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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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

“Have You Considered White People?”

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I first named the phenomenon at the Moving Social Justice Forward conference in Los Angeles in 2014. It wasn’t the first question like this at the conference, by any means. It probably wasn’t the first conference where I’d heard a question like that either. It was, however, a perfect opportunity to notice.

The SSJ conference put activists of color, most of them black, on stage to talk about hands-on organizing and activism. The topics they covered were matters of life and death, though they often aren’t treated that way. In the secular movement, these subjects often aren’t covered at all.

Given all that, it wasn’t surprising for me to find myself part of a proportionally much smaller white audience at the event. I may even have been in the minority, though there were still a large number of white people in the audience. There were points during the Q&As when I wished there were fewer.

Q&As always have problems. No matter how carefully moderators specify their requirements, people will still decide the guidelines don’t apply to them. They ramble. They act as though they’d been invited to be onstage. They treat “Here is my opinion; don’t you agree?” as a question.

Photo: Silhouette of short-haired person with hand raised against a blurred presentation screen.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

I noticed this specific problem for the first time at this conference when a panel of student activists combating the school-to-prison pipeline opened the floor to questions. “Have you tried talking to legislators?” Well, yes, of course they had, and they’d discussed legislation that might help, but they couldn’t wait for it to pass because people needed their help now. And they were achieving success with their methods.

There were other questions like this that weekend. Other activists talked about helping themselves and each other and were greeted with some form of “Have you tried going to the government for help?” It was this question, though, that made me realize I was listening to people ask, “Have you considered white people?”

I saw it again at the Social Justice panel at AHACon in May 2016. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was the one majority-POC panel. The instructions were great. (I’m stealing “The shorter the better. Preferably one sentence ending in a question mark.”) A couple of the questions, however, included “I didn’t hear you say anything about voting” and something about Bernie Sanders.

“Have you considered white people?”

Fellow white people, we need to stop asking questions like these. Continue reading ““Have You Considered White People?””

“Have You Considered White People?”

On the Weakness of Slurs

I was surprised to find I didn’t have a version of this on my blog. I’ve certainly said it often enough elsewhere, though the earliest I’ve found was in response to “critics” of Hillary Clinton.

We don’t use gendered, fat-shaming, homophobic, etc. insults not because they have to be reserved for the worst of bad people but because they say you think there’s something wrong with the everyday people they apply to.

“Ugh, that—I don’t usually say this—bitch!”

I see this or a version of this using another slur remarkably often. It reflects such a strange misunderstanding of how language works that I boggle every time.

If you say this, you’re trying to tell me that only “bitch” works in this context because it’s the only insult that’s strong enough for you. Weaker, lesser insults just won’t convey how terrible this person is. But that isn’t how slurs work.

Contrary to your assumption, slurs are among the weakest insults. That’s why they can be reclaimed. No one stands up with fire in their eye and says, “Yes, I’m a poopyhead.” There are a lot of proud bitches out there though.

The power of a slur doesn’t come from the insult. It comes from the reminder that we exist in a system ready to put bitches back in their place. That’s not an insult but a threat. And the power of reclamation comes from facing that threat and persisting anyway.

Any insult inherent in a slur is merely a statement that the person you’re using a slur on doesn’t know “their place”. That you want them to, because you can’t win whatever conflict you have on equal ground. And that’s just not particularly insulting, at least not to them.

On the Weakness of Slurs

Living Our Secular Values

Earlier this month, I spoke at the Minnesota Atheists Day of Reason event at the state capitol. The theme for the day was secular values.

Last month was the 100th anniversary of the birth of American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair. O’Hair had something of a reputation for being a difficult person. Yes, really. She would have that reputation even correcting for the smaller leeway we give to difficult women, but part of her reputation was almost certainly due to her militant feminism. Among the many fights she took up was her fight against the idea that women were created for men’s pleasure.

As atheists, we understand that women weren’t created at all. We evolved. And I hope that after so many years of fighting for good education on evolution, we understand that evolution is not directed. It has no end goal. So any discussion of our secular values must be informed by the knowledge that women, like men, exist for themselves, not in service to others.

You can read the whole thing on the Secular Woman site.

Living Our Secular Values

Making Me Safer

The mosque shootings in Christchurch aren’t about me. I’m not Muslim. I’m not an immigrant. I’m not a brown-skinned other. As much as my heart embraces the dead and injured as my fellows, I don’t live with that target painted on me. I have no business that would take me into a mosque during worship.

