Social Justice and Fire Alarms

Janet Bloomfield is a writer for A Voice For Men and has a website called JudgyBitch. I rarely browse these kinds of websites, so had no idea who she was. If she didn’t write for A Voice For Men I would default to suspecting that she’s a feminist writer, because including ‘bitch’ in your name is a trope of feminist writing, e.g. Bitch magazine.

Jessica Valenti is the founder of the social justice website, which is a website I usually find when skimming and think is something related to fisting and end up disappointed, every time. This is primarily how I know who she is, because I’ve been linked to this website more times than a person should, which is any, and now she apparently writes for The Guardian. This is the same organization that exposed the News of the World phone hacking affair, the same organization that mirrored the Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta, and the same organization under which Richard Gott met and took benefits from the KGB. Whether they’ve been right or embarrassingly wrong, the Guardian’s rightness or wrongness has concerned issues a person would usually consider important or high-impact, so when the feministing chick has a column there I’m surprised that they thought this was a good idea. I’m not surprised that they want to make money, which is definitely what they will do, and collective credibility is a myth anyway; the addition of one author doesn’t affect the rightness or wrongness of what other writers publish. But The Guardian is a publication that I assume does believe in some sort of collective credibility, so you’d think they’d care. Or not?

Feminists hate Janet Bloomfield a lot, which doesn’t surprise me at all. She is ideologically similar to Paul Elam, who feminists hate on principle, but unlike Paul Elam Janet Bloomfield is a woman, and an extremely common assertion by feminists is that they represent women’s interests or that all women / most women either support feminism or should be supporting feminism, so when a woman with 15,000 followers loudly says feminism doesn’t represent her, this is the worst thing she can do. An extremely valuable rhetorical weapon is the equation of ‘antifeminist’ and ‘misogynist’ or ‘pro-feminist’ and ‘pro-woman’, similar to the equation of ‘pro-choice’ and ‘anti-life’ or ‘anti-abortion’ and ‘pro-life’, because unless you are the real-world equivalent of Kefka from Final Fantasy no one is actually ‘anti-life’ but this is a powerful word to describe your opponents with even if it is not true. So if you want to keep “antifeminism” and “misogyny” equated,  you need virtually everyone who is antifeminist to be male, because if a loud portion of people who are antifeminist are women then you look absurd saying they are “misogynist” as this is tantamount to saying “these women hate women”, which they clearly do not if they themselves are women; you can get away with saying a few women are self-hating, but claiming women in equal proportion to you hate themselves makes your claims look implausible, which people invested in the ‘pro-woman’ label realize, so they work to preserve this dynamic for as long as possible.

Janet Bloomfield apparently misquoted Jessica Valenti with “deliberate and malicious libel”, which led feminists to report her account a lot, which led Twitter to remove her account. Given the paragraph you just read I should mention this news is from a blog that “tracks and mocks the New Misogyny online” and I guess Janet Bloomfield is a hater of herself. Well, okay. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that ‘tracking’ and ‘mocking’ are about the opposite kind of vibes, in that if you’re tracking something you look obsessive and ‘mocking’ is something I associate with casual indifference. The website banner says “THE NEW MISOGYNY, TRACKED AND MOCKED,” like I’m supposed to be reading these things and shouting “YEAH BITCH, MOCKED.” Whatever though man, I don’t know who you are but you have 10,000 twitter followers so there’s obviously money in the Black Ops Against Misogyny Plus Jokes game.

This happened in 2014; it is 2015, and I only just now learned who Janet Bloomfield is, so I’m obviously missing some nuances of this event. But I am not writing about this to give you some update on the situation. There are important aspects of what happened to Janet that are part of a much larger problem with dialogue and especially dialogue over social media. None of these problems pertain solely to Janet, but understanding what happened to Janet is helpful toward understand how the problem can manifest.

These are Janet Bloomfield’s words describing what she did:

“I used Poe’s Law to attribute a few false but utterly plausible quotes to her, and sure enough, she replied.”

