Should Atheist/Freethought Websites, Forums and Blogs moderate user-generated Content?
Most of my fellow freethinkers recognize the need for some degree of moderation, especially those who are actually involved in building such online resources. A few, however, seem to be under the impression that the answer to the above question is a resounding ‘NO’. I think that their concerns are misguided, ill-informed and counter-productive to the very benefits that they (and other freethinkers) gain from such online portals for atheists/skeptics. Such a position is usually the result of a faulty understanding of freedom of speech, together with lack of a complete understanding of the diverse goals of the freethought movement and the range of challenges faced by freethinkers and freethought groups worldwide.
The purpose of this post is:
1. To present to those freethinkers who are not actively involved in promoting freethought the reasons for why much of their conventional thinking about censorship does not apply when dealing with certain types of distractions on sites and social networks that are dedicated to promoting freethought.
2. To discuss ethical guidelines for censorship on online portals that cater to freethinkers.
Note: I use ‘atheism’ and ‘freethought’ interchangeably in this post, depending on the context. Freethought has a larger focus that atheism, transcending the god question as an identity marker. But usually it is atheism that precipitates the initial break from religious/superstitious modes of thought, and it deserves to be addressed on its own terms.
Section 1. Freethought Groups
The Politics of Identity:
The first thing to do is to make clear what ‘Freethought’ means. Contrary to what most people think, the word ‘freethought’ does not simply represent the meaning implied in the coming together of the words ‘Free’ and ‘Thought’. ‘Freethought’ is a concept that has been around for about 300 years. It refers to a set of philosophies that adopt science, reason and logic as tools for understanding the natural world, rejecting sources of authority and tradition such as religion that claim infallible truth and require blind allegiance. The Freethinker magazine was first published in England in 1881 and is still around as a website. Today, the word ‘freethought’ is used as an umbrella term encompassing a number of ideas such as skepticism, the scientific method, naturalism, atheism, rationalism, humanism etc.
A common misconception is that freethought implies treating all ideas equally. This could not be farther from the truth. Freethinkers are extremely discriminatory of bad ideas, and adopt a refined reasoning process in judging factual claims.
Organized promotion of freethought is a political ideology, even if freethought itself is not. The process of building a culture of freethought involves first creating communities of freethinkers- people who can find and communicate with each other, while living amongst the masses of people who are not freethinkers. Once these communities begin to come together online (and off), much good can be accomplished through activism. This includes campaigning to establish equal rights and representation in society for all freethinkers/atheists/non-religious people, campaigning to be protected from discrimination based on religious belief, to end religion-based educational exceptions for government-funded public schools, to end tax exemptions for religious causes, and campaigning to get rid of the dangerous, pseudoscientific and superstitious practices that plague our culture.
Most freethinkers are wary of all ideologies. These are not usually the ones that are politically motivated towards promoting freethought, although they do benefit from the efforts of those who are.
Those freethinkers who are actively involved in the freethought movement (the politically motivated ones) are a special breed. Many of them believe there is an urgent need for us to promote freethought as an identity. Their reasons can vary, from ridding society of the religion disease, to promoting a science and reason based approach to celebrating life. The majority of freethinkers who participate in online communities that cater to their tastes are doing so at the time and expense of those freethinkers who are involved in creating and running these communities. This is exactly what these activists want, but the fact that the non-activist freethinkers are involved in the communities without being part of their upkeep and public-relations means that they are often unaware of the practicalities involved in organizing such groups.
Freethought Groups are comprised of Political Minorities:
Since the beginning of recorded history, organized superstition has been the dominant force providing meaning to primitive cultures. There has always been tremendous pressure from within cultures to conform to the religious and superstitious cultural codes that held primitive societies together. This pressure was expressed in the form of religious persecution, targeting the superstitions of outsiders as well as the beliefs of the minority of people who rejected superstitions of all kinds.
When a group of people are systematically targeted for their beliefs (or lack thereof), a fair amount of protection is deserved. At a fundamental level, it is the survival of the group, the ideas it is founded on, and its members, that is at stake. The quality of content provided by a community is affected by how much protection from bullies the community can guarantee its members. In the face of the religious bullies, some types of freethought groups need to be heavily protected. These include the ones whose sole purpose it is to increase interaction and sense of community between those people who already identify as freethinkers.
