Online content curation, i.e,. things I’ve learned moderating racist, sexist, and homophobic topics.

This is something I plan to post as a moderator for /r/ChangeMyView. However, I take a personal interest in online curation and content moderation. Therefore I’m posting it here as well.

There’s a topic I’ve been thinking about since the lead-up to the 2016 election¹: does CMV create a safe space for abhorrent views? Do we normalize and reinvigorate conversations already rejected by society? What is our responsibility, as a platform, with respect to each of these issues?

A competing response from CMV users is that we create a platform for some really bad views — the kinds of views traditionally considered shameful — even through the lens of diversified perspectives. Some examples are white supremacy, “biotruths” regarding race and gender, and categorizing homosexuality as a mental disorder. I would personally argue these views are rightly considered shameful. My personal views, however, do not grapple with best practices for moderation.

These are conversations that have been explored copiously, from nearly every angle imaginable and, in some cases, ratified by law only to be turned over by democratic processes or formal adjudication. In this case, one wonders, myself included, if there is any value to be had in relitigating these issues. In fact, there is a heightened concern that creating a space for these conversations allows them back into civil discourse, legitimizing and normalizing them. This, in turn, potentially gives them space to breath and ultimately flourish.

Caning of Sumner
Editorial lithograph depicting the caning of Charles Sumner in the US Legislature, 1856. Image taken from

I will flatly admit that I share this concern, especially in 2018. Political and cultural hostility is a tale as old as time (see also Adams and Franklin phhhbbtt). The reason why Internet platforms have come into the forefront is, I believe, for two main reasons: first, the speed at which we are bombarded with information has dramatically increased, and; second, the barrier to publishing information has significantly diminished, thus creating a wider breadth of comments/claims. The latter is extremely hard to moderate logistically, let alone discretionally. Taken together, this creates a unique manifestation of an otherwise old problem.

We have preliminary data showing some previously shunned views are now emboldened. While polarization is not direct evidence for specific views, they are a useful proxy from which we can make fair extrapolations. Other online forums for political debate are deeply partisan. White people and black people have fundamental disagreements on police brutality. Pew Research indicates Muslims fear intimidation – defined as a reasonable expectation of bodily harm – in numbers surpassing the immediate 9/11 era. Increased hostilities have not been limited to the United States.

None of these flash-points point to egregious views per se, but I’m highlighting them to indicate that, to the extent people have views, they are trending more extreme, and that these extreme views are likewise painting a portrait to others, the culminating effect of which is to make them fearful or, at the least, deeply anxious about their relative placement in society.

Pivoting back to reddit, various other subreddits have been deconstructed with an eye towards low quality and/or highly polarized online discussion. Maintstream outlets have explored the intersection between extremist, often “alt-right” political views and reddit:

(Unfortunately, but topical, the FiveThirtyEight article warns for slurs, as will I.)

And that top five isn’t exactly pretty, though it does support the theory that at least a subset of Trump’s supporters are motivated by racism. The presence of r/fatpeoplehate at the top of the list echoes some of President Trump’s own behavior, including his referring to 1996 Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado as “Miss Piggy” and insulting Rosie O’Donnell about her weight. The second-closest result, r/TheRedPill, describes itself in its sidebar as a place for “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men”; named after a scene from the “The Matrix,” the group believes that women run the world and men are an oppressed class, and from that belief springs an ideology that has been described as “the heart of modern misogyny.” r/Mr_Trump self-describes as “the #1 Alt-Right, most uncucked subreddit” — referring to a populist white-nationalist movement and an increasingly all-purpose insult meant to denigrate others’ masculinity — and the appallingly named r/coontown is the now-banned but previously central home to unrepentant racism on Reddit. Finally, coming in at No. 5 is r/4chan, a subreddit dedicated to posting screenshots of threads found on 4chan, where many users supported Trump for president and where the /pol/ board in particular has a strongly racist bent.

Emphasis mine.

To CMV’s credit, our media deep dives have been positive², but that’s not self-executing. It takes a lot of introspection about our role, rules, and moderation framework to create the necessary forum – and I do believe it is necessary to have these conversations – where we can talk about all of these tough issues without glorifying the underlying views.

The risk of validating views absolutely exists. I do believe that, as a moderation team, we should be mindful of how our curation impacts the perception of what reddit audiences believe to be fair-minded, critical conversations. I don’t purport to represent the whole of the moderation team in this respect, but I do think it’s safe to say we share an acute awareness of how our impact here grows as our subreddit does.

