The latest imbroglio here at Freethought Blogs appears to be an ongoing systemic campaign of trolling and attempting to silence several voices via liberal application of a megaphone and a large and varied vocabulary of misogynist slurs and outright libel about certain individuals. One aspect of this campaign and one possible course of action that we’ve stumbled across, having had Franc Hoggle’s identity dropped into our laps by one of his real-life acquaintances, has repercussions that have drawn out a contingent of slimepit denizens to amp up the silencing campaign. I will refer herein to these crusaders collectively as “douchebags” or some variant thereupon.
So far, PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson have borne the brunt of the assault by the douchebags, though Stephanie Zvan is rapidly climbing the ranks of people being targeted. Greg Laden and I are thus far mere also-rans.
One of the things that I do around these parts is observe the larger knock-down drag-out fights, and pull out the side concerns — the little individual jabs and parries in conversations — and dissect them. During this ongoing fight, one of the largest bête noires raised by the douchetariat is the question of censorship. Specifically, that when one of them gets put into moderation for refusing to stay on topic or for outright flaming or spamming or otherwise disrupting conversation, they are being censored in violation of their freedom to douche publicly.
Of course, Freethought Blogs is a collection of… you guessed it. Blogs. And blogs are run by bloggers, who set the rules for conversation on what amounts to their own slice of cyberspace. They write, commenters comment, and when spam or other disruptive comments come along, they’re cleaned up, usually without any sort of complaint from the crowd. Where some topics might get particularly heated, and some commenters particularly abusive, certain comments may be moderated in such a way that some people believe their dissent is being squelched — censored, rather than moderated. This charge seems to uniformly come from the people who have no interest in civil discussion on points, preferring instead to derail or cast aspersions or namecall or distort aspects of the conversation that have already been tread and retread innumerable times.
I’ve had a conversation recently with someone who, while arguing that my anti-gun bias is irrational, repeatedly insulted me point-blank. I admonished him several times for doing so, until I was irritated enough that I left a final “this conversation is over”. He respected that, evidently, because the conversation did indeed die on the spot. This happened without my putting his name into the moderation list, and his dropping the subject at my request has actually gone a very VERY long way toward repairing the damage done to the bridge between us in my eyes.
Since joining Freethought Blogs and becoming a new bit of fresh meat for a cadre of Men’s Rights Activists that seem to hate this place so very much, I had to put a lesser member of the Douche Patrol by the name of DavidByron into moderation for his copious, meandering, insulting, crude and sometimes violent rhetoric. He is presently the only one on my moderation list, but I’m not saying I will limit my use of the moderation tools to only him. Prior to joining FtB, my blog was a generally quiet place, with a scant few trolls meriting moderation. Zdenny, a robotic Christian proselytizer who ran a singleminded anti-atheist campaign on my blog over the course of about four months; JTankers, a Large Hadron Collider doomsayer who was bound and determined to convince me and everyone that the LHC would destroy the world when it was turned on; and an animal rights activist who wanted to explode me (!) for supporting science. That’s about all I can remember. I think there was one more, but memory fails. That’s five total people who have abused the privilege of having unfettered access to the comments field on my blog.
In fact, I explicitly describe my policy on the right sidebar in the “contact me” box — if you post here, don’t expect a platform for proselytization. I will check that kind of behaviour with impunity, giving myself enough leeway to interpret that policy as I see fit. And as the blogger, as the guy whose space I have to maintain for the benefit of those who want to have conversations that don’t involve gratuitous use of slurs or incitement to hate, I have every right to run my blog the way I see fit. Ed was very clear while recruiting new bloggers to this space that each blog is its own kingdom, and we’re all just sharing the hardware.
Some people see moderating conversation as tantamount to censorship — as jackbooted thugs removing dissenting opinion, as Stasi knocking on your door at three in the morning and black-bagging you and tossing you in the back of their truck. This is, of course, patent nonsense. Just because the blog’s name is “freethought” does not mean “free to shit on the rug”, otherwise we’d be forced to, in honor of free speech, allow every bit of spam and hate speech quarter here. We don’t. Nobody really likes it when people dump stuff that’s off-topic into an ongoing conversation, drowning out the conversation with noise. We all strive, on all of our blogs, to keep the signal-to-noise ratio high enough in our conversations that such conversations are not derailed outright, are not silenced outright, are not diminished outright by the suggestion that something else is so far more important that it needs be discussed right now and no other concern (and especially not the topic of the post) should take precedence. And yet, with too heavy a hand, we might rob ourselves of all those lovely little bits of side nuance that might allow the conversation to grow organically. In most cases, this is fine. In the case of Stephanie’s “Elevatorgate Challenges”, her point was to explicitly demand the trolls who are continuing to troll Rebecca Watson over her “guys, don’t do that, it’s creepy” statement to consider some of the points that she, and others, were trying to make. It’s a measure of dirty pool, telling the trolls to actually listen and moderating those posts that don’t. But it was expressly the purpose of those challenges, and thus it is a method of improving the signal-to-noise ratio.
