There’s a topic I’ve been thinking about since the lead-up to the 2016 election¹: does r/changemyview (CMV) create a safe space for abhorrent views? Do we normalize and reinvigorate conversations already rejected by society? What is our responsibility, as a platform, with respect to each of these issues?
Occasionally, CMV users tell us we create a platform for some really bad views — the kinds of views traditionally considered shameful — even through the lens of diversified perspectives. Some examples are white supremacy, “biotruths” regarding race and gender, and categorizing homosexuality as a mental disorder. I would personally argue these views are rightly considered shameful. My personal views, however, do not grapple with best practices for moderation.
These are conversations that have been explored copiously, from nearly every angle imaginable and, in some cases, ratified by law only to be turned over by democratic processes or formal adjudication. In this case, one wonders, myself included, if there is any value to be had in relitigating these issues. In fact, there is a heightened concern that creating a space for these conversations allows them back into civil discourse, legitimizing and normalizing them. This, in turn, potentially gives them space to breathe and ultimately flourish.
I will flatly admit that I share this concern, especially in 2018. Political and cultural hostility is a tale as old as time (see also Adams and Franklin phhhbbtt). The reason why Internet platforms have come into the forefront is, I believe, for two main reasons: first, the speed at which we are bombarded with information has dramatically increased, and; second, the barrier to publishing information has significantly diminished, thus creating a wider breadth of comments/claims. The latter is extremely hard to moderate logistically, let alone discretionally. Taken together, this creates a unique manifestation of an otherwise old problem.
We have preliminary data showing some previously shunned views are now emboldened. While polarization is not direct evidence for specific views, they are a useful proxy from which we can make fair extrapolations. Other online forums for political debate are deeply partisan. White people and black people have fundamental disagreements on police brutality. Pew Research indicates Muslims fear intimidation – defined as a reasonable expectation of bodily harm – in numbers surpassing the immediate 9/11 era. Increased hostilities have not been limited to the United States.
None of these flash-points point to egregious views per se, but I’m highlighting them to indicate that, to the extent people have views, they are trending more extreme, and that these extreme views are likewise painting a portrait to others, the culminating effect of which is to make them fearful or, at the least, deeply anxious about their relative placement in society.
Pivoting back to reddit, various other subreddits have been deconstructed with an eye towards low quality and/or highly polarized online discussion. Maintstream outlets have explored the intersection between extremist, often “alt-right” political views and reddit:
(Unfortunately, but topical, the FiveThirtyEight article warns for slurs, as will I.)
And that top five isn’t exactly pretty, though it does support the theory that at least a subset of Trump’s supporters are motivated by racism. The presence of r/fatpeoplehate at the top of the list echoes some of President Trump’s own behavior, including his referring to 1996 Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado as “Miss Piggy” and insulting Rosie O’Donnell about her weight. The second-closest result, r/TheRedPill, describes itself in its sidebar as a place for “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men”; named after a scene from the “The Matrix,” the group believes that women run the world and men are an oppressed class, and from that belief springs an ideology that has been described as “the heart of modern misogyny.” r/Mr_Trump self-describes as “the #1 Alt-Right, most uncucked subreddit” — referring to a populist white-nationalist movement and an increasingly all-purpose insult meant to denigrate others’ masculinity — and the appallingly named r/coontown is the now-banned but previously central home to unrepentant racism on Reddit. Finally, coming in at No. 5 is r/4chan, a subreddit dedicated to posting screenshots of threads found on 4chan, where many users supported Trump for president and where the /pol/ board in particular has a strongly racist bent.
To CMV’s credit, our media deep dives have been positive², but that’s not self-executing. It takes a lot of introspection about our role, rules, and moderation framework to create the necessary forum – and I do believe it is necessary to have these conversations – where we can talk about all of these tough issues without glorifying the underlying views.
The risk of validating views absolutely exists. I do believe that, as a moderation team, we should be mindful of how our curation impacts the perception of what reddit audiences believe to be fair-minded, critical conversations. I don’t purport to represent the whole of the moderation team in this respect, but I do think it’s safe to say we share an acute awareness of how our impact here grows as our subreddit does.
The place I’ve come to is: people very rarely want benevolent views changed. CMV could not exist as a place for critical discourse if we tried to create a superficial impression that people only have pedestrian or typical views. On the contrary, we consider it more likely that someone is trolling or looking to push a view (“soapbox”) if they come in with a view most people share. It begs the question why one wants that view changed. I get why a self-identified white supremacist wonders why s/he might be wrong; most people, at least publicly, advocate for equality. That is a clear catalyst for questioning one’s position.
But why would someone want to change their view on, to use a real example, equality of races? Is it possible? Sure. Is it probable? I don’t think so, and while we wouldn’t remove this thread automatically, it would likely deserve higher scrutiny. It is suspicious in the sense that there is an even better probability that this person is posting the opposite of their view in the original post so they can bolster and increase visibility of that opposite view in the comments.
With this heightened likelihood of publicly sharing a “shameful” view, I would rather create a place of deliberate contemplation and critical thinking where this view is exposed to contrary evidence. Our value system ultimately drills down to engendering an ethos of thoughtful critique. We don’t always succeed at this but the moderators do try to be self-critical, regularly step back from our work, and revise our method based on shared learned experiences navigating these waters.
It certainly creates a risk of normalizing these views and creating a “safe” space, but only if we insulate these users from the civic consequences of their behavior. That is, it is only “safe” if we allow them to share without engagement. Ours is not a safe space for like-minded people in the sense that we advocate the same substantive views. It is a safe space for people to talk candidly and respectfully, to forcefully push-back on ideas so long as one recognizes this is a two-way street of presuming good faith until proven otherwise. It is perhaps our most valued first principle, and it is the compact made between users and moderators each time we participate in CMV.
My view hasn’t changed 180 degrees, but that also captures an element we embed in our delta system: having a good conversation doesn’t require a “gotcha” moment where you lose and your entire worldview is toppled; it simply requires gaining an additional insight that impacts your view. Where I’ve landed is that I am cautiously guarded when I see these threads advocating a “bad” view, but I nevertheless operate by the Principle of Charity: I assume good faith and rationality until a poster gives me a reason not to, and leave it to our users to thoughtfully and creatively critique those views. My responsibility is to curate and cultivate an environment that reinforces an understanding of nuance, but also a willingness to speak up when something is clearly abhorrent and explain why someone should change their mind.
¹ Posting about these thoughts was spurred, in part, by this podcast conversation between Katie Couric and Recode’s Kara Shwisher. It echoes a lamentation I hear frequently about Internet conversations, which is that they lack nuance and fail to appreciate the multi-faceted qualities of just about every human being.
² “Our Best Hope for Civil Discourse Online Is…Reddit” by Virginia Heffernan, Wired.com; “On the Other Hand” by Tim Adams, The Guardian; Our Minds Have Been Hijacked by Our Phones. Tristan Harris Wants to Rescue Them” by Nicholas Thompson, Wired.com.