Certain rules of conduct are extremely important within freethought groups because freethinkers form an oppressed minority. The terms of engagement are by default different within these groups from what they are in society at large. This is something that the majority groups like to contest. They cannot stand protectionist attitudes among those who threaten their ideology. All ideas must be debated in the free-market of ideas, and sometimes protection of minority groups is essential to making sure that the free-market of ideas remains relatively free.
Note: Organized Freethought is a socio-political ideology embraced by a minority of the public, but Freethought is not in itself a minority worldwide. Indeed, the ‘non-religious’ category is second only to Christianity in raw numbers, although this is not yet cause for celebration.
The Internet and the Great Atheist Convergence
For thousands of years freethinkers have been unable to coordinate with each other in order to affect social and political change. Quite often, as in the case of great civilizations with populous cities where such interaction would have been possible in theory, this lack of organized freethought was a result of the conformative pressure imposed on the masses by the religious traditions of the day.
The internet has changed all that. Today it is possible for people to belong to large online communities where all members of the communities reject the organized superstitions that surround them in the real world, and strive to replace them with meaningful, moral and effective alternatives. For the first time in the history of humankind we are able to organize in our opposition to religion. This is the Great Atheist Convergence. It scares the hell out of some believers. They see scores of atheists getting together to build a community they can call their own, and centuries of oppressive and divisive ideology drives these religionists to disrupt the work being done. The Great Atheist Convergence must be protected against these trolls.
Note: Atheism and freethought are not inherently divisive. The reason freethought deserves a distinct socio-political identity is because freethinkers are an oppressed minority. In a world without organized superstition there would be no need for organized freethought. Reason and compassion would suffice in organizing human communities.
Section 2. Trolls
Defining the Troll
“Troll” is a generic name for a type of internet user. The original meaning of the word comes from its use on the Usenet forums years ago to denote someone who posts with the intention of eliciting a large number of emotional, angry or frivolous replies (among others). Today the word applies to different types of disruptive online behavior.
Here is the Wikipedia definition:
“In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion”
Howstuffworks defines ‘troll’ in an even more general form:
“A troll can be anyone who aims to disturb communication or ruin someone’s mood or experience while online.”
This is a pretty broad definition that can be further refined and then applied to the freethought movement.
Not all Trolls are Alike
Phil Elmore, a writer and martial arts instructor, has written the most comprehensive guide to internet trolls. His analysis divides trolls into 31 different types, many of them overlapping . The one thing in common among all these types of trolls is that their ultimate goal is to disrupt the communities that they troll. But their methods can vary greatly. Some trolls are unintentionally so. They are just trying to be themselves, seeking to understand and be understood, while in actuality their behavior puts them in troll territory. Other trolls are decidedly inclined to disrupt the groups that they target. There are entire communities online where trolls gather to boast about their achievements and plan their conquests. Experienced trolls provide newbie trolls with guidelines and advice, and the “art of trolling” evolves as the internet provides these trolls with new niches to sabotage.
Most people are unaware of how diverse trolls are in their tactics and behaviors. Very often, the actions of a troll who is laying out the foundation for one or more of the different types of troll attacks, might not seem indicative of trollish behavior to most people. For example, one type of deceptive troll may pretend to support the political or cultural agenda of the online community s/he is targeting, but will persist in subtly pushing her/his disruptive agenda. In such cases, it is important for members of the targeted community to recognize what is going on.
Trolls have a hefty bag of tricks to unleash on the communities they attack. Some trolls use proxy servers or other methods such as special software to hide their IP addresses from the administrators of the forums that they register on. The email address used may be fake. They may create multiple accounts, or cross-post the same thing on multiple forums, hoping for a nibble. Often it takes an experienced forum user or moderator to identify the trolling behavior, and in many cases the damage has already been done before the troll is discovered.
Trolls on Freethought Groups
In the context of the freethought movement, most of the trolls are Contrarian Trolls that fit into many of the other categories of trolls, but rarely are they part of an organized attack strategy. Nevertheless, their impact can be just as devastating to the freethought groups that they target.