The place I’ve come to is:  people very rarely want benevolent views changed. CMV could not exist as a place for critical discourse if we tried to create a superficial impression that people only have pedestrian or typical views. On the contrary, we consider it more likely that someone is trolling or looking to push a view (“soapbox”) if they come in with a view most people share. It begs the question why one wants that view changed. I get why a self-identified white supremacist wonders why s/he might be wrong; most people, at least publicly, advocate for equality. That is a clear catalyst for questioning one’s position.

But why would someone want to change their view on, to use a real example, equality of races? Is it possible? Sure. Is it probable? I don’t think so, and while we wouldn’t remove this thread automatically, it would likely deserve higher scrutiny. It is suspicious in the sense that there is an even better probability that this person is posting the opposite of their view in the original post so they can bolster and increase visibility of that opposite view in the comments.

With this heightened likelihood of publicly sharing a “shameful” view, I would rather create a place of deliberate contemplation and critical thinking where this view is exposed to contrary evidence. Our value system ultimately drills down to engendering an ethos of thoughtful critique. We don’t always succeed at this but the moderators do try to be self-critical, regularly step back from our work, and revise our method based on shared learned experiences navigating these waters.

It certainly creates a risk of normalizing these views and creating a “safe” space,  but only if we insulate these users from the civic consequences of their behavior. That is, it is only “safe” if we allow them to share without engagement. Ours is not a safe space for like-minded people in the sense that we advocate the same substantive views. It is a safe space for people to talk candidly and respectfully, to forcefully push-back on ideas so long as one recognizes this is a two-way street of presuming good faith until proven otherwise. It is perhaps our most valued first principle, and it is the compact made between users and moderators each time we participate in CMV.

My view hasn’t changed 180 degrees, but that also captures an element we embed in our delta system: having a good conversation doesn’t require a “gotcha” moment where you lose and your entire worldview is toppled; it simply requires gaining an additional insight that impacts your view. Where I’ve landed is that I am cautiously guarded when I see these threads advocating a “bad” view, but I nevertheless operate by the Principle of Charity: I assume good faith and rationality until a poster gives me a reason not to, and leave it to our users to thoughtfully and creatively critique those views. My responsibility is to curate and cultivate an environment that reinforces an understanding of nuance, but also a willingness to speak up when something is clearly abhorrent and explain why someone should change their mind.

¹ Posting about these thoughts was spurred, in part, by this podcast conversation between Katie Couric and Recode’s Kara Shwisher. It echoes a lamentation I hear frequently about Internet conversations, which is that they lack nuance and fail to appreciate the multi-faceted qualities of just about every human being.

² “Our Best Hope for Civil Discourse Online Is…Reddit” by Virginia Heffernan,; “On the Other Hand” by Tim Adams, The Guardian; Our Minds Have Been Hijacked by Our Phones. Tristan Harris Wants to Rescue Them” by Nicholas Thompson,

An impromptu primer on how to deal with YouTube tosspots.

Listen to Kara Swisher’s interview with Susan Wojcicki (CEO of YouTube). There is a portion regarding rules/codes of conduct/community guidelines. I want to memorialize my thoughts here.

I’m not going to put words in Wojcicki’s mouth, but there’s an interaction where she tries to put contours around what it means to create community guidelines and rules. What she’s talking about, at least as I hear it, is due process. That word is tossed around a lot but it has meaning: namely, that we have a set of rules created before anything happens, process we use to enforce those rules, and we use that process for everybody.

Due process is important because it creates a sense of fair play and justice. This is more important when we’re talking about laws dealing with peoples’ lives and liberties, but it can be just as meaningful in cultivating a sense of community – a community that people buy into and of which they want to be a part.

Businesses that have poor communities often have poor user experiences, so your service better be exclusive or so exceptional that people eat the cost of having a bad experience with others. Tech companies should take note, in my opinion, that people are being offered more alternatives and developing higher expectations in this area, so I wouldn’t hang my hat on riding this out. Get community moderators, folks. /end self-promotion

In law – the “codifying” to which Wojcicki refers – due process can be boiled down to two core components:

  1. Notice – have you told people how they’re supposed to behave before you enforce that standard of behavior?
  2. Hearing – is there an opportunity to make their case to whomever is enforcing that standard of behavior?

When talk about how to enforce a law, we apply the code to a specific set of facts. Let’s make our use case Logan Paul, who I believe is, at best, an irresponsible and juvenile opportunist who needs to grow up and, at worst, an utterly insensitive knuckledragger with no understanding of common decency towards other people.

Nevertheless, he was a user of YouTube and presumably agreed to abide by their Terms of Service (TOS) which outlined an assortment of rules to which he is bound, including a three-strikes rule, which is exactly what it sounds like. Swisher asks (paraphrase): why don’t you just get rid of him? You make the rules, change the rules.

