When a Pundit Is a Pundit (and a Scourge)

This was originally written on my Mastodon account. Current circumstances are very good for reminding me of the ephemeral nature of social media, so I’m copying it here.

I’m muting a bunch of pundits around here again, both because of the Twitter migration and because I had to start over with a new profile. That means I have to know what a pundit is. So.

It’s not just a highly opinionated person, or a person who’s opinionated on multiple topics. I like following opinionated people. I value following opinionated people who challenge the ways I interact with the world.

No, to me a pundit is defined by two things.

1. They treat news and persuasion as “content”. They’re filling space (columns, timelines) because that’s what they do rather than because they had something substantive (knowledge, perspective, solutions) to add. And their purpose usually stops at “engagement”. There’s nothing *wrong* with engagement, but it’s a perverse incentive on its own.

2. Because their content is meaningless except as content, they don’t engage with its effects. Were they wrong? Did they make life worse for other people? [shrug] You can’t win them all. Time to create more content.

I didn’t boost pundits on Twitter, but I also didn’t hide them and deny them access to my cortisol pump. That hasn’t helped me recover from activist burnout. So I’m muting them here. No more demands that I look *for the sake of looking*. No more free-floating opinions from people unfussed by being repeatedly wrong.

It won’t eliminate disturbing knowledge or SIWOTI, but it will mean they come from people I respect, who I know aren’t poking at my stress for mere fun or profit.

When a Pundit Is a Pundit (and a Scourge)
{advertisement}

Toward a Taxonomy of Bad Moderation

Like many people, I dusted off my Mastodon account when Musk signed the agreement to buy Twitter. When the deal got close to completion, I asked Jason to make me an admin on our tiny the-orbit.net server and set about preparing for more traffic.

I started by reviewing the #fediblock hashtag—where the Fediverse communicates about bad actors and safety—and our own list of silenced and blocked servers. I began there because, well, we all have plenty of experience being harassed around here. I didn’t have the power to keep harassers off the technology, but I did have the tools to take care of the most obvious threats.

I was working on a way to systematize our reasons for moderating at the server level when our own server ended not in fire but in ice in an upgrade. Given Jason was already concerned about having enough time for it, I suggested he let it go. He told our handful of sporadic users it was time to find a new instance.

I’ve still been thinking about the system, though, partly because I do that and partly because I’m watching the discussions about moderation on Mastodon closely. Technocrats are talking to social engineers and activists are talking to people targeted for harassment are talking to scholars are talking to people who’ve never had to think about moderation until today.

It’s messy and made messier by:

  • A lack of common purpose in using social media. This is true for any service, but it’s particularly obvious in the Fediverse, where individual servers are often organized around these purposes.
  • A wave of new servers with new administrators and new moderators, many of whom are not aware of the long arguments about moderation and whose resource materials are mostly technical.
  • Rapid growth reflected in technological chaos that makes following current events in the Fediverse more difficult.
  • Disorganized social networks that haven’t resettled after service and server moves, such that many of us have been talking into the ether instead of discussing it among people with experience in the topic.
  • Targeted harassment of admins and moderators who openly share their block lists and reasons for blocking.
  • A history of abuse of moderation tools in the Fediverse.

Much of the current discussion is about how to consolidate knowledge about servers with bad or nonexistent moderation, so each individual moderator doesn’t have to learn separately and may be able to automate some decisions. I’ve also seen alarm at the idea, coming from people who see moderation decisions they don’t understand or wouldn’t choose.

I believe that grouping the types of bad moderation likely to be encountered by its consequences and the actions needed to mitigate it may help in making such moderation feasible. This list is roughly in order of priority, with the most pressing issues first.

Illegal Content

There are servers that host content that may get you arrested if it ends up on your server. Unless you’re making a stand by practicing civil disobedience, you don’t have much choice on these. If you are taking that stand, you should expect the vast majority of the Fediverse to lock you out.

Eliminationist

These are servers that organize around the people they think shouldn’t exist or shouldn’t have rights. These are the neo-Nazis, the ultranationalists, the religious nationalists, the people trying to deny health care and public bathrooms to trans people, the people who call for violence against abortion providers, other stochastic terrorists, and other outright terrorists.

There is no reason for any decent server to give eliminationists access to your users. They will only use it to recruit and to attack. That’s what they organized to do. Suspend them.

Freeze Peach

These are servers that tell you up front they are organized around “free speech” or that anything goes on the server as long as it isn’t illegal or porn. There may even be some administrators on these servers who believe that, though I’ve seen several with neo-Nazi administrators. In practice, however, even if these servers didn’t set out to be eliminationist or harassing instances, these servers are where bad actors collect when they get kicked off well-moderated servers.