The rhetoric that got us here, though? That is about me. It’s about me as a white person doomed to see “my race” die out. It’s about me as city-dwelling possible target of terrorism. It’s about me as a woman facing religious sexism. It’s about me and the threat I present as an atheist. It’s about me as a sinner where the cost of sin is death.

I’ve lived for nearly 20 years being told we must talk about the “unique dangers” of Islam to keep me safe.

I’ve lived for nearly a decade with atheist movement leaders who tell me I can’t talk about their racism and sexism because I need them to keep me safe.

I live with increasingly unstable international politics and diminishing civil rights in the name of keeping me safe.

I live with grifters coming to my beautiful frozen city and lying about being threatened, because how else are they to keep me safe?

I live with terrorists from out of state making road trips to blow up my neighbors. You’ll never guess why. Oh, it’s to keep me safe?

None of this makes me safer. I mean, I don’t really have to say that to you, do I? It’s obvious that fewer rights and more violence don’t make me any safer, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Yet here I am. Again. Not directly threatened by the violence, but still less safe than I was. Again. And still being told it’s all being done for me.

To make me safe.

It doesn’t. If you say these things, you are the threat to my safety. Not the Muslims. Not the immigrants. Not the black and brown people. You. If you say these things, you make me less safe.

So stop acting shocked when I treat you that way. I’d just like to be safe.

Making Me Safer

Policing Self-Defense

[CN: on top of all the Nazi stuff, talk about the threat of sexual assault]

Black-and-white photo of a large monument consisting of a stone fist atop a stone pedestal. An unreadable sign is taped to the fist.
“Fist of Freedom” (a monument to Nelson Mandela) by sacks08, CC BY 2.0

Yesterday I asked whether the people still telling me not to punch Nazis after Charlottesville were telling me to be martyred or to stand aside while someone else is.

Mostly I didn’t get any answers. I expected that. That’s what happens when “Just say ‘no’ to violence!” runs into situations where violence is inherent and inevitable. Ironically, the act of making an option unspeakable makes the pro-rational discussion with Nazis crowd unable to discuss current events rationally. Weird. (Not at all weird.)

I also ran into a couple of people yesterday who would prefer martyrdom to enacting any violence. That’s fine. I can’t relate to it in any way, but I don’t have to. It’s a personal choice. But it being a personal choice means you don’t get to impose it on me or anyone else. You don’t get to choose that someone else dies in the name of nonviolence.

I did get one response that boiled down to “Well, it’s okay in self-defense. No, I mean immediate self-defense.” Continue reading “Policing Self-Defense”

Policing Self-Defense

The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth

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In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama had this to say about the U.S. gender pay gap.

You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.

Women deserve equal pay for equal work.

You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. This year let’s all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.

Now, women hold a majority of lower-wage jobs, but they’re not the only ones stifled by stagnant wages.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and this year marked a slight shift in the celebrations. While humanity hasn’t completely abandoned “When is International Men’s Day?” Day, this year included significant celebrations of Pay Gap Sea-Lioning Day.

Photo of one pan of a balancing scale covered with coins against a backdrop of more coins.
“Money” by Dun.can, CC BY 2.0

A day dedicated to women’s equality wouldn’t be complete without discussing the pay gap, and, as usual, this brings the apologists out of the woodwork. We don’t need to do anything about the pay gap, they imply, because it isn’t discrimination. There is no shortage of men on social media ready to tell you that “leading feminists” say Obama’s 77-cent figure specifically is a lie.

Which feminists? In particular, self-proclaimed “equity feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers has dubbed the gap a “myth”, a claim that, being short, is perfect for the Twitter debate club and drive-by commenters to haul out whenever people address pay disparity.

Even the head of a skeptics organization has claimed in the past that the pay gap isn’t real.

Even private-sector sex discrimination is more relic than reality. The so-called pay gap, the “73 cents for every dollar a man makes,” one hears recited like a mantra by feminists and politicians, doesn’t exist. When true cohorts are compared — men and women with equal education, seniority, duties and hours — the pay gap shrinks to a couple of pennies.

But does this “pay gap myth”, which Sommers continues to recycle in widely read publications, hold up under scrutiny? Is it true that the reason women are paid less is because they choose to go into different fields and work different hours than men do? And if choice does play a significant role, should we stop talking about the pay gap? Continue reading “The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth”

The Myth of the Pay Gap Myth

Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 3

Finally, an end to these questions! This is the last batch. If you haven’t, see Part 1 and Part 2.

