BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. This week's show, we test a radical approach to detoxing online life.
ASHLEY FEINBERG I'll get memes direct messaged to me of like my face photoshopped into holocaust gas chambers.
AGENT SMITH RADIO Hey, this is your daily reminder that user L leads people to suicide.
DANIELLE SERED The core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one's economic needs.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Speaking face-to-face with the person who hurt you or who you hurt is difficult, but it can lead to meaningful resolution in a way that punishment alone cannot.
JAMES I think I've been going through some like re-evaluation about the way that I communicate.
MICAH LOEWINGER Violence begets violence. If you can just sever that chain, you save--in theory--infinite harm down the line.
BOB GARFIELD Can mediation save the internet from our cruelest tendencies? It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield. In this episode, a critical look at the assumptions undergirding our notion of justice, both on social media platforms and the criminal justice system itself. We'll address the court system first. With 2.3 million people behind bars, advocates on the right and the left agreed that locking people up just isn't making us safer. But that raises the question: What then do we do to address criminal behavior when it appears? Some criminal justice reformers are pushing a new approach, one based not on punishment but on truth and reconciliation. It's called “restorative justice.” And when done well, it can help prevent further harm.
DANIELLE SERED The core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one's economic needs. The four core features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one's economic needs. We've baked into our central response to violence exactly the things that generate it.
BOB GARFIELD Danielle Sered is the executive director of Common Justice, an organization based in New York City that has pioneered the practice of restorative justice with violent offenders at a local level. It is a process of making amends and accepting accountability, neither of which is accomplished in courtrooms or prisons. And deterrence? Forget about deterrence.
DANIELLE SERED Deterrence depends on a few things. It depends on a level of civic education and it depends on people knowing what the law is and what the consequences are for breaking that law, which is totally not present for us. It depends on consistency. Meaning if I do X, Y will happen every time. That could not be less true. The biggest predictor of outcomes in the criminal justice process is sadly not your guilt or innocence, but your race. And that is not something that someone can be deterred out of being. And finally, deterrence depends on hope. It depends on the prospect that if you are law-abiding, if you keep your part of the social contract, if you do all of those things, that you will get the basic entitlements of a just society. That includes an ability to meet your basic economic needs, some basic level of safety, some decent education. And when none of those things are promised, absent a real structural basis for hope, deterrence falls short.
BOB GARFIELD Restorative justice. Tell me how it's different.
DANIELLE SERED Restorative justice is a process where the people most directly impacted by a given harm come together and reach agreements about how to repair that harm as best as possible. Those include things you'd expect like restitution, community service, getting a job, finishing school, things you might not expect. Like one man said to the young man who held him at gunpoint one night, “I want you to meet the children whose father you almost took from them that night with your gun. And I believe today in the father you can be to your baby girl. And I want to say that to her face.” Another two young men, one who had shot at the other, did a speaking tour in their neighborhood with younger people, talking about how they let the conflict between them escalate to such a high level of violence and what they could have done differently. So those agreements have a wide range of possibilities that are tied to the actual human needs of the people who have been hurt.
BOB GARFIELD And how do you get the standing to do this? Do you get carve outs from local and state governments so that the district attorney is willing to surrender the adjudication of a particular case? How do you get your mandate to put people in a circle instead of sending them in for the usual plea bargain?
DANIELLE SERED So the district attorney is the most critical partner in it. If the district attorney wouldn't agree to dismiss the charges at the end, if someone were successful, then a judge would be bound to sentence that person under a mandatory minimum. And we couldn’t operate as a replacement for prison in these cases. The district attorneys who work with us in Brooklyn and the Bronx understand that they have an obligation to the victims of crime in their jurisdictions. And that that obligation means that so long as they're not jeopardizing anyone else's safety, they want to present options to victims that might actually help them heal and feel safe. But they also have a bottom line obligation to safety.
BOB GARFIELD Tell me about results. In your book, you have many heartwarming examples. Anecdotally, this is an easy sell. You use some percentages of outcomes, but the sample size is quite tiny. So do we have any reason to think that this scales? That you can build a criminal justice infrastructure around healing circles?
DANIELLE SERED No and yes. Right? The no is that restorative justice will not wholesale replace incarceration. Nothing will. Part of the problem with incarceration is it treats a thousand different problems with one single tool and that's never going to produce meaningful results. The best results will always come from a variety of interventions that are actually appropriate to the kind of harm someone is causing to change. But on the other hand, the part where I say yes is that we spend 80 billion dollars on our corrections system. So in cases where we're spending, say, 100 grand and locking someone up for a decade, we're spending a million dollars on an intervention that is unlikely to actually produce positive results. However small our operations are, however intensive our services, it would take us a lot to get to a million dollar cost per case. And I think all of us can understand that if we have those kinds of resources to invest in a single person that at much, much smaller levels, we can invest in results that actually transform. The other thing that's true, too, is if you start to do things in response to violence that actually reduce it, then the volume in the criminal justice system will diminish and you won't have to do as much.