Pleroma is an alternative to Mastodon for running instances in the Fediverse. The development history of Pleroma is such that the software is used by numerous eliminationist and harassing instances. The association is frequent enough that “Pleroma instance” has become a shorthand for a freeze peach instance.

If you see a very new server that looks decent but has “free speech” rules, you might want to take the time to suggest they get a real code of conduct if you’re feeling generous. Otherwise, suspend them. The people who are happy in the cesspits these instances become are going to cause you problems, and freeze peach mods aren’t going to help.

Spam

Not all promotion is spam. “Spam”, here, specifically means more intrusive types of communication, such as tagging people to get their attention, or misusing hashtags or groups for promotion. As with other types of bad behavior, once a server is known not to moderate spam coming from its users, it will probably be swamped with users who spam.

NSFW

The internet is for porn and other sex work, but you usually have to go looking for it, because the internet is also for business and children. Your instance may not allow children, but if it’s organized around business interests or activism, you’ll want to give some real thought to your policies around NSFW materials. These materials have a long history of being used in sexual harassment to create and signify hostile environments. On the other hand, many people experience censorship because some aspect of their identity is sexualized and declared off limits.

There are lots of tools to help you limit how your users interact with NSFW materials on other servers and how that affects other users’ timelines. The only broad guidelines are to be thoughtful about your choices and transparent with your users so they can find an instance that meets their needs.

Disinformation

These are collections of users who post antivax, crypto, climate, political or other types of misinformation frequently enough that the server itself becomes a significant source of bad information, either as policy or through being unwilling to moderate it. How you handle one of these servers will likely depend on the type of disinformation. Individual servers may choose to keep, for example, flat Earthers around as entertainment but may block political disinformation as a threat to democracy.

Good in Theory, Bad in Practice

Having policies is easy. Enforcing them is often a miserable slog. You see things you can’t unsee. Bad actors test your boundaries regularly. You hear from lovely, charming people mostly when they’re upset. Written rules collide with unwritten rules. Competing access needs are real. Moderators aren’t going to get everything right.

That said, there comes a point where repeated mistakes suggest an underlying problem exists and is likely to lead to more mistakes. Right now, instances are starting up or growing without planning ahead for the moderation growth will require. Then they’re making major, high-profile mistakes. It becomes reasonable for other instances to decide they’re bad at moderating and are going to stay bad without major course corrections.

As a moderator, you can offer help, but you have to choose how much of another instance’s moderation you’re willing to take on and for how long. If they don’t, the work falls on you. Defederation and the threat of defederation are your tools for doing that.

Critical-Issue Fail

As mentioned previously, competing access needs are real. They also don’t only apply in a disability framework or even among people with different goals. For example, activists who do policy work need a degree of access to government entities, while activists who do community care work on the same topics may need to keep themselves and those they serve far from the eye of those same entities because current policy hurts them.

Both groups may do important work benefiting the same group of people, but they’re unlikely to want the same federation policies. Neither of them is wrong to federate or defederate based on their needs, and all of them should be able to talk about their decisions and the behavior on a server that led to it.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten in trying to group moderation issues that may lead one server to defederate from another. What’s missing? What’s redundant? Is the framework useful?

Toward a Taxonomy of Bad Moderation

Understanding Stock Markets

This post is not going to help you get rich off the stock market. If that’s what you’re looking for, the best advice I have for you is to understand your desire makes you a mark and study up on scams of various sorts. That’s fun to do anyway, and I don’t understand why cons aren’t a bigger part of true-crime publishing, and you’ve probably moved on already because you think I just insulted you.

Photo of a graph in a newspaper. Graph shows a year of Dow Jones Industrial Index values.
Photo by Markus Spiske

This post exists because most financial education in the U.S. is a sales pitch, either directly or for a particular school of economics. I came at the stock market as a pension analyst whose job it was to understand the assumptions inherent in funding pensions. Also as someone who finds the history of fraud fascinating, but you may have picked that up. I did this work in the post-Enron regulatory environment in the U.S. and through the collapse of housing bubble plus a few years. This is where I ended up on funding retirement.

This post exists to give you a basic framework for understanding investing events and scandals. Consider it a skeptical but not cynical high-level guide to (mostly U.S.) stock markets. Continue reading “Understanding Stock Markets”

Understanding Stock Markets

When 2 + 2 = 5 and Other Ways to Be Wrong with Heuristics

I recently finished my first set of classes toward a BS in data analytics. It’s not very useful advice now, I hope, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend attempting this in the academic quarter containing the most critical election of your lifetime. That notwithstanding, this means I’ve spent the past several weeks immersed in discussions of deriving meaning from numbers.