Poe’s law (in reference to Nathan Poe, original use here) stipulates that without an indication of intent, you will not know if an extremist author is sincere or parodying extremism. In everyday discussion it refers to when an argument has an equal chance of being ironic or serious. It’s had some resurgence due to the prevalence of sociopolitical debates on the internet, where given any position there is always a much more radical and poorly reasoned position that someone will advocate with utter seriousness. You might think “men should be castrated and only allowed to reproduce when those who they formerly oppressed say they can” or “feminism is a purge happening under America’s eyes” are positions someone would never argue because they are transparently ridiculous and the kind of thing you would say as a joke, but there is someone, somewhere, on reddit or tumblr or elsewhere who has argued these positions with complete seriousness, so if you encounter this position organically you are unable to differentiate sincerity from satire.

If we take Janet at her word, then she was effectively practicing parody. I make up quotes of other people when I am making fun of them, and other people do it to me when making fun of me, because this is a joke and jokes are funny.

“I freebase krokodil from my butt and all of my fingers are penises.” — Alfred MacDonald

There. This sort of thing is harmless. It could be harmful if you were doing this to accuse someone of a crime, but as far as I’m aware that’s not what Janet is doing; instead, Janet is just making up dumb shit and saying Jessica said it. Which is saying “hey, you’re so stupid I can imagine you saying this” and entirely within the realm of acceptable shit-talking. You can hear worse on the Roast of Justin Bieber. (Actually, you can hear a lot worse on the roast of Justin Bieber. Snoop went hard.)

But I shouldn’t just take Janet’s word here, because you shouldn’t take anyone at their word unless you have good reason to believe you should, and I don’t. So, I believe that she’s been removed in the past, which means she might have pissed twitter off for some reason. There are a few screenshots of her calling a lot of people whores, which probably had something to do with it. Twitter and websites like it are extremely large and hire offshore moderation teams which generally do not put a lot of thought into their moderation; I know for a fact that Amazon does not, and uses algorithms that just scan for keywords. Having your account banned once probably put her under additional scrutiny.

In an email conversation with me, Janet mentioned that her account was suspended while she was tweeting pictures of a wedding cake, which were both after her Poe’s law tweets and after any insults she made to other people. It’s possible that with enough reports Twitter automatically removed the account; this is not something I would put past an offshore moderation team who is understandably burnt out from looking at dicks all day. Janet mentions she was suspended during a suspension, which if true is the sort of thing that would only happen if moderation was handled automatically or semi-automatically. After its restoration Janet tweeted at Jessica where the alleged libel incident happened, and here we are.

Regardless of the reason for her initial suspension, Janet’s prior account ban won’t make a subsequent ban justified, because unlike, say, in a court of law where a judge has to consider that assault and theft are correlated behaviors and he is ostensibly protecting other people by keeping a violent felon away from others, a removal of someone for a misquote is a completely unrelated behavior to harassment, especially considering the circumstances of the misquote. I suppose an idiot might argue that this also constitutes harassment, but that argument is hyperbolic; misquoting someone and making fun of them is not harassing them — not in the same way calling a lot of people whores is.

I used to moderate internet forums a long time ago. The most popular place at which I ever held a moderator position was reddit’s Tumblr in Action discussion board, which I think has over 100,000 subscribers now. I resigned from the moderator team of every board except the YOLO board before Tumblr in Action hit this number, though I think I’d be the top moderator if I hadn’t.

Being a moderator of a place like that is unlike being a moderator of a fitness discussion board or a beer discussion board in that even though there are camps pertaining to those subject areas, they do not invest the totality of their existence into their stances and will not do everything they can to make sure someone who is a contradiction to them has their audience limited. I post on fitness boards more, so I’ll cite an example: one of the most common camp divisions on fitness boards is over who is enhanced (using steroids) and who is ‘natty’ (not using steroids), whether you are justified in using steroids to build muscle more quickly or whether you should only use it to transcend genetic limits, and whether you are justified in using steroids period. You would think this would be an intense controversy, because entire careers depend on it. However, despite that these are people with high testosterone disagreeing over the activity to which they dedicate their lives, I’ve never seen a debate on a fitness forum, no matter how bloodthirsty, remotely approach to the intensity with which people debate propositions like “are wage gap statistics accurate” or “is x actually misogynist.”