The corrections system has an amazing business model where their intervention in response to violence generates violence, which brings them more work to do. A different model would have interventions that responded to violence, that reduced violence and thereby reduced the overall workload. And it's in that efficacy that there's truly a path to scale.
BOB GARFIELD Your book has a number of examples of felons who were involved in the program and not only did not get back into the system, but have gone on to lead productive lives. At no expense to the society. But there's also a lot of focus on the victims who we commonly think of as seeking harsh justice and maybe even revenge. But that's not your experience.
DANIELLE SERED As survivors, there are two things we can't abide: the idea of going through what we went through again, and we can't abide the idea of someone else going through it. If we're offered a choice between something that we think will work to meet those needs that we won't be heard and others won't, and something that we know won't work, we'll pick the former. So Common Justice, we only take cases into the project if the victims of crime agree. Ninety percent of people, given that choice, choose common justice over prison for the people who hurt them. They are asking the question, what is likely to produce safety for me and others? And they are choosing that, even when that's in tension with their revenge. Early in our work, there was a young 14-year-old boy who was robbed and assaulted. Because he was so young, his mom got to make the decision about whether the young man who hurt him would go to prison or not. That young man was facing three years in prison after long negotiations. He had originally been looking at closer to a decade. And I met with her to talk about this option. And she said “three years from now, my 9-year-old boy will be 12 and he'll be coming to and from school and to and from the corner store and to and from his aunt's house alone. And on one of those days, he'll walk by this young man. And I have to ask myself on that day, do I want that young man to have been upstate in prison or do I want him to have been with y'all?” And she said, “Now, if that young man were before me today and I had my machete, I would chop him to bits and bury him under my house and sleep soundly for the first time since he dared lay hands on my baby. The truth is, I'd rather him be with y’all.” That decision wasn't about mercy. It wasn't about compassion. It wasn't about seeing this young man as someone who could be her son. It was about prioritizing her child's safety over her emotions. I don't actually know if it's a mother's job to prioritize pragmatism over revenge, but I believe very strongly that it is our criminal justice system's responsibility to do exactly that.
BOB GARFIELD I hope you won't think this is a trivial comparison, but I've had the experience online of people being extremely hostile and aggressive with me. And then when I just merely reached out without being defensive or aggressive myself, turns out I encountered an entirely different person who was reasonable and even a bit embarrassed about their behavior. Is this true of violent criminals as well? That what happens when they are in a circle encountering their victims?
DANIELLE SERED I think there are few things harder than facing the people we've harmed, and within that, especially few things harder than facing the people we harmed who are meeting us with any kind of respect and dignity, because it brings us face to face with what we've done and how we've behaved and the wrongfulness of that. So in the same case with the mother, we sat in that room and this young man had to face that mother, had to face the young boy whose life he had changed, had to answer for what he did, had to rise to their challenges to him to be different and do better and fulfill all of these agreements to make things right. And after that circle, the young man who committed the crime, he said, “You know, for everything that I've done and everything that's been done to me, I don't know that I've ever actually heard a real apology before. How do you think I did?” And because it was true, I said to him, “I think you did great.” And he said, “Pardon my language, but that's the scariest s*** I've ever done.” There is something about the difficulty of actually coming face to face with what we've done that transforms us. There's no better insulation from that than a court process that is sort of inhumane and mechanical and bureaucratic. And then a prison that literally puts you farther and farther away at every step from the people you hurt.
BOB GARFIELD What are the prospects for restorative justice? For it getting traction? For it being more widely embraced? For it being an arrow in the quiver of a thousand DAs instead of just two?
DANIELLE SERED So our current system, it's as though there's a hamburger stand in the middle of the desert that serves really nasty burgers. And there is a long line because there's nothing for 200 miles. And if you looked at that hamburger stand and you surmise that those were the best burgers in this country, you'd be making a mistake. And if you surmise that everyone's favorite food was burgers, you'd be making a different kind of mistake. What I know is that if there were also a taco spot and a pizza spot and a veggie spot, the line at the hamburger stand would get shorter and shorter and shorter as people availed themselves of options that actually might nourish them. So the reason that I'm hopeful about the expansion of restorative justice is I think that it is in line with what most victims actually want. It's just not in line with what our public narrative has been about victims. We've lifted up a handful of stories. We've given the megaphone only to the most vengeful. And we've done that at great expense to victims. So if changing everyone's minds were required for this expansion, I'd be a skeptic like most everyone else. What I understand is that the story we've been told about who people are and what they want is largely a lie. And so all we have to do is act on the thing that is true instead of acting on the lie that we've been told, and we'll find vast demand for this across the country.