Here are the defining characteristics of contrarian trolls, as compiled by Elmore:
A sophisticated breed, Contrarian Trolls frequent boards whose predominant opinions are contrary to their own. A forum dominated by those who support firearms and knife rights, for example, will invariably be visited by Contrarian Trolls espousing their beliefs in the benefits of gun control. It is important to distinguish between dissenters and actual Contrarian Trolls, however; the Contrarian is not categorized as a troll because of his or her dissenting opinions, but due to the manner in which he or she behaves:
– Contrarian Warning Sign Number One: The most important indicator of a poster’s Contrarian Troll status is his constant use of subtle and not-so-subtle insults, a technique intended to make people angry. Contrarians will resist the urge to be insulting at first, but as their post count increases, they become more and more abusive of those with whom they disagree. Most often they initiate the insults in the course of what has been a civil, if heated, debate to that point.
– Contrarian Warning Sign Number Two: Constant references to the forum membership as monolithic. “You guys are all just [descriptor].” “You’re a lynch mob.” “You all just want to ridicule anyone who disagrees with you.”
– Contrarian Warning Sign Number Three: Intellectual dishonesty. This is only a mild indicator that is not limited to trolls, but Contrarians display it to a high degree. They will lie about things they’ve said, pull posts out of context in a manner that changes their meanings significantly, and generally ignore any points for which they have no ready answers.
– Contrarian Warning Sign Number Four: Accusing the accusers. When confronted with their trolling, trolls immediately respond that it is the accusers who are trolls. Often the Contrarian will single out his most vocal opponent and claim that while he can respect his other opponents, this one in particular is beneath his notice.
– Contrarian Warning Sign Number Five: Attempts to condescend. Pursued by Troll Bashers (see Natural Predators below), the Contrarian will seek refuge in condescending remarks that repeatedly scorn his or her critics as beneath notice – all the while continuing to respond to them.
– Contrarian Warning Sign Number Six: One distinctive mark of Contrarian Trolls is that every thread in which they dissent quickly devolves into a debate about who is trolling whom. In the course of such a debate the Contrarian will display many of the other Warning Signs mentioned above.
Contrarian warning sign behaviors may be shared by other breeds.
It must be noted that not all trolls that visit freethought sites are religious trolls, but most of them are. There are trolls that are peddling all sorts of conspiracy theories, and then there are trolls that accuse real scientific theories of being conspiracy theories. There are even atheist trolls that get off on disrupting their own communities, because of various disagreements or differences of opinion! Like all trolls, the main goal of trolls in freethought communities is to disrupt. Their target is the spirit of inquisitiveness, the hunger for knowledge, the mutual respect of people, the open criticism of ideas and the egalitarian framework that defines such communities.
Here is a list of disruptive strategies intended to abuse atheist/freethought communities. Every atheist/freethinker who participates on online forums must read and be familiar with the methods of such trolls. It is very difficult for us freethinkers to not take the bait when the arguments are so absurd, but that is exactly what these trolls are counting on.
Fortunately, there are people willing to give their time and resources to keeping trolls away from the community. Let’s see what roles the moderators play in maintaining these community spaces for freethinkers online.
Section 3. Moderating Freethought
Free-Speech and Rights
There is some confusion among the general public on the distinction between the concept of free-speech and the conditional limitations on its practice.
The common understanding about freedom of speech in a democracy is that all its forms should be protected unless physical harm is implied (with a few exceptions, such as for cases involving minors and sexually explicit material). This sort of freedom of speech is considered a fundamental right of all citizens. Most freethinkers respect such rights, and some may even think of them as the foundations of a free society. However, the right to free-speech is conditional on other fundamental rights, such as the right to owning property.
Here are some examples of this distinction: You may be free to write what you want to, but you may not use my pencil or keyboard to write it unless I permit you to do so. You may be free to talk about the importance of religion, but you may not expect to air your views on the BBC, unless they want you to. You may be free to sing Church songs all day long, but you may not barge into my living room and unleash your oh-so-blessed hymns on me.
In the case of moderating freethought, the trolls may be free to say what they want, but they may not expect a private entity to provide them with a platform to express their views. In practice, their rights are conditional upon finding an accepting medium for them to express themselves.
Freedom of speech allows one to say what one wants without the intent to cause harm, but the right to freedom of speech is conditional upon finding a platform to air one’s views.
