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

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

Carrier Victory Celebration

By now, you may know that Richard Carrier dropped his remaining SLAPP suits in November. If you read the settlement agreement, you’ll see he even explicitly said we are free to talk about the allegations and the suit without incurring more legal hassle from him. So we’re going to do that.

Photo of confetti being shot over an outdoor concert audience at night, catching the stage lights.
Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Save the date for the evening of February 23. We’ve rested, we’ve let the news sink in, and we’re ready to talk. We’ll bring you more news soon as we work out technical details for live streaming and confirm special guests. In the meantime, however, just know that our lips are legally unsealed. We can talk. We will talk.

As much fun as that sounds, one of the things we’ll talk about is the cost of suits like these (and what we can do to help with the problem overall, because we’re activists). We have our final bills now, along with our victory, and totals on the debt we’ve taken on over the last three and a half years. We’ll save the details for the 23rd, but know we’ve only paid off about half our total.

Winning frivolous lawsuits is expensive, so this will be a fundraiser, like much of what we do until this debt is retired. There’s no cost to watch us or ask us questions during the event, but donations to our GoFundMe and to Skepticon help us sleep better at night.

But for now, we celebrate! Please join us.

Carrier Victory Celebration

Interview with John Richards, Anti-Theism International Convention (Updated)

Have you been following the saga that is the new Anti-Theism International Convention? Probably not, so long story short: A new conference was set up in Britain to honor the legacy of Christopher Hitchens. It claimed to have very prestigious (brand new) awards and high tickets prices to match.

Then one of the organizers did an interview on YouTube to promote the conference, and the whole thing was bizarre. It was antagonistic, incoherent, and peaked with sexual assault apologetics that claimed all men had committed assault and involved a (probably joking) threat to assault the interviewer if he attended the conference. Yes, really.

When Hemant Mehta picked up the story, the convention’s other organizer showed up in the comments to say he’d fired the, er, outspoken organizer and was willing to be interviewed. So I did that, or at least I started to. I’m reproducing the exchange here, because edits, deletions, and out-of-order comments make it difficult to follow there. Comments here are posted in the order they occurred.

John Richards [comment edited after my response]: Hi Guys,

It’s John Richards here.

I’m the organizer of the Anti-Theism International Convention.
I hope you might be willing to hear what I’ve got to say about this subject…

Firstly, I’ve sacked Lance Gregorchuk.

Secondly, I have school age daughters and I do not want them to be sexually, physically or mentally abused, or in any way treated badly. NeIther do I want them to think they can get away with making false accusations in future. Continue reading “Interview with John Richards, Anti-Theism International Convention (Updated)”

Interview with John Richards, Anti-Theism International Convention (Updated)

“With Prejudice”

There may be no sweeter words in the English language. At least no sweeter words for someone who’s spent three years with lawsuits hanging over their head and cleaning out their pocketbook. (We haven’t actually updated this yet with the most recent costs.)

The Plaintiff asks the Court to apply equitable tolling in this case and find that the statute of limitations will not bar his claim. The Court declines to do so. “Courts have generally reserved the remedy of equitable tolling for circumstances which were truly beyond the control of the plaintiff.” Ousley v. Rescare Homecare, No. 4:13-CV-00898-SPM, 2013 WL 5966050(E.D. Mo. Nov. 8, 2013)(citing Hill v. John Chezik Imps., 869 F. 2d 112, 1124 (8th Cir. 1989)). Plaintiff filed the case in Ohio within the Ohio and Missouri statues of limitation. Defendant was aware of potential jurisdictional defects in his case by way of Defendants’ Motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction on December 1, 2016, well within the Missouri statute of limitations. See (ECF No. 6-8, at 2 Plaintiff’s Motion for Prospective Equitable Tolling). Plaintiff was also aware of the possibility of his claim being time-barred should the Court grant Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Id. at 1 (stating “Plaintiff… hereby moves this honorable Court to apply the doctrine of equitable tolling to toll the statute of limitations for one year, in the prospective event this Court might grant Defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction or for improper venue…”). Plaintiff has not argued that there was any impediment to him complying with the Missouri statute of limitation and has not indicated that anything prevented from filing in Missouri within Missouri’s two-year statute of limitation. Therefore, equitable tolling will not be applied in this case.

