimulating further conversation and contemplation on this--it helps to generate a clear call for more research and action.  It could mean fewer online apologies are needed and more understanding of how to foster effective ones when they are.

Thanks for everyone's input and thoughts. One thought I am left with is that a significant impact of the shift to an e-apology may actually be on the person making the apology, perhaps in certain cases even more than its receipient. Maybe the distance and lack of eye contact with the recipient of the apology makes a difference there. Hope to contine this discussion in our upcoming forums!

Thank you, Leah. I agree that this thread has been very interesting.  

If anyone comes across any ODR cases involving teens, social media and schools, I would appreciate it if you would let me know.  


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