Just the other day I posted an article that I wrote on Using Privilege for Good to the South Africa subreddit, and man, was I underwhelmed with and disappointed by the response. From following the Programming subreddit for some time now, I was expecting some form of robust debate on the topic of my post. Worst case, I thought, my post would possibly be ignored (as is the internet's usual way of dealing with people whom they don't understand, or with whom they don't agree, or just don't care about, in my experience).
The response I got was for one user in particular to repeatedly lambaste me, mock me, and personally insult my intelligence in a public forum based on this person's misinterpretation and, in the best case, extremely pedantic, and in the worst case, shallow, purely theoretical understanding of the footnote in the article (I mean, FFS, it's a footnote).
His claims that my understanding of economics is akin to that of a child's, calling me "financially illiterate", and likening my thinking to that of "flat-earthers'", would be the kinds of comments at which anyone who genuinely knows me personally would burst out laughing due to their absurdity, or be disgusted. If I'd been the recipient of this sort of treatment in, for example, a meeting room full of my peers, I'm pretty confident I'd have a strong case for instituting a libel lawsuit against this individual. Not to mention the fact that, if this were a coworker, and they treated me like this in the company of others, I'd have a strong case to have them dismissed.
As a self-respecting individual, and not wanting the spirit of what I was trying to communicate in the post tainted by this person's verbal abuse over a completely unrelated, clearly misunderstood topic, I decided to remove the post, and all of my responses relating to it. But why go as far as to delete my account?
Being a moderator on a public forum like Reddit must be really challenging. Especially on a subreddit like the South Africa subreddit, where subterranean racist tendencies can easily slip out, as anonymity here seems to be a kind of grease that lubricates that pathway between people's innermost, deepest, darkest thoughts and their fingers on the keyboard. It's most likely a tightrope act at times, between the one extreme of facilitating hate speech, and the other of engaging in destructive censorship. Reddit is also a platform that, being initially birthed from the commendable ideologies of the late Aaron Swartz, has built itself a brand of being a place for robust, intense, open, often heated discussion and humour. As such, moderators are charged with a high degree of responsibility.
I'm pretty sure, however, that Aaron Swartz didn't build Reddit in the spirit of facilitating conversation such as the one that took place on that thread about my post. In fact, Reddit's own Content Policy has very specific guidelines as to what constitutes harassment:
Harassment on Reddit is defined as systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.
So after contacting the moderators on the South Africa subreddit, their response was simply that this user was being "condescending" as opposed to harassing, despite my repeated requests to the user to refrain from insulting me with every comment, and decided not to act in any meaningful way to deal with the issue. And they didn't have much hope that Reddit's global content monitoring team would feel any different.
Now, I'm pretty sure that as a moderator on that particular subreddit one sees a lot of crazy shit. So perhaps they are so desensitised to this kind of treatment of others that it hardly even makes them flinch. But, since I'd consider myself a pretty reasonable person (as would, I believe, anyone who knows me personally), and I'd conclude that, from this particular user's abusive treatment of me, that Reddit is most certainly not a safe platform for expressing one's ideas, those comments would be considered as harassing and bullying. In fact, one of the moderators stated outright that that subreddit, and Reddit in general, is not a safe place to express one's opinions (in complete contradiction to Reddit's own policy on harassment)1.
This, despite Reddit's apparent recent crackdown on abusive members.
This also got me thinking about a pretty common question that I've seen floating around the internet for a while: Why do people so often feel that they need to be abusive towards others on the internet? The majority of these people would most likely be very careful as to what they say in real life to other human beings, but somehow, acting from behind the comfort and safety of a computer screen, they feel as though they're empowered, and actually entitled, to be completely disrespectful to others.
There's a lot of debate over whether or not the internet should facilitate anonymity, and I personally believe that anonymity is a really good thing. But where there is anonymity, there needs to be a strong moderation team. A team that is capable of seeing verbal abuse for what it is, and vehemently stamping it out, deleting abusive posts and instructing those users to rephrase their comments in a form that is respectful. Of course, who moderates the moderators? That's a tough one, which is also why I understand why they'd rather err on the side of being too permissive in allowing people to say what they want, as opposed to being too restrictive. If there's a way for users to report censorship on the part of the moderators to a completely separate team (as I'm sure is the case with Reddit), then that would tend to go quite a long way to giving moderators more freedom to censor posts that are reported as being verbally abusive of others.
I'm perfectly open to the idea that I could be wrong on certain issues. If someone comes to me with a well-thought-out, rational argument, and I see the validity in what they're saying, I'm perfectly open to changing my mind on the issue.
What I won't stand for, however, is being verbally abused into having my mind changed. That is precisely the kind of response that would not change my mind, because there's nothing mature, admirable or trustworthy about a verbally abusive individual that would cause a self-respecting individual to change their mind on anything. I also refuse to support platforms that facilitate, and don't actively stamp out that kind of verbal abuse, which is ultimately why I deleted my Reddit account. I'll still most likely follow some of the more interesting subreddits (most likely not the South Africa subreddit), and will monitor the way that people interact with each other. If I feel that things have gotten better, I may eventually rejoin the conversation.
Let's please try to encourage a culture of online interaction that treats others with respect? And even more so if you're anonymous.
I have screenshots of the full interaction between myself and the moderators prior to my deactivation of my account, if anyone is interested. ↩