BOB GARFIELD Danielle, thank you very much.
DANIELLE SERED Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Danielle Sered is the executive director of Common Justice and author of the new book Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration and A Road to Repair. Coming up, could restorative justice bring peace and order to our online lives? This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. And at this point, I hand the mic to our producer, Micah Loewinger, who earlier this year immersed himself for months in the question of how restorative justice could be applied to the hate filled epithet spewing world of content moderation.
MICAH LOEWINGER I'll get to where restorative justice fits in just a moment, but first I want to talk about the problem.
ASHLEY FEINBERG I'll get memes direct messaged to me of like my face photoshopped into holocaust gas chambers.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Ashley Feinberg, senior writer at Slate, and when she's not being harassed, biting Twitter personality.
ASHLEY FEINBERG A lot of things where I just kind of have to not look at my mentions for a few days until things calm down.
MICAH LOEWINGER Feinberg's experience is quite common. A 2017 Pew study found that 40 percent of Americans have experienced harassment online. Last year, Feinberg had the opportunity to confront Twitter's CEO, Jack Dorsey, about the toxic state of his platform. She shared the interview audio with us.
ASHLEY FEINBERG For instance, if someone like tweets out our home address or phone number, it's like a crapshoot of whether or Twitter’s gonna--
JACK DORSEY That's unacceptable as well, yeah.
ASHLEY FEINBERG Yeah.
JACK DORSEY We're not in a great state right now with our systems because every they rely upon reporting. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That is Twitter relies on users like you and me to report violent posts for human moderators to review and take down. It's expensive, laborious, and psychologically harmful for the moderators. And just not that effective. But when Feinberg pressed Dorsey on how Twitter planned to reduce cyber bullying, he seemed to draw a blank.
JACK DORSEY Finding the report button isn't the most obvious and intuitive right now.
ASHLEY FEINBERG So what’s--
JACK DORSEY That certainly slows things down.
ASHLEY FEINBERG So what would be like an alternative to that?
JACK DORSEY Make it more obvious? [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Jack's big fix: make the “user report” button bigger. I shared this little exchange with you to demonstrate the stunning lack of imagination at the heart of our content moderation conundrum. Like the criminal justice system in our analog world, I fear that we've become resigned to using old broken systems for taking on violent behavior online. When Facebook or Twitter tracked down a user who say, sends anti-Semitic memes to a journalist, they might suspend the harassers account or banned that person altogether. It's that eye-for-an-eye, Old Testament style of punishment called “retributive justice” that you see throughout our society. But harassment researcher Lindsay Blackwell says that approach is not working.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Platforms right now are instituting harsh punishments that are fundamentally about deterrence. These 30-day bans, these things that we absolutely know are ineffective, it's not actually going to influence people's propensity to re-engage in that behavior unless you're treating the underlying causes. We know in society, in criminal contexts, increasing the severity of punishments doesn't actually do much at all to deter crime. There is no proof that the death penalty, for example, actually deters criminals. There's no proof.
MICAH LOEWINGER I first called Lindsay back in December to hear about her research on how to reduce harassment and bullying online. Fifteen minutes into the conversation, we agreed to embark on an experiment that would keep us digitally tethered for the next six months.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Honestly, like, I don't know what I'm going to do when this is over. Like, I feel like you and I have bonded in the trenches and I don't...like what comes next?
MICAH LOEWINGER That's true. I feel like we got like mad at each other.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Yeah.
MICAH LOEWINGER And like we made up.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL We did. We went through a whole thing.
MICAH LOEWINGER We wanted to test out Lindsay's idea, a pretty radical solution to online harassment based on the sort of restorative justice that Danielle Sered has pioneered.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Learning from restorative justice, we can think about a more empathetic model that treats people not as singularly bad, you know, as like, “trolls” who are here to cause trouble, but understands the nuance and the very human reasons why people engage in things like harassment and hate speech online. Yes, absolutely there are people who are coordinating harassment campaigns on a large scale for the express purpose of silencing people, often marginalized people. But that's a minority of cases.
MICAH LOEWINGER I also think that if people thought of mediation as a viable tool, they may be more likely to resolve a conflict than, say, dox someone, harass them. Violence begets violence begets violence begets violence. What excites me about the notion of mediation is if you can just sever that chain of online violence and harassment earlier, you save--in theory--infinite harm down the line.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Absolutely. I think that's super spot on.
MICAH LOEWINGER The only way to test out the idea was to test it out. With real people, with real problems, in a real community. Instead of punishing online jerks by simply kicking them off the site. Could we work with them to reform their behavior? So we turned to Reddit. And I know what you're thinking and you're right. Reddit does have a reputation for hosting some of the most vile speech on the Internet, but we chose it for a few reasons. One, a lot of people use it. More people visit Reddit than Instagram or Netflix. It's the six most-popular site on the American Web. Two, strangers on Reddit tend to congregate around shared interests. So we can assume that the harassed and the harasser at least share some common ground.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Yes, you have different cultures interacting and different people from all over the world, but they're uniting around sort of a common cause or a common theme or a common topic.