Most of the moderators who have been moderators in contentious environments like Tumblr in Action have noticed this phenomenon: when someone posts something that especially angers a group of ideologues more than usual, that group will sometimes coordinate their reports under the belief that with enough reports they can distort the perception of how bad a link is and get the link removed. Reddit makes this easy to notice because an average link that could get your board in trouble might have one or two reports, while the organized report efforts have dozens.

I noticed these frivolous reports so much that I had to come up with terms to refer to them. There are two: fire-alarming and rulebombing.

Fire alarming refers to any abuse of a safety mechanism that, in its most benevolent form, helps people. I got the idea to categorize this kind of behavior when I saw a video of protesters pulling a fire alarm to interrupt a speech and realized that frivolous reports are part of a larger category of abusing safety mechanisms.

Rulebombing refers to the frivolous report behavior in question, so it’s a subcategory of fire-alarming as report systems are meant to protect users. Many website moderation teams do not actually evaluate reports, or if they do, the moderation teams give the reports a glance at best. A coordinated group who really wants a particular person’s speech removed can organize a mass report of that person’s activities and the website will either remove the user or posts right away due to the sheer volume of reports, or reason that because there are so many reports they could not possibly be illegitimate. The former is bad programming, the latter is the ad populum fallacy.

You might be wonder what the distinction is between reporting someone for breaking the rules and rulebombing. The distinction is that in a normal moderation queue, a normal reported action — a very bad one — might have one or two reports, so moderators are used to this number indicating seriousness. Rulebombing floods a queue with dozens if not hundreds of reports in attempt to convince the moderator that the rulebombed thing is dozens or hundreds of times more serious, when under circumstances not biased by ideology this action may never have registered on the moderator’s radar.

Janet Bloomfield was mass-reported and banned for alleged libel because she misquoted someone on Twitter.

Reflect on that situation and consider how ridiculous it is.

Twitter is not using libel in the strict sense that a court is using it. Twitter is a website that allows pseudonyms and parody accounts among regular people. There is no definitive record of things people have said, and comments are deleted on a regular basis. Using Twitter to misquote and therefore libel persons like getturnt420, rhinodixxOKC or XdarkBronyX in the sense that a court means it is difficult or at the very least requires a leap of interpretation. You might say that Jessica’s misquoted material was in print, so it’s more libel than if you just misquoted someone on Twitter. That’s a silly view to hold when news websites are blogs and blogs are news websites; there is little to no real difference, and when the vast majority of news coming from news websites is made either on WordPress or a platform very similar to WordPress and print versions are effectively a consolation prize the only thing “print” really means anymore is that an organization has been legally registered as such and publishes content under the title of an organization, as opposed to an individual who publishes content under their own name.

In other words, the concept of libel in an age where you can edit Wikipedia at whim or make a parody account of a person is difficult for a website to maintain. There is no need for Twitter to enforce this anyway; people are sued for libel on Twitter and it’s eyebrow raising as it is because social media has become a universal form of communication. This gets weirder when you remember that libel in fiction is a real thing people sue for, and judgments as large as $100,000 have been awarded as recently as 2009. A writer at the Huffington Post thinks Twitter’s inclusion as a medium over which one can be libeled is a good thing because supposedly this means that Twitter is now a legitimate publishing platform. I guess, but it would be legitimate independent of a court’s treatment anyway, because a medium cannot alter the truth of a conclusion made on that medium; “2+2=5” is false and “2+2=4” is true regardless of the medium on which they’re transmitted. If it can display words, it can display information, and truth/falsehood can be evaluated from there.