That’s one suit done. Two still to go. But one is done. Whew.

“With Prejudice”

Who Do You Think You Are? Gods?

In 2016, I took part in the Godless Perverts reading at Skepticon. The performance wasn’t recorded, which opened up the possibilities for more than one performer. It also means no one outside that room knows what I said there, until now.

I lucked out on sex education. My house was the place the other kids came to learn how babies were made and whether the things that were happening to their bodies and minds were normal. Me? I didn’t have to wonder. I had the information before I could ever get curious.

Now, of course, we were Minnesotan (fourth generation here), so that means we didn’t actually talk about any of this. It came out of books. That the books were radical says more about the time they were written than anything, about attempts to codify the openness of the Sixties and to prepare new generations to live in that open world. Though who knows? They might be radical again in a year or two.

Photo by wilecany.

That our house was the house for these books also says a lot. It says some things about poverty and education, given how and where I lived, but it also speaks to religion and shame. Strict rules around pleasure and sexuality were one of the reasons my parents abandoned organized religion and promised never to foist it on their children. Apparently eloping before their scheduled wedding just so they could fuck felt ridiculous even to them.

Those books and their place on our public bookshelves were part of their efforts to spare us what they went through. I don’t know whether we were supposed to find the books on the private bookshelves, the erotica and the sex guides. As I said, Minnesotan. But they served the same purpose.

I entered adolescence with a solid sense of sexual possibility. I can’t quite tell you how I reconciled that with being pathologically shy at the time, but I did get over the shyness. Continue reading “Who Do You Think You Are? Gods?”

Who Do You Think You Are? Gods?

David Silverman: Liar for the Defense

See updates at the end of this post.

Late summer is apparently the time of year when David Silverman gets a new website and a new story. Last year, it was Transformative Humanists of America. That was where the man who wanted everyone to identify as an atheist instead of humanist urged people to elevate forgiveness to the pinnacle of Humanist values.

If you want to know more than that, you’ll have to read about it at Pharyngula, since the domain itself has been surrendered. It’s okay, though. A new year brings a new rebranding.

Silverman is now apparently a “firebrand for good“. Of course, like “humanism”, “good” takes on its own meaning in Silverman’s hands. Looking at the site, it appears to mostly mean appearing on conservative TV. Oh. And saying, “Bitches be lying.”

I suppose the new site represents something of an improvement in intellectual honesty. He’s no longer arguing for forgiveness without mentioning that sexual assault is the thing he wants to be forgiven for. On the other hand, he’s now moved from preaching forgiveness to claiming he has nothing to be forgiven for.

His argument? Well, a whole bunch of people suddenly decided to lie about him. No, I don’t know what their motivation was supposed to be either. It doesn’t really matter, though, because he’s lying himself. He’s also very bad at keeping track of the lies he’s told.

Is that a strong claim? Yes, but I have evidence. Continue reading “David Silverman: Liar for the Defense”

David Silverman: Liar for the Defense

Ladies, Mind Your Manners

I was recently sent a copy of a column titled “He, Too” (pdf) from the September issue of The Rational Alternative, the newsletter of Atheists United in Los Angeles. Sadly, it’s not a call to remember that women and nonbinary people are not the only ones subject to harassment in the secular movement. It is, instead, a suggestion that #metoo is somehow obviating due process in the movement’s efforts to deal with sexual harassment and assault.

The first half of author Bobbie Kirkhart’s article is essentially summed up in one paragraph.

It is a sad surprise that the freethought community is tearing itself up over such accusations and denials. Unless the accused man confesses and apologizes immediately, our discussions on the allegations eat up much of our time and energy, destroy friendships and embarrass our movement. Although there is much emotion involved, I believe we can—and must—look at these things as the rationalists we are.