MICAH LOEWINGER Eventually, Lindsay and I set up shop on r/christianity, one of the biggest online forums for discussion about the religion with about 200,000 active members.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL That's so ironic because restorative justice is like so Christian at its core. And retributive justice, which is the foil for restorative justice, is like straight out of the Bible, like “eye for an eye.” I just think it's really funny that we ended up in r/christianity.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, we ended up there because I was originally speaking with the guy who runs a popular political subreddit. I don't I don't want to get this guy in any trouble, any more trouble than I've already gotten him in. And basically, just from speaking with me, he ended up being doxed multiple times. And I think I reached out to like ten different communities, just putting feelers out, being like, “hey, I want to talk to you hear about what you do, blah, blah.” And I heard from Bruce, the top moderator of r/christianity. And I could tell just from the way his name is written on the subreddit that he was an atheist. And I was like, “Weird. I got to talk to this guy.”
How do people feel about an atheist at the helm of the Christianity subreddit?
BRUCE I think some of them are very furious about it and use that as a reason to go other places. Other people look at what I've done. And what I've done is tried very hard to be respectful of the range of opinions within Christianity.
MICAH LOEWINGER Bruce is a computer programmer living in the Pacific Northwest. He's nocturnal. So we often spoke at odd hours. He told me that he became the highest ranking moderator in the Christianity subreddit, because he's been around the longest of anyone on the Mod team. That authority grants him final say on the community's policy decisions, taking down posts and banning unruly redditors. It's super time-consuming, but Bruce sticks with it because he's genuinely curious about what it means to be a good person and finds Christians to be thoughtful people.
BRUCE We get people with relationship issues like, “we've been having sex and I want to stop and he doesn't, because I've had some sort of spiritual awakening,” or “I have fallen in love with an atheist. What do I do?”
MICAH LOEWINGER And do you respond to that?
BRUCE No, I don't feel the need to say something in response to that. The Christians usually handle that.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's the wholesome, altruistic side of the forum. But Bruce's Mod team, 17 of them total, spend most of their time containing its darker elements. They’re volunteers scanning the forum day and night for language that breaks the subreddit’s rules.
AGENT SMITH RADIO The big categories for what we deal with every day. The first one is our rule 1.3 which is for bigotry, like calling a gay person a sodomite.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is another r/christianity Mod who goes by the screen name Agent Smith Radio, but I call him ASR for short.
AGENT SMITH RADIO Or there's interdenominational bigotry. You can say, for instance, that “I believe that the Catholic Church is messing up how they should be handling the abuse of clergy upon young children.” That's fine. But if you were to say, “the Catholic church is the whore of Babylon as represented in Revelation,” that crosses the line.
MICAH LOEWINGER Offline, ASR is very active in his Canadian Baptist church. He takes immense pride in his work in the forum. But he told me that he's seen a lot of mods burn out because of the psychological toll of the work.
AGENT SMITH RADIO I've had attempts of doxing against me. I have had death threats against me. We have a lot of atheists who are part of our forum, certainly Jews, Muslims come by as well. Every threat I've gotten, every hateful message, it's been from another Christian.
MICAH LOEWINGER OK. So I'll be honest. One stereotype that I have of Christians is like Flanders from The Simpsons.
[The Simpsons clip]
MICAH LOEWINGER Which is why it shocks me when you said that people send you death threats and try to dox you in the name of Christianity. Doesn't that sort of seem contradictory?
AGENT SMITH RADIO It does in a sense. And the issue is, is that if you read the Bible itself, especially the New Testament, you'll find that Christianity doesn't really look the way that Ned Flanders looks. Even if you read Jesus himself in the Gospels, he ends up in a lot of debates with a group of Jews known as the Pharisees, especially as they try to find ways to frame him in order to have him executed by Rome.
[ MOVIE CLIP]
JESUS: Yours is the house of desolation, the home of the lizard and the spider! Serpents, brood of vipers, how can you escape damnation? [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER So you're saying there are some some pugnacious sides to Christian figures, Jesus included, in the New Testament?
AGENT SMITH RADIO That's precisely it. People try to emulate these figures because they found the true faith. Everyone else is wrong. And because I am hiding the truth from other Christians, I'm going to hell.
MICAH LOEWINGER Oh, my God.
Bruce, the top moderator eventually agreed to let Lindsay and me tinker around in r/christianity, in part because he'd become frustrated with how liberally his team was banning difficult users, especially those fire and brimstone fundamentalist redditors ASR described.