Agreed, but that doesn’t solve our Logan Paul problem, at least not right away. Paul was bound to a set of rules that, in my opinion, exposed a gap in behavioral expectations for the YouTube platform. It behooves YouTube to change the rules, capture this behavior and close the gap.

What it doesn’t mean is that it’s a good idea to retroactively apply this rule. Remember “notice”: you want to tell people before they act what the expectation is. Removing content that is abhorrent without a codified rationale undermines this principle. There are always going to be exceptions such as an imminent and credible threat to a person’s life, or something so grossly vulgar that the better risk calculation is to take it down and eat the cost of dealing with the aftermath. But, these are exceptions, and we don’t make rules based on exceptional behavior. We make rules based on things that are commonplace and easily understood such that most people find it possible to comply with them.

Additionally, we don’t create rules to target a specific person. It would be dubious to create a rule that seems neutral but, in application, only results in the removal of Logan Paul. Sure, it’s Youtube’s prerogative to remove whomever they want, but I’m coming from a place that assumes YouTube wants to (1) create a consistent user experience; (2) brand as a media platform that doesn’t pick favorites, and; (3) provide a cogent rationale to its stakeholders and users such that they don’t come off as frivolous or erratic.

I’m losing steam since I need to prepare for a meeting, but my roadmap would essentially boil down to the following:

  • Do a gap assessment on YouTube’s rules as of the date of the Logan Paul suicide forest controversy. He may have engaged in questionable behavior in the past but this is the clear marker of what crossed the line in such a way as to enter the cultural zeitgeist and create national controversy.
  • Once you’ve discovered the gap, ask yourself if a rule would have captured this. Sometimes the behavior is so extraordinary that you could make a rule but it wouldn’t, in practice, police anything because it was such a one off. Other times it’s behavior that defies codification. This doesn’t preclude policing it, but it does probably mean you need to preserve in your ToS a level of discretion for content moderators (which you should have) and training for those moderators to spot red flags, etc.
  • Amend the ToS as needed. Make Logan Paul and others click “agree” to participate on your not-a-media-service platform.
  • Penalize all users for non-compliance, including Logan Paul should he run afoul after the new ToS have been socialized.

I don’t have much to say about hearings here. This is something that is a lot more important in traditional legal situations. From what I hear, you can appeal after three strikes and so forth and this is, frankly, a marketplace. You have options to go elsewhere even if they’re shitty options, YouTube isn’t a basic human necessity to which you have some inherent claim.

I can spell “Wojcicki” off-hand now. Boom.

Ethics in journalism – no, for real this time.

Tons of thoughts swirling about Buzzfeed’s decision to post the unverified dossier on alleged Trump actions while in Russia.

Pardon my sarcasm: but I’m sure many of you can take a hint with words like “unverified” and alleged.”

My sarcasm stems from the rather patronizing admonishments towards Buzzfeed, which seemingly revolve around the understanding that readers are going to be misled by its publication — a publication Buzzfeed took great pains to explicitly note had not been corroborated.

If it’s not verified, why publish? Because the newsworthiness of this publication was primarily in that it existed; that politicians and journalists alike knew of its existence; that politicians and journalists were talking about it; that Trump and Obama were both briefed on its existence; that John McCain had passed this to the FBI prior to Election Day; that there are facts consistent with the allegation that Trump (either directly or through his campaign staff) have some connection with Russia, and; this connection could range anywhere from deliberate and nefarious to incidental and potentially reckless.

Even if this turns out to be false – and I suspect a lot of it probably is – few people (if any) are defending this on the basis of absurdity. There’s enough of a brick wall of concern regarding Trump’s business and potential Russian ties that keeps this within the realm of plausibility. That’s not just newsworthy; that should get over the hump for official inquiries and investigation.

It’s frankly absurd that the political and media class get to blanketly gatekeep information highly relevant to the American people both as voters and as citizens. For the latter, this should increase demand for Congress to require some kind of disclosure on behalf of Trump with respect to his international business ties, including, potentially, Russian ones. Likewise, the allegation that his staffers, some of whom have a direct working relationship with powerful Russians, visited Prague, is especially disconcerting in light of confirmed intelligence reports of Russian interference with our election. All of this makes the mere existence of this publication material to our interests.

Moreover, it begs into question why James Comey made the unprecedented decision to release two letters on the cusp of the election regarding Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, but not with respect to the existence of this rough report. Comey made this release before warrant with any kind of specific request was made; there was no concrete knowledge of what those recently found emails entailed (it ended up being nothing) but it was nonetheless deemed important for voters to know.

I understand the concern about feeding the right wing narrative that the media is out to get them. I also get that now the right has co-opted the fake news concerns, framing themselves as the victim. These are bad, yes, but given a call between free information for democratic readership and the continued attempt to discredit the media, the former wins.

