I happened to see a link to a TechCrunch article entitled #GamerGate – An Issue With Two Sides. Now just to be upfront about it, I am not a gamer. The only computer games I have ever played much were Frogger, Apple Panic, Space Invaders, and a few others on my old TRS-80, and later on I played Tetris a bit. To put it simply, I was born just a little too early (some might say way too early) to really get into the whole gaming thing. Because of that, I personally hold no real strong opinions about gaming or the various factions therein, in fact I’m totally ignorant about most of that. I was only vaguely aware that there was some sort of controversy brewing from some of the various Twitter feeds and online forums that I follow.
So when I saw the aforementioned TechCrunch article, I started reading it just to try and understand a bit about what was going on. To be honest, I wasn’t sure why I was reading it, since I have no real interest in the topic. But I think sometimes people do things for a reason that may not at first be apparent (a friend of mine would say they are guided by the universe), because near the end of the article this commentary appears:
Like GamerGate, the issue of online censorship has been simmering for a while. The balance between moderator power and user power in online communities is entirely one-sided. Users have no power to hold their moderators to account, and there is typically no user oversight regarding whose content gets removed and who gets banned.
It’s unclear whether communities like Reddit censor out of a desire for a quiet life, or whether it is the simple product of a moderator’s whims. Either way, it is clear that the system is entirely unaccountable to users.
The article then quotes Slate’s David Auerbach, although it’s unclear what part of this is a quote and what is attributable to the TechCrunch writers:
If you hand power to a small group of people with zero transparency and oversight, mistakes will go un-corrected. People rarely acknowledge mistakes unless there is a mechanism for others to correct them. In many online communities, users have no way of raising issues about moderation without the risk of being banned themselves.
The system is not sustainable. As the actions of moderators become increasingly driven by personal biases, more and more information will accumulate in unmoderated spaces. Meanwhile, those who confine themselves to moderated spaces will become increasingly unaware of the wider picture. The ultimate result is heavily biased groups of people who essentially live in different and mutually opposed realities. Conflict and hatred is inevitable.
Unfortunately this is a huge problem in the online Free-To-Air satellite forums in North America. Each of the forums has their own set of biases and internal guidelines as to what they will allow to be posted, but the truth is that on most forums, users have no say in what is allowed, and moderation is entirely at the whim of the moderator(s), and is at times very subjective. If a moderator gets it in his head that he doesn’t like a particular user, everything that user writes will be scrutinized, whereas if another more favored user writes in a similar vein, their comments are welcomed.
From time to time it seems that a moderator develops a true dislike for a user, and then no further posts from that user appear. Did the user get banned? Is the user being heavily censored? Did he simply leave out of disgust? The other users will never know.
Moderators usually say that their moderation is for some ostensibly good reason, such as “to keep the community friendly” or to keep out talk of piracy. The problem is that what is friendly and unfriendly is very subjective, and appears to be defined differently in the case of different users. Someone who has supported a forum in some way, either through membership or perhaps by slipping a few free product samples to the moderator(s), is likely to get away with saying things that would be deemed “unfriendly” if any other user said them. New users often run afoul of the “no piracy talk” rule simply out of ignorance – they have no idea that a particular receiver that they purchased on eBay or at a flea market was designed as a “pirate” box, and they are simply seeking help without even knowing that they have stumbled across the trip wire that could get them permanently banned. I don’t support signal piracy in any way, but I do think that new users need to be cut a little slack when they may not realize they have committed a foul.
Another problem is that some of the online forums are run by dealers of satellite equipment, and in that case you never know if they are censoring speech that criticizes the products they sell, or that speak favorably of competing products sold by other vendors. Certain dealers seem to be very adverse to any sort of criticism of their products or business practices.
In at least one case, my suspicion is that the moderator is a religious person and got into Free-To-Air satellite in order to get the religious feeds, plus certain other types of programming that specifically interest him. To his credit, he generally doesn’t preach his beliefs in the forums, but I suspect that his religion causes him to hold a very authoritarian worldview, so he sees no problem with censoring posts he doesn’t happen to like. In this case, whatever the stated rules may be, if the moderator doesn’t like your post it will be gone or edited, and if you don’t like it, you may be gone as well.
The one commonality in all these forums is that if a user tries to complain about the style of moderation or the censorship of a specific post, that post will likely also be censored, and my suspicion is that this is the act that causes users to be permanently banned. But none of the other users will ever be aware that it happened. I’m sure some users would prefer not to know, but others might appreciate knowing whether there is a hidden bias in the forums they visit.
In my personal opinion there are no satellite forums in North America that don’t have some type of bias. Sometimes the biases are directly opposing. In one forum, they don’t want you to talk about feeds or channels that don’t appear in certain well-known public listings, out of fear that those feeds and channels might be scrambled (a valid concern, in my opinion). In a different forum, people are encouraged to openly post any feeds or channels they may find, no matter what the consequences. In my opinion, the latter is a very irresponsible position to take. The reason you shouldn’t discuss such feeds openly is because sometimes, if the feed owner finds out that people who are not the intended recipients are viewing such feeds, they will begin to scramble those feeds.
This has happened in the past. For example, a few years ago there was a very popular group of channels from Alaska that carried west coast feeds from all the major networks. Then, as the story goes, some big mouth did the worst thing you can possibly do – he started shooting off his mouth about how he was able to watch football games off the Alaska channels using his satellite dish. His comments came to the attention of the feed owners, and from then on those channels have been scrambled.
So I am not saying that no post should ever be removed – there are very good reasons for removing posts from time to time, but the rules need to be clearly stated. In an ideal world, the decision of whether to remove a post should not be based on the whims or personal likes and dislikes of a moderator. And such decisions certainly ought not to be based on whether a person is a contributor to the forum or a friend of the moderator(s), or whether someone shares the same religion or worldview as the moderator(s).
My suspicion is that the hidden biases and heavy-handed moderation in some of the forums has discouraged some new users from coming into the hobby of Free-To-Air satellite, and has chased away some long-time hobbyists. What I don’t know is how big a problem this actually is. I don’t know whether many users have been affected, or only a few. And that is the problem with censorship – there is no way to know how pervasive it really is, especially when there are only a relative handful of forums covering a topic and they all engage in censorship.
The TechCrunch article contains one other point worth noting:
Critics will argue that someone banned on Reddit or neoGAF can simply go elsewhere on the Internet rather miss the point. Censorship is about denying certain views of an audience. Giving someone the freedom to speak in a deserted forest (or an unvisited website) doesn’t actually mean a great deal.
If there are only a very few satellite forums, and most users only know about one or two of them and maybe only follow one of them regularly, then censorship on one of those forums becomes a much bigger deal than it would be if there were a multitude of such forums. This is not a problem confined to satellite forums, or to Reddit forums – it is also true of many other topical forums where there are few forums covering that topic. I don’t mean to imply that this is a bigger problem in the satellite forums than in many other topical forums on the Internet; I’m just pointing out that the problem does exist and that it does affect the communities we visit.