AGENT SMITH RADIO I helped one guy through maybe six months of nonstop attempts to ban him. He called homosexuality a “vile affliction.” And I think he might have gotten that from something Paul said. But it was, it all seemed to me to be grounded in scripture. There was a lot of backlash about it. We have a lot of gay Christians. We have a lot of liberal Christians. We have a lot of liberal atheists. And there was pretty major outcry.
MICAH LOEWINGER Why do you invest so much time in these people who many others would say don't deserve your--
AGENT SMITH RADIO because I don't feel that way. I think that if someone is expressing a viewpoint, if someone is there in good faith, I support that. Like what you said about “why do you spend some time on, this much time on people who aren’t worth it?” just enraged me. I’m not going to take it out on you, but just that attitude--it just offends me to my core. That these people are not worth it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Coming up, Lindsay and I put our thoroughly unscientific experiment in restorative justice to the test. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger. My online restorative justice experiment--and I'm using that word “experiment” very loosely--with researcher Lindsay Blackwell officially began on April 17th when we posted a summary of the project to the r/christianity forum.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Do you want me just to, like, read it?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Restorative justice is an alternative to harsh punishment in criminal contexts and in schools. Speaking face-to-face with the person who hurt you or who you hurt is difficult, but it can lead to meaningful resolution in a way that punishment alone cannot.
MICAH LOEWINGER What was the reaction to our post?
LINDSAY BLACKWELL I was expecting pushback. I don't think I was expecting people to be so deeply engaged.
REDDITOR I love this. This is the essence of Christianity. We need to reflect the example of Jesus. And he was all about healing.
REDDITOR I personally don't see how restorative justice can do anything in an environment where the punishments aren't really real and everything is done through screen.
REDDITOR Criminals need to be punished regardless if they become better people are not.
REDDITOR In my mind, restorative justice would be far more in line with a loving father.
MICAH LOEWINGER Over the next three months, we took on three cases. One success, one failure, and another one that was somewhere in between. I expected that we'd have to hunt for willing guinea pigs, but the first one fell into my lap. A user, we’ll call him James, sent me a private message and said he wanted to participate in the restorative process.
JAMES Hey there. I was a pretty well-known user on the Christianity subreddit. I got in trouble a few times and then eventually received a permanent ban about a year ago. Something you said resonated with me.
MICAH LOEWINGER He was very moved by something that you wrote, which was that people we write off as “bad people online” often have very human motivations for treating others like crap.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL You're gonna make me cry. That makes me feel so good.
MICAH LOEWINGER James is an atheist and an amateur theological historian. He has a lot of opinions about the Bible.
JAMES I'm a sort of Bible and theology nerd. So I basically I go to the subreddits, I kind of do a sort of misinformation policing, or what I like to think is, correcting factual errors.
MICAH LOEWINGER Over five years of posting in the forum, James earned a reputation for being really aggressive towards others with less progressive interpretations of the text, especially Catholics.
JAMES In a nutshell, for being a big jerk to other commenters on the subreddit.
MICAH LOEWINGER The final straw was when he plainly admitted to gaslighting Christians in the forum, picking arguments that would make them question their faith. Revenge, he said at the time, because Christians had been meaner to him than anyone else in his life.
BRUCE And eventually he was banned. And that's what led to this process with you.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Bruce again, the forum’s atheist top moderator. I invited James to a private chat room using a program called Discord, where the three of us could speak in real time. Not voice chat, text chat--the way most strangers communicate online. As far as restorative justice goes, this case was a bit more like how it looks in schools. Bruce was the teacher, the authority figure, and James was the student acting out, getting into fights. I took on the role of the neutral mediator. My job was to help James reflect on his behavior.
JAMES Honestly, it kind of felt more like therapy than anything else. It was very nonjudgmental, which I definitely appreciated.
MICAH LOEWINGER in the chat room, Bruce sent James examples of times when he had been particularly harsh with other redditors. My strategy was to ask James lots of questions. “Why did you say that?” “Why do you tend to get so upset with certain redditors?” I called him up afterward as he combed through our questions and his old posts. I was surprised by what he said.
JAMES Rereading these things is almost kind of shocking to me. In one particular conversation, I thought someone else was the instigator of the conflict and I felt ganged up on. But rereading it, it looks like I'm clearly the aggressor. I certainly didn't remember it that way. I think I've been going through some like reevaluation about the way that I communicate. An aspect of my personality is to say things I don't mean when I'm at that peak of frustration. Outside of the Internet, what person has not had a conflict with their parents and said “I hate you, I wish I was never born”?
MICAH LOEWINGER You know, I asked them to give advice to other people and he basically just said, “know your triggers,” to use a very 2019 word. Like, know what sets you off. And you don't have to necessarily censor yourself. But you can ask yourself, “Is this the kind of conversation I want to get into?” So I thought that was really insightful.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL That is. That's amazing.