  • In your version of equality, will white men ever have a voice in society, or will white men always be too privileged to participate in discussion?
Photo of about a dozen and a half questions marks stenciled onto black pavement in white paint. Alternating right-side up and upside down in three rows.
Crop of “What?” by Véronique Debord-Lazaro, CC BY-SA 2.0

This isn’t one of the most coherent questions in this bunch, but I’ll still give it a go. I’ll assume “ever” here means “Will they still get to talk then?” not “Will they come to be able to talk then?” since the latter is ridiculous. White men still have far more say in our halls of power and in our cultural touchstones of movies, television (pdf), and publishing than their numbers would account for. Not to mention YouTube.

Since equality and being privileged are contradictory, I’ll also give this questioner the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t mean for this question to be taken literally. I would assume, then, the question actually means “Aren’t you just trying to grab all the power for yourselves and push white men into the crappy positions you’ve all been in for ages?”

The answer is no. Whatever you yourself might do in my position, that’s not what I and the people around me are going for at all.

  •  What makes you think that the power of censorship that you are so desperately trying to establish now will at no point be used against you?

On the short list of things that have been done in an attempt to shut me up: Posting my employer information online, contacting my (then-former) employer, petitioning the wrong people to have me removed from a book, complaining to a board that I hosted their radio show, complaining to a group that had me speak at their event, complaints to groups I do activist work with, and several years of continual background harassment including threats.

If you start from the assumption that “SJWs” have never met any attempts to censor them, you’re starting by being wrong. This is the world we already live in. It’s just unequal.

In fact, this is one of the things that makes it so hard to combat the relatively small portion of harassment and threats that do come from SJWs. When the stuff coming at them is constant and pervasive, it gets much harder to persuade people that it isn’t a valid tool. People think they need it because other people do it to them. So if y’all could stop pointing your followers at SJWs without being clear that pile-ons and threats aren’t just part of the fun, that would be very helpful. Continue reading “Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 3”

Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 3

Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 2

Another day, another nine questions rendered largely impenetrable by having bounced around the alt-right echo chamber for so long. Still, I’ll give them a go. In case you missed it, Part 1 is here.

  • What do you hope to gain by bringing back racial segregation?
Photo of about a dozen and a half questions marks stenciled onto black pavement in white paint. Alternating right-side up and upside down in three rows.
Crop of “What?” by Véronique Debord-Lazaro, CC BY-SA 2.0

Racial segregation has never gone away. It’s gotten better in many places, but the U.S. remains highly segregated long after the Jim Crow laws that enforced that segregation were taken off the books. White suburban flight, informal hostilities, the need of those in poverty to live close to services, redlining and other practices that haven’t gone away just because they’re illegal all make racial segregation an ongoing reality.

It doesn’t make much sense for you to be asking me about wanting to bring back Jim Crow laws though. That’s just not a position that’s taken among “SJWs”. So I assume you’re asking me about groups or policies that involve spending resources specifically on marginalized populations. Those resources might be money, attention, or time. The simple answer here is that people who do this expect to be able to get more for those resources by aiming them where they’re most needed. It’s certainly reasonable at least in theory, though it does sometimes have unintended consequences, often as a response to white people being unhappy about the allocation of resources.

  • When my granduncle was dropping bombs on London, did your grandparents get out of their bunkers to protest with signs that read Not All Nazis?

This is vague and strange. If I weren’t trying to seriously engage with these questions, I’d just invoke Godwin’s Law. But I am, so let’s see what I can suss out of the assumptions behind this one. Continue reading “Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 2”

Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 2

Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 1

Photo of about a dozen and a half questions marks stenciled onto black pavement in white paint. Alternating right-side up and upside down in three rows.
Crop of “What?” by Véronique Debord-Lazaro, CC BY-SA 2.0

Niki transcribed the latest video of “unanswerable” gotcha questions. No, this isn’t another one aimed at atheists by Christians, though it’s about as effective and as grounded in real attempts to understand another person’s position. This one is aimed at social justice warriors by the status quo warriors.

Niki’s answers were mostly snark. I love them. You should read them. But it’s also worthwhile to have a few people answer even questions like these seriously, so I’m going to take a stab at that. I’m technically a social justice assassin, so not all the warriors want to admit I’m in the guild, but whatever.

It’s going to be long and tedious, since there are plenty of assumptions to unpack along with the questions themselves and the list itself is long and repetitive. But if we’re going to adopt this kind of tactic from the Christians, we might as well gallop while we’re at it, right? In order to keep it from getting unreadable, I’ll break it into thirds.

  • Do you realize that your war on language through political correctness has made you bedfellows with true rape culture? In other words, Islam, the world’s most misogynistic ideology.

Let’s start with your assumptions. Continue reading “Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 1”

Serious Answers to Sloppy Questions, Part 1