More importantly, praising the applicability of libel suits to the ubiquitous media we use for communication ignores the elephantine disparity of access to libel as an enforcement mechanism. Libel suits are overwhelmingly likely to be made by people who are some combination of very rich, very vindictive and very self-interested, because most people do not have the resources to successfully pursue a libel suit, so even if libel suits over twitter become more common this would just enhance the reach of a very select group of people wealthy enough to make these suits anyway. A UK science writer estimates his costs of defense at £25,000 and costs of loss at £500,000; a D.C. resident had a $750,000 libel lawsuit brought against her for her posts on Yelp and related websites. If suing someone for libel weren’t something only rich people can do and were as easy as catching someone saying “I made up fake quotes to mock this person”, Facebook would have to add a libel lawsuit tracker to their comments, right next to ‘likes’, because that’s how frequent they would be.

For Twitter to take the stance that they should honor libel reports when libel is complicated for people who aren’t well-versed in law and much of their moderation is performed algorithmically or by workers from Manila who don’t understand the cultural nuances pertaining to speech in the US, this is an enormous interpretative leap, especially since if it is libel, Twitter could simply hand the issue to courts, which they did with Courtney Love. In other words, this would be a really stupid stance to take, and I doubt they actually have taken this stance.

Consider two things:

Courtney Love was found guilty of libel via Twitter by a court of law in the US, a country with some of the most generous speech protections of any country on the planet, and her account is still active.

If we assume her detractors are telling the complete truth, Twitter found Janet Bloomfield guilty of libel by a stream of organized reports made to their moderation team, even though Janet was not sued for libel. Note that the US is not a culture that thinks libel lawsuits are great; if you sue someone for libel, you usually look bad. Yet here is one case where Jessica Valenti’s fans would have overwhelmingly supported a libel accusation, meaning the appearance of suing solely for the purposes of money (which is normally the PR hit you take by making a libel suit) is something she would not have to worry about.

Since I don’t believe that narrative is what happened but don’t think clear incentive is enough to say so, let’s review the implications of what would happen if people were removed from websites every time they attributed quotes to another person that this person didn’t say. If this were not just a selective instance of Twitter’s moderation team reacting to a lot of simultaneous reports, I could have 99.9% of people I’ve argued with on Facebook removed for libel because they have either falsely attributed a quote to me or wrongly paraphrased something I have said and attributed the paraphrase to me. This is an amazing power to have, and I want to have it, so if there is some secret number I have to call to get people removed for misquoting me on Facebook and Twitter, please email it to me. No one is going to do that, because if misquoting other people were a reason to remove their account right away, Facebook and Twitter would be as lively as the dating scene in Fallout.

To reiterate, if you believe “Twitter cares if I misquote someone on purpose because that’s libel” is a true statement, a squad of Lilliputian mind-bandits have seized all of your sane ideas and trafficked them to a cave of thought-gnomes. People who remove comments are jaded skilled labor who see a lot of reports and mutter “holy shit” while thinking about how to not get fired, not a crack team of content analysts who see the report and say “BY GOD JONATHAN I’VE FOUND MISREPRESENTATION ON TWITTER, THIS CANNOT STAND NOR WILL I STAND FOR IT.”

No one who has thought about this for more than ten seconds sincerely thinks Twitter removed Janet Bloomfield’s account for libel, because their moderation is not nuanced enough to make that distinction and does not care. Moderation is an ocean of porn, spam, and trolls saying ‘nigger’. If you have trouble believing how boring and routine the work of a moderator is, I’ve had someone DM me on Twitter with the message “kill yourself” and their account is still active. “X misquoted me” is so far down the rabbit hole of complaints that moderators will only give the minutest fuck if a bunch of people complain simultaneously, which is exactly what happened. Nonetheless, some people will strain to maintain the illusion that treating misquotes as libel is standard social media policy, and others will just not care. Removing an account for libel is what people say Twitter did or want to believe Twitter did, because “I contacted twitter about these libelous comments and they removed her account” sounds a lot better than “after several dozen people I know slammed Twitter with bullshit reports we got her account removed.”

Instead, this is the far more likely scenario: Twitter gets a lot of reports. Some person says “oh shit, this is a lot of reports and this account has been banned before.” A moderator, who is probably being risk-averse seeing as they are paid to do this, removes the account. Some people rage and some people rejoice and the moderator goes back to hating themselves because they are paid $14/hour to remove dicks.