As I was gearing up to start my term, a “debate” broke out on Twitter. I put the term in scare quotes, because what actually happened is that one group of offered reasoning and explanations and another group pointed to the first and had vapors about the end of Western civilization. The question at hand? “Does 2 + 2 = 4?” The answer some people found objectionable? “Sometimes. Not always.”

Surrounded as I’ve been this term with issues of data quality, making assumptions explicit, the limits of the most common statistical tests, and error terms, this “debate” has never been far from my mind. I saw an echo of it again today, and lo and behold, I finally have some time to write about it.

The boys who cry “Postmodernism!” without much understanding of the history of philosophy are all but background noise these days, so I mostly noted their existence once again and moved on. Funnily enough, though, this actually is a postmodernism question. This is all about deconstructing the meaning of the equation. Are we talking about some ideal of “2” and “4”, or are we communicating about something else, where “2” and “4” are abstractions of reality that may be more or less reflective of that reality?

Also, does anyone else laugh when someone claims that questioning the perfect, inherent two-ness of “2” will be the end of civilization as we know it? Continue reading “When 2 + 2 = 5 and Other Ways to Be Wrong with Heuristics”

When 2 + 2 = 5 and Other Ways to Be Wrong with Heuristics

Reasons to Not Despair

This is what the title says, friends. If you’re not feeling tempted toward despair by the close election results, this may not be what you need to read today. If, however, you’re disheartened by the vote being this close, this is for you.

I’m not here to tell you the United States isn’t racist, sexist, classist, homo- and transphobic. It is. Many of these are founding principles of the U.S., written into our constitution. And it’s good that we’ve spent much of the last four years refusing to let the well-meaning people around us deny that fact. It’s good that more of us are refusing to allow people to duck the social and political consequences of that. It’s good that we’re tearing the wallpaper off these cracks, because we can’t fix them until we do.

It’s less good that we’ve allowed the outcome of this election to stand for America’s willingness to address these problems. This particular election is critical because it determines whether voters still have any power to address them. It isn’t the last word on our thoughts or feelings. There’s far more going on here.

This election reflects:

  • The Electoral College
  • Voter registration purges
  • Voter registration restrictions
  • Disenfranchisement through the criminal justice system
  • Insufficient resources dedicated to voting
  • Changing election rules due to the pandemic
  • Changing election rules due to court challenges, some of them last-minute
  • Real and threatened violence aimed at voter suppression
  • Disinformation campaigns aimed at voter suppression
  • A well-funded disinformation industry, including a top news channel
  • Foreign interference
  • A news media unprepared to cope with lies on our current presidential scale
  • A news media unaccustomed to naming bigotry
  • A news media scared of being called liberal
  • A shrinking, increasingly centralized news media
  • Political identities at odds with voters’ support for policy
  • Panic and exhaustion
  • Poor public political education
  • A long cultural trend saying nihilism and cynicism = cool

I’m missing things. I’m tired. But the point is that this is a huge system with a lot of moving parts that chews up public opinion to eventually spit out a result having more or less to do with that opinion. The result is not public opinion itself.

Many of the parts of that system are racist, sexist, classist, homo- and transphobic because they were set up to be. We know this. We talk about this. We don’t so much acknowledge that this means they’re going to produce results more bigoted than we are as a group of individuals. They’re ours, and we bear responsibility for them, but they are not us.

We’ve made some progress on them over the last four years. We’ve also lost ground on some of them, like the courts. We have so much work to do. This election isn’t about whether we’ve done that work. This election is about whether we’ve done enough to be able to continue. That’s the part to focus on today.

Reasons to Not Despair

Second Choices and Delegate Allocations: Why Primary “Electability” Is a Wild Guess

Let me declare my biases up front. I voted for Elizabeth Warren yesterday in Minnesota. She was my first choice among the huge field of Democratic contenders. Like hers, my main priority is seeing as many of her plans as possible enacted. My next four choices dropped out before I got to vote. If I have to choose between Sanders and Biden (I don’t), my choice is Sanders, but the margin is very narrow, based mostly on candidate negatives on both sides, and easily shifted by things like VP choice.

I also spent nearly a decade doing actuarial (pension) math for a living. I’m not a trained actuary, but I have a lot of experience in determining probable outcomes in situations with a lot of variables. More importantly for this post, I’ve spent an awful lot of time identifying and making explicit the assumptions that go into these calculations.

Yes, I’m writing this (or compiling it from various places I’ve talked about the question over the last few days) because of the pressure for Warren to drop out of the race. At best, it’s based on assumptions about what would happen to her votes that don’t match the best information we have. At worst, it’s counter-productive to seeing progressive issues move forward.