MICAH LOEWINGER James told us that he's been apologizing to a few of the registers he beefed with in the past. So Bruce decided to unbanned him. And since then, Bruce says his behavior has been different.
BRUCE I looked at his recent stuff and he seems to be doing quite a bit better.
MICAH LOEWINGER I will say that I do think he participated in this project because he wanted to get back into the community. This was not some act of altruism, which I think is totally fine.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL It's not even just totally fine. It's totally expected. The carrot on the stick is like if you confront what you've done and who you've hurt and why you did it, we will welcome you back like we'll welcome you back into this community that you've enjoyed or that you benefit from.
MICAH LOEWINGER Well, if everyone were like James, I think this would have been a slam-dunk project.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Yeah. Seriously. Like call up MacArthur, like we solved the Internet. If everyone were like James….
MICAH LOEWINGER And it pains me to pop that balloon, because the next case was kind of an utter failure. Basically, one of the moderators, ASR, came to me with this case and said that he was concerned about a very conservative member of the community. We've been calling him User L.
AGENT SMITH RADIO User L is an interesting case. He's been using the Christianity subreddit for at least five years, if not longer than that. He doesn't really have many friends amongst the user base. There are few topics he's obsessed with, but the one that really, really ticks a lot of people off is his views on homosexuality. Being gay itself is a sin. This view is somewhat divorced from traditional Christianity, but you find it very popular with evangelicals and independent fundamentalist Baptists in the United States.
MICAH LOEWINGER ASR told me that User L was being harassed by what seems like five or six different pro-LGBTQ Christians, accusing him of killing someone else on Reddit.
AGENT SMITH RADIO One in particular was very persistent over the course of about two months, made a new account every single day just to say, “Hey, this is your daily reminder that User L leads people to suicide.” We had no idea what the heck this user was talking about when these posts first started showing up.
MICAH LOEWINGER ASR invaded User L into our Discord chat so we could get to the bottom of this. User L sent us something he'd written on a different Reddit forum years ago--a short eulogy for a woman he'd met online. They'd become friends, running a very fringe community where she shared videos of “ex-gay testimonials,” which are stories of Christians who claim that through conversion therapy or an alleged act of faith defeated these troublesome feelings.
It's about being emotionally pure and not having those emotional enmeshments with women, knowing that when I'm starting to cross the line in my heart… [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Based on what I found in her old Reddit posts, User L’s friend was open about suffering from bipolar disorder and the pain that God was judging her for her attraction to women. Things got worse when she divorced her husband.
AGENT SMITH RADIO And she unfortunately committed suicide several years ago. And when he saw the news, he was noticeably shocked. He hadn’t talked to her in a while and we really don't know much about it beyond that. However, some LGBTQ-supporting users noticed this and said, “Well, your philosophy drove this woman to suicide.” Whether or not that's true, we'll likely never know.
MICAH LOEWINGER What we do know is that study after study have shown that not only does conversion therapy not work, it's deeply harmful to those who receive it.
NEWS REPORT LGBTQ adolescents that experience conversion therapy or rejection from their families and faith communities are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those from accepting environments. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill Friday that makes Colorado the 18th state to ban gay conversion therapy for minors. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I will admit that when you brought this case to us, it horrified me. Because we agreed to take on whatever issues seemed pertinent at the time in the forum. And frankly, this is a really messy, scary one.
AGENT SMITH RADIO Yeah.
MICAH LOEWINGER I tracked down five people who had alleged that User L killed his friend and I asked them if they would join us in our Discord session to talk with him and hopefully through mediation, find some way to move forward. But we never were able to start it because none of them would talk to this guy. And they basically said to me that I should F off.
AGENT SMITH RADIO Of course, they're going to tell you if they screw off, it's like you're supporting evil in their minds.
MICAH LOEWINGER There was another thing that I heard from a couple of User L’s critics that stuck with me. They said they were doing this not to terrorize User L, but to warn the young LGBTQ redditors who scour these types of forums looking for advice on how to reconcile their sexual orientation with their faith. I told ASR that as long as people like User L are allowed to advocate for conversion therapy in r/christianity, this form of harassment would likely persist.
AGENT SMITH RADIO There are many moderators on Christianity who don't believe that it's wrong to be gay. We would all say that conversion camps and conversion therapy are wrong. But is it our right to say that this fundamentalist belief is not a legitimate part of Christianity, that it should be excluded from the discussion? It's ultimately the question of censorship in a place where we claim that all opinions are welcome.
MICAH LOEWINGER At a certain point, I sensed that we needed to stop for fear of just making the problem much worse. So we failed. And I guess I'm curious to know what we can learn from this.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL I'm so torn on this. Like, I honestly can't land somewhere on this, Micah. Because the way that society progresses is through pushback on people like User L. That's how we achieve progress and change. But at the same time, I don't want everybody to be doxing everyone that they don't agree with. What restorative justice shouldn't do is ask marginalized people to do even more labor, to explain themselves, to be more civil and be less angry to people who are fundamentally oppressing them. So I don't know. I don't know how we succeed in a case like that. I don't know the answer. And I feel like every single day I'm like, still trying to figure that out.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's easy for me to say that User L was an insurmountable challenge. I don't feel that way about the third case.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL No.