People who organize rulebombs and fire-alarms have some sense of what they’re doing, whether consciously or not. Very few people would think to organize coordinated reports of a person, and even fewer would actually care enough to do this, so in practice coordinated reports do not happen often. Moderators are used to the frequency of normal reports — one or two reports meaning something really bad has happened, and five meaning something really really bad has happened, with these numbers scaling depending on the size of the website. They have not organized a procedure to account for actions derived from Scott Alexander’s Worst Argument In The World, a tactic where someone takes a very serious stigma and attempts to include a thing as some fringe instance of the stigma, which relies on the full weight of the typical stigma even though its inclusion in the category is debatable in the first place. This is also called the noncentral fallacy.

Moderation teams are not trained to look for mass reports or actions derived from the Worst Argument In The World and have no idea how to respond, because fire-alarms are not common outside of controversial discussion environments and typically only seen when a lot of people are dogmatically in opposition to someone’s stances on things. Therefore, the moderation team responds like they normally would, which is the wrong way, but understandable on their part nonetheless.

Janet Bloomfield’s account was removed because of sheer report numbers, aka rulebombing, aka fire-alarming. The use of inventing words like ‘fire-alarm’ and ‘rulebomb’ by the way is that instead of having to say “removals due to reports” we can compress the phenomenon into a single word for faster recognition, which is why new terms are coined in the first place, and “fire-alarming” includes all behaviors classed as safety-mechanism abuse in general. This would be a worthwhile categorization to make regardless, but it’s especially worthwhile because this is not the first time this has happened:

Milo Yiannopoulos’s @nero account was removed for “harassment.” The annoying comments in response were reactions like “lol take a hint” and “I guess Twitter doesn’t want a misogynist” as if the Twitter moderation team completely shares the ideology of these commenters and this tweet isn’t just another remark between dick pics and spam that some offshore worker has to filter. The incentive is obvious: I don’t like Breitbart, and if I don’t like Breitbart then feminists really don’t like Breitbart. But Milo tripletweeted a set with “downtown sushi realness”, and I like downtown sushi realness, so I’m neutral on Milo for now. Actually, this one is funny too.

Philip Mason runs the YouTube account Thunderf00t and makes science videos, including a great video about the issues with the solar roadway concept. He has a Ph.D. in Chemistry if you care, though this would not make anything he says more true or less true. He was suspended by Twitter for a few months because of alleged harassment of Anita Sarkeesian, who makes videos about gender bias in video games, and some of his videos on YouTube were temporarily removed for similar reasons. She has a Master’s degree from York that her critics have been way too dramatic about; if you think her MA is unrigorous you will froth at the mouth after learning what kind of students an average Master’s program graduates, nevermind what kind of students the average Bachelor’s program graduates. Despite this controversy between the two I like both of their channels, though Anita occasionally extends her conclusions too far from what she’s able to conclude from the subject matter, and Philip is too hyperbolic. (“Feminism poisons EVERYTHING!” Everything? Even my weed? Even the stickiest of the icky?) These characteristics aside, Thunderf00t did not “harass” Anita — she’s been harassed, legitimately and seriously, by people who do not have 80 million views on YouTube or Wikipedia pages about themselves. Philip is a very visible critic of her, and if his opponents can force YouTube to close his account this is not only a loss of his income from YouTube but thousands if not millions of potential views of his counterarguments that will go unseen, and you cannot adopt a counterargument you don’t know exists. There is obviously an incentive to abuse the report system when you can get such a victory from it.

Mykeru runs a YouTube channel similar in subject matter to Thunderf00t’s and I believe Mykeru’s channel was never compromised, but activists succeeded in fire-alarming his twitter account. He is considerably less followed than the Thunderf00t channel, though he is notable in that the Twitter campaign #OpSkyNet was made to demand his account’s restoration, which was successful.