Let’s start with the assumptions being made about what will happen if Warren drops out. The two big assumptions are:

  • People who are prepared to vote for Warren will switch predominantly to Sanders.
  • Those votes will roll up to enough of a gain in Sanders delegates to prevent a brokered convention.

There’s also a third assumption I’m seeing in my social media that Warren really wants delegates so she can throw them to Biden specifically to prevent Sanders from becoming the nominee. I’ll talk about what can happen at the convention later, but I’m not going to address this assumption directly because:

  • It’s coming from a small minority even of Sanders supporters.
  • Those are the same people who think snake emojis are solid politics.
  • Their reaction to this post will be the same no matter what I say.

On to the main assumptions.

Second Choices

Would Warren supporters move primarily to Sanders if she dropped out? Not according to them. Continue reading “Second Choices and Delegate Allocations: Why Primary “Electability” Is a Wild Guess”

Second Choices and Delegate Allocations: Why Primary “Electability” Is a Wild Guess

Mock the Movie: Meet the Press Edition

Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely hilarious. I was really just looking for a lighter movie than our last several, something we could mock with affection instead of out of self-defense. Then I came across The Werewolf of Washington. Shot and released during the Watergate scandal, it stars Dean Stockwell as a very sincere member of the White House press who just happens to have lycanthropy.

So that’s what we’re doing Tuesday. You’re welcome to join us.

This one is available on YouTube. Continue reading “Mock the Movie: Meet the Press Edition”

Mock the Movie: Meet the Press Edition

A Q&A with David Silverman

For whatever reason David Silverman decided he needed my attention on Valentine’s Day.

My to do list says I was working on a meeting agenda. By the time I made it to Twitter, I had to dig through my mentions to figure out what was going on. My response:

Which eventually came around to this:

He’s not good with “No.”

I eventually figured out he thought I should have something to say about this because of the Reason Rally.

There are a few problems with this:

  1. I had nothing to do with the 2016 Reason Rally besides deciding at the last minute to attend and to volunteer for the associated conference. I helped out wearing someone else’s name badge.
  2. I didn’t say anything about the original allegations of abuse. I did mention Depp in 2016, but I noted that newbie atheist podcasters weren’t going to learn much from Lawrence Krauss talking in a workshop about how much he enjoyed working with Depp.
  3. There was a bunch of news coverage at the time.

One thing that happens when you put on an event designed to garner publicity and use celebrities to do so is that those celebrities get news coverage.

Lyz Liddell, executive director of the Reason Rally Coalition, a paid position she likens to a community-building pastor, says organizers were disappointed when Depp and Heard withdrew.

“We were like, ‘Wait! What?’” she says. They then learned about the abuse allegations, she says, and “we absolutely support Amber and hope they can both have success in their personal and professional lives.”

I confirmed with another Reason Rally board member that they have no recollection of a discussion about kicking Depp out. Silverman is offering to testify, but…well, I’ll get to that.

Silverman continued to tag me in gems like this well after being told to stop:

Then came Wednesday: Continue reading “A Q&A with David Silverman”

A Q&A with David Silverman

Readings in Heritability

Charles Murray has a new book out. Yay.

Hadn’t heard of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class? Well, that’s because his publisher didn’t make review copies available. So the first places to get their reviews out were those feeling no need to take a critical view of the book, like openly white supremacist sites and The Federalist. Unsurprisingly, they think it’s great.

Photo of a backlit sign consisting of stripes and DNA sequence represented in letters (TTAGCACC, etc.).
“DNA” by MIKI Yoshihito, CC BY 2.0

The reviews that do engage critically will take longer. “Critically” here means “Does this accurately represent our best knowledge of the subject?”, rather than “Ugh, don’t like.” Not that those are mutually exclusive. Asking those questions take time.

Some scientists and science communicators have already gotten a head start, however. They can do that without seeing the book because they’ve been dealing with the “evidence” and the arguments on this topic for ages. And of course, because heritability is an easily misunderstood topic, there are some good explainers out there.

So what should you read if you want to learn about heritability from experts rather than political scientists whose prior work on the topic hasn’t held up? Try these articles on the basics and methodological challenges of studying heritability. (Please note that some of these sources uncritically discuss the history of scientific work aimed at a “cure” for autism.) Continue reading “Readings in Heritability”

Readings in Heritability

Mock the Movie: He Can Do That? Edition

I fully and freely admit that the impetus for this month’s movie is wanting to watch Bruce Payne chew some scenery. It’s been a while. I have to admit we might be disappointed by Aurora Intercept, though. Not only does Payne play a hero(!!!) for once in his career, but there’s zero evidence of tooth marks in this trailer. Or dialogue, for that matter.

This one is available on YouTube. Continue reading “Mock the Movie: He Can Do That? Edition”

Mock the Movie: He Can Do That? Edition