MICAH LOEWINGER It could have gone differently. And that's why it makes me not feel so awesome.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL It's a mixed bag. It's a real mixed bag. We had some wins and we had some losses.
MICAH LOEWINGER Now for our third and final case. After we announced to the subreddit that we would be providing mediation, I heard from a woman named Melissa Fein. She told me that Bruce, the top moderator and an old Mod, had banned her website, Fig Tree Christian from the subreddit.
MELISSA FEIN Fig Tree’s URL has been banned and any mention of Fig Tree has been banned.
MICAH LOEWINGER Melissa is a pastor with a Protestant denomination called Disciples of Christ. That Website, Fig Tree Christian, is her ministry, a 100 percent-online church for people who want to pray together.
MELISSA FEIN Fig Tree started with Reddit users, people who needed communities so badly because most of them were physically hurt by the church.
MICAH LOEWINGER Can you tell me what that means?
MELISSA FEIN In some cases, it's the #MeToo movement. It's people who have dealt with sexual abuse or misconduct, and they were pushed out of the church because of that or they were witness to the sexual abuse and saw the church didn't handle it well and left with the person who was abused. When your place of support is the place that hurt you, it’s a very deep wound. And to know that, OK, so I don't have to walk into Fig Tree Christian, I can engage at my own time. I can be disconnected at first. So there's been people who have stuck around and found healing and there's people who have found healing and found their way back to a physical brick-and-mortar church. And the fact that it has been taken away just it breaks my heart.
MICAH LOEWINGER Without access to r/christianity, one of the Internet's biggest Christian forums, Fig Tree, was struggling to reach new congregants. To regain access, she told me she'd be willing to speak with Bruce about the conflict that got Fig Tree banned in the first place.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL It's hard to explain this one because it's so fundamentally about like inner community politics.
BRUCE It was just a giant fiasco.
MICAH LOEWINGER Stay with me. This gets a little complicated. The drama was over the question of whether or not fundamentalist members of the community should be allowed to say extreme things from the Bible, like criminalizing homosexuality. And Bruce felt that the subreddit should prioritize freedom of expression. But if they were going to outlaw this sort of speech, there should be like a super thorough deliberation about it. And then there was another cohort who were saying, “No, why do we need to explain this? That's just wrong and straight up homophobic. It doesn't live up to societal standards of what is permissible speech.”
LINDSAY BLACKWELL So Melissa was in the latter group and--
MICAH LOEWINGER Things got much worse when a moderator in Melissa's cohort broke protocol and banned an evangelical user for homophobic comments.
MELISSA FEIN He got so many passes at that point. Way more than the normal user.
BRUCE It was not a good situation. I wish it had been done better.
MICAH LOEWINGER This all angered Bruce's ally, Outsider, the top moderator at the time. Then Outsider caught wind of an active mutiny attempt in which Melissa and other moderators were going behind his back to the admins--who are the most powerful authorities in all of the land of Reddit--to overthrow Outsider.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL And there was a lot of misinformation and uncertainty about who was talking to whom and whether people were being truthful.
MICAH LOEWINGER Then Outsider began an investigation into Melissa's conduct. She heard that outsider was saying things about her behind her back, and so she leaked some private mod conversations that ended up spreading in r/christianity. Still with me?
MELISSA FEIN When everything went down, I did share some screen caps of some conversations in order to protect myself and my reputation.
MICAH LOEWINGER It was an utter mess. Redditors started taking sides, a bunch of mods were fired, some quit. In retaliation, Outsider banned Melissa's online church.
MELISSA FEIN They've hobbled...they've hobbled an entire ministry. I really will take any action to try to get that un-hobbled.
MICAH LOEWINGER So, Bruce and Melissa, with Lindsay acting as the mediator, this time, chatted in Discord for seven hours over two days to see if they could resolve this two-year-old feud. Because they're seen as leaders in the community, we hoped that if they could achieve restoration and share the success story in the forum, it might promote positive behavior in r/christianity. And for a while, it seemed like we were making progress until there was a moment where it derailed.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Oh, totally.
MICAH LOEWINGER And where if we were in the same room, everyone might have been out of their chairs screaming at each other.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL It's very possible.
MICAH LOEWINGER Melissa had pulled up one of those old leaked conversations in which Bruce had called the whole 2017 ordeal a “witch hunt,” an unnecessary vendetta against Melissa. But Melissa told Bruce that way back when she had interpreted that witch hunt thing as a sexist comment. Bruce said that it wasn't sexist, that he was actually defending her and that the whole restorative session was bull s***. It was impossible to move forward after that.