It’s important that news media play their hand carefully with respect to maintaining and rebuilding their credibility, but that was lost in a separate conversation about false equivalencies and disproportionate critique of candidates. The narrative that the media is part of some vast left wing conspiracy to harm Republican interests is, however, not new, and the attempts by many outlets to assuage their fears by cow-towing to them is what got us to that coverage issue in the first place. Moreover, while this is an important conversation to have, it’s more about reputation-building and narrative-crafting. Ethics are not dictated by how well those ethics are received. They simply are, and let’s not conflate the “Was this ethical?” conversation with machinations.

As a reader, I’m personally glad Buzzfeed published the report. Knowing it was unverified, I took the substantive part of it with a grain of salt. My main takeaway was that someone considered credible had this information, passed it to his contacts, and my government sat on it. Meanwhile, they were bending over backwards to accommodate and, arguably, fan an e-mail scandal close to election day where there was a heightened potential of influencing its outcome. (Update: boom.)

The publication hammered home not just that some amorphous report was out there, yet another intelligence report on the Russians lost in a sea of intelligence reports about the Russians and Trump. Armed with this information, it only bolsters my concerns and suspicions about the tie between my president-elect and a nation hostile not just to our government, but the ideals upon which that government was formed. That goes a lot farther than “salacious.”

I don’t begrudge other outlets for their timidity. Media ethics have long told reporters that they’re gatekeepers in the sense that publishing unverified information without context can be misleading and fraudulent. However, I think whether something is misleading turns an awful lot on the circumstances and the information provided. If everybody part of a special class gets to talk about unclassified reports and it can be clearly published as an unverified, uncorroborated report, I’d respectfully request that they give readers some benefit of the doubt that they know what those words mean.

Universities are not the Real World (TM)

So I’ve been listening to Amicus for some time, and the most recent podcast had snippets from a symposium on free speech on campus. It was broad, but the three themes were: safe spaces, trigger warnings, and political correctness.

Each of these could be a post in their own right. I’ll begin by saying that these are three distinct concepts, and before any conversation can be had, it would behoove us to agree upon a definition. But the focus of my post isn’t to whittle these down to their component parts and try to dissect their importance (or lack thereof) on college campuses. Rather, I want to talk about this idea of free exchange of ideas vis-a-vis the “real world.”

Frequently this conversation begins with the role colleges play in young adult lives. The fact of the matter is that we don’t allow adolescents much exposure to real world conditions and, for those fortunate enough to go to school, we view this step as much one of personal maturation and exposure as we do academic learning.

This can be true on some fronts. You need to consider what you’re paying for college,  budget your money, budget your time, network, determine what a proper major is and how that will relate back to employability, etc etc.

But when it comes to the conversations we have on campus, this is not the real world, and I don’t mean that in a protective way. I generally subscribe to the idea that universities are sacrosanct as a place of research and intellectual dialogue. It’s important to preserve these forums; historically, they have been the epicenter of academic exchange. More importantly, unlike other contexts where we exchange ideas  (like political contexts), the norms here are more attuned to civil discourse where parties are there to learn and probe at each other’s ideas, with the ideal being the “better” idea wins. This isn’t how it always plays out, and there is the risk of giving unequal proposals undeserving equal dignity, but these are exceptions to what is otherwise a good general rule.

Which brings me to my point: this is not what we do in the real world. The conversations you have on a college campus would probably land you in HR real fast at your real world job. We joke about how politics and religion are no-go places during dinner conversations and family events. Topics we discuss with peers we frankly don’t know very well are welcomed in universities, whereas there are some conversations we simply will not have with people we care about because they’re too divisive, sticky, or otherwise hazardous terrain to navigate.

There are some peculiar situations, like law schools talking about rape law, where this exposure really is both professional and personal, but I’m not willing to make such a broad statement about universities and young people based on a specific post-graduate profession and a class of people who, frankly, are going to be much older than the those we commonly think of when we talk about college.

So when we talk about college being a place for kids to become adults – a place where they can wade into real world waters – let’s remember that this truly entails. The need to maintain robust conversational landscapes at universities is crucial, but you can’t argue that it occupies this unique space in liberal society on the one hand, and yet have it be something so pedestrian that you will perish in the real world without it. The real world is a carefully curated place, at least when it comes to the conversations we have for the vast majority of our day, and ultimately that’s primarily what this debate centers around: what we can say and to whom we say it. It’s fundamentally disingenuous to portray college students as uniquely sensitive when an entire professional and social culture has revolved and grown around previous generations’ careful cultivation of manners and etiquette the exclude the same, if not more, topics.