Putting people into moderation on one topic does not necessarily entail leaving them in there forever. Nor does it imply, expressly or obliquely, that every topic will be moderated in the same manner. And since our moderation tools are susceptible to people morphing some aspect of their name, email address, IP address, or what have you, to avoid said moderation, it’s an imperfect solution to assist webmasters in automatically modding people who have in the past abused their posting privileges.
The alternative is not, of course, to let the place become a free-for-all. While that would certainly draw more hits (and more hits equals more money by some people’s reckoning), while people fought it out in comments and the place became one large roiling barroom brawl, a lot of the point of having a space where we’re free to express opinions that are anathema to society at large is that we get to set the criteria by which people will be protected and for what opinions. We would not condone racist hate speech here any more than we condone sexist hate speech, and by moderating away the loudest trolls, we are providing a relatively safe space for members of those sexes and races. We are not shielding them from outside ideas, because they are exposed to those outside ideas every day. A woman will not be deprived of the thought that someone thinks they’re only worth the size of their boobs just because YOU don’t get to say it to them freely and in the space we’ve provided. The simple fact that you have your own space to spew that hatred makes this moderation nowhere approaching censorship.
You see, censorship actually has a meaning already. It is the systematic elimination of dissenting opinion from public discourse. This means more than simply moderating away the trolls when they’ve abused their privilege — it means going back and rewriting history so they never said any of the things that caused that outrage, retroactively scrubbing them from our space, then moving on to scrub them from their own space and any other future space they might find. These are the kinds of actions that a totalitarian government might take, and while a blog is a benevolent dictatorship where bloggers have the ability of shutting certain entities out of the conversation, they do not have the ability to censor these people on other blogs.
These fights are not new ones. They date back as far as the internet, and we’ve learned some excellent lessons from the days of Usenet if only we’re willing to apply them here — for instance, that leaving a specialized and specific topic completely unmoderated, means that topic will never get discussed.
Some parts of the internet are wholly free and wholly without moderation. Most of the “freer” ones, like 4chan or ERV’s undying slimepit threads are actually pretty heavily moderated, just in ways that you don’t necessarily notice because you’re not in the “oppressed group” — try posting kiddie porn on either one, and you’ll probably make your next post from your cell phone while in the back of an FBI cruiser, assuming they cuffed you in front. Try posting advertisements on either one, and see how long they stay up. And try posting a link to Greg Laden’s blog on ERV and you’ll probably end up in moderation waiting for Abbie to pull you out. Or, say, try posting something pro-black on the white power Stormfront forum. See how long it is before you get some very angry racists knocking on your door. And certainly we’d brook no, say, Mormon ministers joining up to blog about their epistemology, no matter how free our “freethought” happens to be. (And yes, I’m trolling the ad algorithms to see if I get the ad here.)
So it’s not like the “safe and free” places are complete free-for-alls either. And some otherwise valued members of a community can get their share of butthurt when the moderators’ eye turns to them for some of the more egregious things they say about certain other members, but if we can’t police ourselves and consider the greater good when outing the douchebags (a thankfully very small class of society) who are intent on hurting entire (much larger) classes of society, then we’re hamstringing conversation at the outset.
And sometimes, even the “taboo topics” are allowed on our blog spaces, and the moderation filters lifted. The need to vet every single post before it appears is rather onerous, and while some news outlets need to do that sort of thing, blogs generally don’t. You’ll notice that the Youtube videos and Christian blogs either moderate everything first, or simply disable all comments to avoid having to let through things that might confront their dogma. Blogs like FtB or ERV are free-posting by default, and moderate only specific commenters or topics at the discretion of the blog-owner. That some of us want to keep the signal to noise ratio high while not stifling organic conversation is a decidedly good thing, for the commenters who are actually interested in discussing these topics. It’s a decidedly bad thing for the people who are getting moderated, though, because their nastiness is something so ingrained into their identity that they don’t even recognize the kind of damage they’re doing to discourse by stifling dissent by megaphone, scaring off potential participants, instead of by fiat, by punishing such abuse.
So the only real question remaining is, how impartial can we as blog owners remain, to steward these places we’ve built for the commentariat? We’re members of the communities we’ve built, and we are all (ostensibly) adults around these parts, so we’d probably like to think that we can remain impartial while still protecting our community members and remain as inclusive as possible.
I welcome your thoughts on the matter. That doesn’t mean, however, you will get to tell me how that makes me a Stasi coming in the night to steal your freedoms. That kind of nonsense will earn you a moderation until you prove you can behave in my house and not break my shit. Posting comments is a privilege, and having that privilege revoked for misbehaviour is certainly very sad for you, but good for the rest of the adults.