The fact that the promotion of freethought is a socio-political ideology requiring moderation of user-posted content, requires that there be a political infrastructure to build and enforce the protections that nurture each community. Freethought groups can be classified into many different types based on their political infrastructure. The most egalitarian ones are not always the most rewarding, from the perspective of promoting freethought and providing moral and more satisfying social/cultural alternatives to religion. But the egalitarian approach to managing online communities can be very effective, provided a sense of fairness and community spirit is guaranteed.
The Open Source community is the best example of an egalitarian framework for managing online communities. The Linux OS communities and certain blog/forum software communities such as the ones for wordpress and MyBB are good examples of these. Such communities usually operate under a hetearchical organizational structure where each individual user is also an independent agent acting on her/his own imperative to create innovation and foster change. Individuals may collaborate with other individuals and actively seek common solutions to common problems. Crowdsourcing strategies emerge in such groups as a means of getting the most labor intensive work done with relatively little individual input and practically no centralized command. In such groups, the political infrastructure is built on strong bonds that develop due to dynamic relationships between members of the group. There may be hierarchical elements in a hetearchy, but the group exercises power through a participation-merit system. Thus the system maintains fairness while being effective in achieving its goals. In such a system, the rules of engagement are agreed upon through mutual agreement, weighted by degree of participation in the group.
Drawing the Line
The problem with moderation of user-generated content on community websites is that there is no objective line that can wholly decide what is acceptable user-content and what is not. Censorship, even if done in a fair manner, must have public oversight and be transparent to help maintain the healthy community spirit that fairness brings. There is, however, no fix-all solution to this problem. There will be cases where people will feel they have been treated unfairly. To avoid these as much as possible, certain general guidelines for conduct may be put in place. Here are a few guidelines that were put together for the Nirmukta facebook group. What is also important is that the guidelines must be decided upon after discussion between members of the community. While deciding upon the guidelines for the Nirmukta facebook group, we had a proper discussion between the members of the group. Such member involvement creates the sense of fairness required for building a thriving community.
The Goals of the Community
The goals of the freethought group are key to deciding on the type of moderation to be enforced. These goals are varied, but we can classify freethought groups into two broad categories based on their goals.
1. Groups that aim to build bring together freethinkers and allow them to discuss amongst themselves about the issues that concern them.
2. Groups that aim to educate and have a conversation with the general public.
Most groups are a mixture of these two broad categories.
The groups that we are most concerned about here are of the former kind, which provide a valuable service to a disenfranchised sub-population consisting of people who do not subscribe to the mainstream delusions that dictate everyday social norms. These groups require a greater deal of moderation in order to foster the qualities that are required for the groups to be effective in fulfilling their stated goals. Such groups are more common in the developing world where the activists orchestrating the freethought movement are not as public about their activism as their counterparts in the West. It is important for such activists to be able to criticize local superstitions without being overrun by the majority around them who are credulous believers. It is equally important for such activists to be able to share their experiences with others like themselves, and find a supportive community with like-minded individuals. A third important reason for why such groups deserve to be protected from disrupters is that they allow for, strategizing, coordination and planning between members of the group in dealing with common problems.
The second type of group requires moderation of a different sort. Since in these cases the point is to actively seek conversations with believers, the brunt of the moderation must focus on maintaining a civil and mutually beneficial tone, free of personal attacks and obnoxious behavior. These groups may be moderated much less than the former type. Some types of groups that fall into this category, such as groups that come together on social-bookmarking sites, are operate solely by user-discretion. This is possible with large online freethought groups and websites that cater to an international audience. In the most successful of these groups, trolls are dealt with quite easily by the members of the community, without requiring much moderation by the group admins.
No amount of preparation and alert moderation can prevent anti-social religious elements from attacking us for organizing online and demystifying their irrational beliefs. These attempts by religionists and the like to derail the progress of reason will only get bolder and more urgent as people worldwide become more educated and less superstitions, and as traditional religions lose their grip on the populace. We have already been seeing the effects of rising fundamentalism across the globe, and it is predicted that religions will continue to get more polarized into fundamentalists and moderates in the near future, as science and reason drive a wedge between them. Things will get worse before they get better. It is clear that the success of the entire freethought enterprise depends on our ability to deal with those whose intent it is to disrupt our communities.