Freedom of Terms of Service

Some thoughts on dealing with harassment and censorship online.

Hmm. I was writing about why advertising will (probably) always suck, but then reddit shut down some subreddits… so I’ll write about that! Maybe pickup that advertising thing another time.

They evicted five communities for harassing others, or promoting… I’ll quote it (Reddit: announcements: “Removing harassing subreddits”):

Today we are removing five subreddits that break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals.

And by harassment they mean (Reddit: announcements: “Removing harassing subreddits”: comment by krispykrackers):

We’re talking about men and women whose lives are being affected and worry for their safety every day, because people from a certain community on reddit have decided to actually threaten them, online and off, every day.

We’ve heard about similar harassment on Twitter, and no doubt it happens on Facebook, because there was just a Supreme Court decision about it.

The question is, what is the best way to deal with harassment on the Internet? And, in this particular case, is shutting down an entire community (as unsavory as their topic of choice may be) a good way to handle the users who are harassing others?

Moves like this feel like a failure to innovate. Yet all the major technology companies do this. What could they do differently? It’s one of the issues of our time, as we struggle to deal with the ubiquity of communication. Political correctness and policing of speech appears to be getting worse, and that can be no coincidence. But it’s also an age-old issue, of how to deal with the assholes without going too far.

For a potential answer, turn to the concept of intrusive thoughts in psychology. These are thoughts that we may occasionally have that we find contrary to our self-conceptions. Some psychological disorders are characterized by these thoughts becoming unmanageable. My personal belief is that they are misdirected thoughts: ideas that have surfaced that would otherwise have been suppressed, or at least surfaced in a different way.

For example, an intrusive thought at the circus:

I dislike clowns and hope that one that just fell broke his spine.

This might have been misdirected, and could have surfaced as:

I like clowns and hope that it was a pratfall and everything is okay.

The nature of intrusive thoughts, their content being so binary, would seem to suggest this is a reasonable explanation, though I am unaware of any scientific evidence.

Anyway, these hateful communities are the social equivalent of intrusive thoughts. They pop up and cause distress. The method for treating society in the face of such a problem may be similar to the method for treating individuals who have unmanageable intrusive thoughts.

The technique, it should be pointed out, was also used by civil rights protesters in the 1960s. Desensitization. Exposure. Distancing. Contextualization. Whatever you want to call it, it’s basically the practice of looking at a distressing thing, and answering the litany of “what if” questions it arouses.

Basically, the mind has an ability to view some objects as powerful. By allowing the mind to examine them, though, they can lose their potency. They become regular, boring objects.

Now, that’s not to say that corporations won’t continuing as they’ve done with offenders. They probably have a business case that overpowers (in their minds) the social benefits of treating the cause over the symptoms (which, incidentally, is why advertising will (likely) always suck).


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