I suspect that Kirkhart means she’s distressed rather than genuinely surprised. I’ve been doing this too long to be surprised, and she’s been working in the movement longer than I have. I also disagree that confession of wrongdoing stops discussion and prevents strife. People expressing remorse for their actions are still told they have nothing to feel bad about when the subject under discussion is as politicized as harassment and assault are. I’d be a happier person if I’d never seen that happen, but I have.

Black and white, complicated flow chart of a process where every step has something to do with chickens or eggs.
Not all logic makes sense. “Chicken Chicken Flow” by healther vescent, CC BY 2.0

I do agree with Kirkhart that discussions on the topic could be more rational. The number of times I’ve seen an “argument” along the lines of “He’s nice to me/highly respected in his field/chased by other women, so he couldn’t have done that” is appalling. Harassers don’t harass everyone, and often groom others to stand up for them. We’ve seen many highly respected academics and business people turn out to be serial harassers. Harassment and assault don’t happen because people have no other choice; they are a choice. Literally none of those things are correlated with harassing people or not. Still the arguments fly with far too much of the secular movement.

Even more than rationalism, however, I would argue that the secular movement needs a heavy dose of empiricism on the topic of harassment and assault. In this respect, Kirkhart falls woefully short. Continue reading “Ladies, Mind Your Manners”

Ladies, Mind Your Manners

Reducing Barriers to Reporting Harassment

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With the conversations and reporting of #metoo showing no signs of slowing down, we’re being provided with a trove of information about the reporting of harassment: who is reporting, who isn’t, the social and institutional responses to harassment reports. This all means we’re able to see how serial harassers continue to function over time.

Sometimes, often, the problem is as simple as organizations and individuals with the power to make a difference failing in their responsibilities. At the Weinstein Company, executives helped Harvey Weinstein settle a multitude of harassment claims without taking him out of the position that facilitated that harassment. Outside the company, gossip columnists used him to advance their own careers while keeping his behavior out of the news. NPR News knew about Michael Oreskes behavior his entire tenure but didn’t fire him until it became public.

Several people who’ve come forward have also spoken about experiencing or fearing retaliation as a consequence of speaking up. Unfortunately, retaliation is a reasonable concern. It’s a common experience when reporting harassment in the workplace. An EEOC report suggests an overwhelming majority of those who report face retaliation from their employer or their peers.

Given that kind of response, it absurd to blame targets of harassment for not stopping their harassers from harassing again or even for not coming forward before now. If they stay quiet, they’re merely doing what we’ve trained them to do. The tsunami that is #metoo demonstrates that when conditions change, people are ready to report.

That means that those of us who have and enforce codes of conduct have the power to make harassment claims heard. Continue reading “Reducing Barriers to Reporting Harassment”

Reducing Barriers to Reporting Harassment

Because Ignoring It Worked So Well

Yesterday, an article was published in The Observer1 to let us all in on the exciting secret that Milo Yiannopolous likes attention. He even actively seeks it out.

Someone like Milo or Mike Cernovich doesn’t care that you hate them—they like it. It’s proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. It gives their followers something to talk about. It imbues the whole movement with a sense of urgency and action—it creates purpose and meaning.

You’re worried about “normalizing” their behavior when in fact, that’s the one thing they don’t want to happen. The key tactic of alternative or provocative figures is to leverage the size and platform of their “not-audience” (i.e. their haters in the mainstream) to attract attention and build an actual audience. Let’s say 9 out of 10 people who hear something Milo says will find it repulsive and juvenile. Because of that response rate, it’s going to be hard for someone like Milo to market himself through traditional channels. His potential audience is too spread out, and doesn’t have that much in common. He can’t advertise, he can’t find them one by one. It’s just not going to scale.

You’re shocked I know. Me too. I never would have guessed this before I saw people sharing it on Facebook in yet one more attempt to find an acceptable way to say, “Don’t feed the trolls.” I thought he was shy and retiring.

All right. That’s 100% obvious bullshit. Yiannopolous didn’t invent shock jockery. It’s not at all a new concept. We all know that protests draw attention to the thing or person being protested. We do it anyway, and for very good reason. Continue reading “Because Ignoring It Worked So Well”

Because Ignoring It Worked So Well