I want to expand a bit on Flavia’s recent post discussing the Foxnewsification of the Internet and ideas about ‘all points of view being valuable’ and needing to be aired on blogs. Discussions like this inevitably bring up cries of ‘free speech’ from people who apparently don’t understand how free speech works; as was pointed out, a comment section is more like a letters to the editor page. It is thoughtfully curated by staff who read all the letters, consider them, and decide which should be published.
Those letters may well include opposing views, as well as expansions upon the discussion or more topical letters. Newspapers are not accused of violating free speech rights when they decline to publish letters to the editor; The New York Times, for example, didn’t violate my rights when they declined to publish an op-ed I recently submitted. Likewise, the comment sections on blogs, on online newspaper articles, and in other areas of the Internet, are not free speech zones. Because they are published by private entities, not governments, and we have no obligation to publish all views. You have a right to speak: That doesn’t create a correlating obligation to publish. (If it did, imagine how much bad poetry would clutter The New Yorker.)
Especially when those views are actively hateful. One of the problems with moderating comments on sites that deal with social justice issues is that often, the comments that come in are really, really awful. Or they are walking a fine grey line that the commenter is hoping to push over. As a moderator, I feel that one of my obligations is not just in the creation of a safe(r) space, but in the creation of a space where actual discussion and conversation can take place. Discussion that must include marginalised communities, particularly those that may be the subject of a post or prompt.
For example, in my recent post on Lowe’s and anti-Muslim attitudes, it was very important to me to make sure that comment thread was a space where Muslim readers would feel comfortable. Where they could skim down through the comments and not encounter hate speech, or sketchy comments that would make them feel uncomfortable even if they weren’t outright abusive. Where they would feel welcome to participate in the conversation and add their own thoughts. To make, in other words, an inclusive space. Flavia and I often discuss this over email; people want to know where the feminists of colour are, for example, when their comment threads are teeming with racism and people don’t want to read them, let alone comment in them.
The creation of comment threads where functional discussion can happen isn’t just about eradicating spam, or pointless comments that don’t add to the discussion, or derailing, or outright hate speech. It’s also about selectively choosing not to publish comments that could potentially steer that conversation into a direction that makes it unsafe for readers. As a moderator at FWD/Forward, for example, it was very important to me that the conversation centre the voices of people with disabilities at all times, that it be not just a disability-friendly space, but, explicitly, a disability space.
We got a lot of angry email demanding to know why we didn’t publish comments from caregivers, from parents, from nondisabled people with Thoughts on disability. And the answer, simply, was that there are lots of other places for those thoughts to be expressed, and very few public spaces with a curated conversation where people with disabilities can feel like they are not just part of the conversation, but actually are the conversation. Where this conversation can take place in public so people can learn from it. Where, as the great Elon James puts it, people can Have A Seat and do some thinking rather than talking.
Likewise, on other social justice sites, the focus is often not the people with privilege who want to comment on how something makes them feel, but the people actually experiencing marginalisation who want to discuss their experiences, who want to work in solidarity, who want to discuss ways to fight the institutional systems that surround and ensnare us. And who want to be able to have that conversation in a public venue to add to the resources available.
Which means, yeah, I often decline to publish comments not necessarily because I think they are actively offensive or there is something specifically wrong with them, but because they don’t add to a conversation in a meaningful way and bring the focus of the conversation back on to people with privilege. There are plenty of spaces where those people can have those conversations, and they are welcome to have them, but I don’t necessarily want to host them or be responsible for curating them. I especially am not interested in entertaining ‘devil’s advocate’ arguments, because I find them deeply offensive and they seem to be a favourite little trick among some privileged commenters on the Internet.
The thing about the devil’s advocate is that people appear to misunderstand its function, and primarily seem to want to use it as an excuse to stealthily advance oppressive views. They triumphantly advance some sort of hypothetical situation and expect me to entertain it as a serious ‘argument,’ a contribution to the discussion, when their input was neither asked for nor desired. They are talking in hypotheticals about the lived experience of other people who may be attempting to participate in a comment thread, and they seem to want some sort of praise for it, for creating, in effect, an unsafe space while attempting to cloak themselves in ‘just wanting to spark discussion.’
When I enter a thread where a ‘devil’s advocate’ (invariably nondisabled) is suggesting that we entertain a discussion on whether we should kill disabled babies because they’ll be a burden later in life, for example, that’s a sign that the thread is unsafe for me. It’s not a thread I want to read, it’s not a thread I want to comment on. It’s certainly not a thread I would host. Yet, a lot of social justice sites do end up hosting threads like this, because they feel an obligation to entertain all views, to give everyone a right to speak.
As Flavia puts it:
For many commenters, discussing oppression is an intellectual exercise. So, they leave comments without even considering that for many people these are not ‘intellectually stimulating debates’ but real, daily experiences. This is particularly notable in those who like to play ‘devils advocate’ and claim they do so because they find the ensuing debate ‘fascinating’. What is fascinating for them, is painful and harmful for a whole lot of people.
Everyone needs to moderate comments in the way that works best for them (and I’d note that each of us at Tiger Beatdown moderates slightly differently and has different curatorial goals), but it’s telling that there continues to be a widespread belief that all ‘reasonable’ comments should be entertained. As Flavia puts it, though, ‘Any point of view that actively seeks to alienate, oppress or bully someone does not deserve to be exposed.’ And she’s right. These are not reasonable comments. They are comments that make spaces unsafe and interfere with functional conversation.
These decisions are, as Sady pointed out when we discussed this issue, purely subjective. Sometimes we make mistakes; we delete comments that are totally fine because something about them just rubs us the wrong way or we didn’t read closely or we think a question wasn’t being asked with good intentions in mind. There’s sometimes internal disagreement about how to read a comments; one of us may find it offensive while others don’t see it, which illustrates how subjective moderating can be. Sometimes we’re logging in to moderate from the gate at the airport and we’re skimming fast to try and get the comments queue cleared and some hasty and less than ideal decisions happen. Sometimes that results in inadvertently suppressing conversation or closing down a potential avenue of discussion. Ultimately, judgement calls sometimes result in errors in judgment and missed opportunities.
Erring on the side of caution isn’t 100% successful 100% of the time.
As moderators, as curators, especially as people who sometimes host discussions about groups which we are not a part of (I am not Muslim, for example), it is critical to make commenting threads places where actual productive conversation can occur. And that means taking responsibility for their contents, choosing to create a space where people feel comfortable participating. That means carefully reading and considering comments, just like letters to the editor, and deciding which to publish. Yes, it is work. It is a lot harder to read and approve comments than to let most things through, to not moderate at all, or to wait for people to complain before taking action. But it results in a space where people can feel like they are actually wanted in the conversation.
This idea makes some people uncomfortable; sites that heavily moderate are criticised for doing so. However, I’m actually quite comfortable with making privileged people uncomfortable, because my job isn’t to comfort them. My job is to facilitate a space where people can participate safely in a discussion and know that the chances of being marginalised, dismissed, attacked, and abused are greatly reduced because there’s a responsible person at the helm looking out for them. That doesn’t mean I always succeed, but I owe it to people to try.