BRUCE I can acknowledge the way it made her feel. I just won't take responsibility for it. Yes, I can see how you would take it as sexist. No, it wasn't sexist. Yes, I can see how you'd think I was saying a particular thing. I was not saying that. I was saying something completely different. And I'll explain what I was saying. And then I explained what I was saying. And then that made no impact.
MICAH LOEWINGER But like you did lose your cool in that session.
BRUCE Yeah, I did. You bet. Because I was pissed off.
MICAH LOEWINGER When you look back at this fight that happened those two years ago, the harm as I see it is: It turned into a public flame war. It led to a whole bunch of moderators leaving. It led to a rift in the community that people messaged me about. All of this is just like toxicity that is just now in the air. And I wonder if mediation or some kind of de-escalation technique might have saved r/christianity from the ridiculous turmoil that came after the fight between you, Melissa, and the other moderators.
MICAH LOEWINGER Ultimately, both Melissa and Bruce agreed that miscommunication had played a central role in the feud because of the session, Bruce reinstated Melissa's posting privileges so she can resume spreading the word about her online church. Still, neither are happy with how our Discord chat went down and Lindsay and I don't blame them.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL If we had training in mediation, that probably would've gone a lot differently.
MICAH LOEWINGER But on balance, we were pleased with how the overall project had gone.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Even just the basics of like taking a practice that's fundamentally about in-person conversation and translating that into an online space...that's huge in itself. So for me, this is 100 percent a success, just because of everything I've learned.
MICAH LOEWINGER For the last bit of this hour, I'd like to address the fine people who run Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and any site that moderate speech. Hi there. After working on this project for six months, Lindsay and I came up with a few suggestions for you. First, ask yourselves, how would the culture of your platform look if you invested in restorative and rehabilitative approaches to moderation rather than just punishment and reactive ones? I want to go back to what Danielle Sered of Common Justice told us about the root causes of violence.
DANIELLE SERED We know that the core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one's economic needs.
MICAH LOEWINGER Are the so-called trolls on your platforms victims of hateful behavior themselves? Did they show up after being kicked off another social media site? De-platforming might be a good idea for the Alex Jones’ of the world, but the rise in right wing reactionary sites like Gab have demonstrated that kicking hoards of hateful people off your platform might actually push them to far more extreme parts of the web. Why not try to talk with the people who sent Ashley Feinberg anti-Semitic memes like we did with James? God knows you guys collect enough info on all of us to track them down. And they're more likely to listen and reflect on their behavior than you might think.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Obviously, it's not something that's going to work for everyone. There are definitely people who sort of cruise into a space just to cause trouble. But those people are pretty easy to identify and remove.
MICAH LOEWINGER And if a victim of online bullying or hate speech is in any way uncomfortable with participating in a restorative process, they don't have to.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL That's when you look at proxies. So people who are equipped to do the educational work but are not going to be directly harmed by intense confrontation with someone who said something racist.
MICAH LOEWINGER Social workers.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Social workers, absolutely. People who have experience with people in conflict. Tech is not invented conflict. Tech is just another vector for humans to get in each other's business in really aggressive ways like like we've been doing since the beginning of time.
MICAH LOEWINGER I really hope you social media companies pay scientists and social workers to do this type of work because damn, I can tell you from experience it's really difficult. But you could also offer free video courses for mediation and de-escalation for Facebook group moderators or the everyday social media user. Why not empower the people who want to address conflicts in their own lives, who want to intervene before online conflicts get worse? And I think that would be an incredible service.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL I mean, I 100 percent agree, but I also think it's really funny that you're framing it in terms of like service. Yes, it's a service to the Internet and the world at large, but also it's like it's a sound business decision because all that's going to do at the end of the day is reduce operations costs for these mega platforms that have to rely on thousands of underpaid part time workers to review massive amounts of content. If you're equipping the people who already care about these spaces, like you said, with better tools, they're doing your job for you.
MICAH LOEWINGER Lindsay, I'm so glad you were able to rephrase my flower power sentiment with a strong capitalist backbone.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Please don't. Oh, my God. Please don't describe me as a capitalist on--
MICAH LOEWINGER On National Public Radio.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL My dad will be thrilled. But like the Lord. Listen, I know how to appeal to platforms. That's all I got to say.
MICAH LOEWINGER Lindsay, thank you for all your help.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL Thanks so much.
MICAH LOEWINGER Lindsay Blackwell is an online harassment researcher and a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan's School of Information. For On the Media, I’m Micah Loewinger. Big thanks to Kat Lowe, BATS and the r/christianity community who made this piece possible.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show, which was produced almost entirely by Micah Loewinger and was edited by our executive producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Josh Hahn. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.