You might wonder why the people against feminism or social justice have not fire-alarmed in response. For one, they have. This behavior is in no way limited to one side, so you’d have to revise the question to “why haven’t they fire-alarmed more.” I have no idea, but a very naive answer to this kind of question is “because they break rules and we don’t” or “because their behavior is objectionable and ours isn’t.” The mass-report strategy works because people who moderate don’t pay attention. Anita Sarkeesian wasn’t breaking rules, and neither was Thunderf00t, and this is much more obvious when you’ve actually dealt with the kind of things that are submitted to a moderation queue; the only time a post like “What’s Wrong With Feminism” stands out against content like “ANAL GANGBANG SNOWBALL” or “MUSLIM FAGGOTS BEHEADED” is when the report numbers can override an otherwise reasonable thought process.

You might believe fire-alarming is not a problem because it’s not currently a problem for everyone you agree with. This could be as simple as people you disagree with not knowing it’s even an option. Even if everything you say is currently not vulnerable to censorship, you have no reason to believe its invulnerability will continue. This arrogance is similar to people who think hate speech laws will never have the definition of ‘hate’ reinterpreted to include their own beliefs or ideologies. If you live in America, you live in an overwhelmingly Christian country where the average age is 37 but the majority of voters are at least 45, where Christian beliefs and FOX News DVR recordings are more prevalent the older you get, and where politically-involved citizens sincerely believe in the idea of a “War on Christianity.” Nothing would preclude this demographic from taking what they currently call “anti-Christian” or “anti-American” and reinterpreting these terms as “hate speech”, thereby silencing everything you believe that conflicts with their views.

Or, you might believe that the people you like aren’t vulnerable to fire-alarming because people just don’t do it that often, or aren’t that bad. Please. We have purged outgroups so many times that you can read a Wikipedia list of them in alphabetical order. To describe our former treatment of people we disagree with as ‘shitty’ is meiosis. Humanity’s history of disagreement is an unrelenting bacchanal of insatiable diarrhea-guzzling. Considering that the default human response to intense disagreement used to be actions we would describe with words like ‘war’, ‘murder’, ‘mass-murder’ or ‘massacre’, we’re lucky that obsessively hounding a report button or pulling a fire alarm is the most irrational form of disagreement we’re exposed to. We’re ‘better’ now, but our biology hasn’t changed, and we still have the same instinctual drives people had thousands of years ago.

I don’t like that I had to write this article, because I’m frustrated by the very existence of the thought process that justifies abusing safety mechanisms if it means silencing your opponent. We lose, collectively, by treating this as no big deal, or by acting like it’s a one-time thing, or by acting like it doesn’t have an effect.

On principle, it’s the dumbest possible way to disagree. Dumber than established dumb ways to disagree like namecalling, because namecalling does not preclude a response to namecalling.

You cannot make someone wrong by wiping their views from written record. Reality is going to continue to exist, and if they are right they are not going to cease being right; conversely, if they’re wrong they’re not going to cease being wrong. The desire to swarm an opponent and push their voice into silence is detrimental in its own right because that’s the way people think when they are threatened, not when they believe their statements are truthful enough to stand on their own. And the belief that a really organized group can have you removed from a website when you’ve said the wrong thing is a belief that will stop a lot of people from engaging in public dialogue period, including people who may otherwise agree with you or support your cause. Only a fraction of the American population even votes outside the presidential election. If no one knows what specific beliefs will be the wrong button to press, they’ll avoid buttons all together.

The practice of abusing safety mechanisms to pursue ideological ends is going to continue, whether it’s in favor of your side or against it. All of us benefit by being aware of fire-alarming and working to discourage if not prohibit it. Many people familiar with gender politics are aware that this happens, which is good. The next step is to acknowledge it’s a problem, which far fewer people have done. Moderation teams of major websites generally work for their users, so if enough users want a certain policy toward content they will alter their moderation policies accordingly.

If this concept is a widely-recognized phenomenon, it will be something an administrator thinks about before designing a report system at all, and we can discuss slightly controversial issues on social media again without the worry that our accounts might be compromised from pressing the wrong button. Alternatively, you can worry that any position you take on something that could offend anyone might send a beehive of reports to your account and revoke whatever effort you’ve spent building up your social media presence.

I can’t regard fire-alarming as a solution to a disagreement. I don’t think you should either.

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