BOB GARFIELD: This On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. And at this point I hand the mic over to our producer Micah Loewinger, who has been immersed for months in the content moderation question and has even conducted an experiment that he's going to tell you about right quick.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, All the big tech companies are asking questions that humankind has been trying to answer since ancient times–namely, how do we get people to be nice to each other and follow the rules. And when they break the rules, what do we do about it? For instance, if I call you, kind listener, a big dumb [BEEP] and then threaten to kill you repeatedly on Facebook, then Facebook will probably suspend my account for 30 days or banned me altogether. In theory, to stop me from being a jerk on their site and send a message to other potential jerks. It's that eye for an eye old testament style of punishment called retributive justice that you see throughout our society today. But researcher Lindsay Blackwell, who we heard from before the break, says that 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 context, 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, like, bonded in the trenches and I don't like, what comes next?
MICAH LOEWINGER: That's true. I feel like we got like, we got like mad at each other.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: Yeah.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Like we made up and--
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: We did, we went through the whole thing. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: We wanted to test out Lindsay's idea, a pretty radical solution to online harassment based on a progressive theory of justice. It's an approach that's caught on in American schools and criminal courts called restorative justice.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: The way that restorative approaches achieve justice, the offender, the person who's done something wrong, gets an opportunity to make amends.
DANIELLE SERED: It's our job to intervene in a way that reduces the likelihood that that harm or that poor behavior will happen again.
MICAH LOEWINGER: That's Danielle Sered, a superstar in the world of restorative justice and the author of the book Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, And a Road to Repair.
DANIELLE SERED: I'm in the business of ending violence and we know that 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. And so we've baked into our central response to violence exactly the things that generate it. That's not what a society that wants to be safe does.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Nearly 65 percent of Americans who commit a violent crime and go to prison end up back in the criminal justice system because Sered says, our system isn't designed for rehabilitation. Prisoners are disproportionately black and brown. They may be traumatized by the violence they witnessed behind bars and they can't get a job when they're released because of the stigma. Compare that to Sered's restorative program called common justice, which has rehabilitated over 90 percent of violent offenders. Sered's book is full of stories about her mediation with victims and those who hurt them. Sitting in a circle, the parties settled their problems in face to face conversation. Each case can take hundreds of hours, but by the end, both the offender and the victim find relief from the anger, shame, and trauma of the crime.
DANIELLE SERED: The young man who worked at a restaurant for cash was on his way home from work and was robbed of his week's wages and brutally beaten. And in the aftermath of that, he did experience typical post-traumatic stress symptoms. He had difficulty sleeping, he had headaches, he was nauseous and he also had great difficulty in public. Like he would walk down the street and said, even if a quote unquote little old lady came up behind him, that his mind would race and his stomach would turn and his heart would race. And he would sometimes miss work just because the overwhelming feeling of going and returning was more than he could bear. And once we got to the circle, partway through it, he and the person who hurt him were in real conversation with each other. And the responsible party said to him, he said, 'every man older than me and my family has served at least 10 years in prison. My older brother served 11 years. And each of those 11 years, he won the prison boxing league championship. He's the person who taught me how to fight and that night on the street I showed you the wrong end of it. But he's also the person who taught me how to defend myself and if you want me to, I'll teach you that too.' The victim said, 'I'd love that.' And so we went, we did it and we went to a local martial arts studio. And so first, the young man who had committed the robbery was standing as though he was being held and demonstrating how you get out of different holds. And then they switched position. And this young survivor who had gone through this terrible experience, who was still suffering from PTSD, was standing there and he was being held by the same person who held him that night. By the end, the young man was holding him with all his strength and over and over and over again. The survivor was able to break free of that grasp. And so the next day the survivor called me on the phone. He said, 'Danielle, I'm calling to tell you nothing happened. I just walked by a six foot four man and nothing happened. 'Meaning his mind didn't race, his stomach didn't turn, his heart didn't race and he had about half an hour before he had to be at work. So he went to Times Square so` he could walk by as many people as possible. And he's on the phone with him and you hear him saying like, 'hold on, I see a tall one.' Running across the street and saying, 'nothing, nothing.' Like, I challenge anyone to tell me that young man didn't deserve it. That if we could produce that outcome for him without in any way endangering anyone else's safety, that it's not our basic moral obligation to do so.
MICAH LOEWINGER: The robber here put in the time and effort to make amends, to help the victim heal. And in return, he paid his penalty with community service instead of jail time. Years later, he hasn't committed another crime.
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 quote unquote 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. [END CLIP]
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 sixth 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 in 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. [END CLIP]
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 10 different communities just putting feelers out, being like, 'Hey, I want to talk to you here about what you do, blah, 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. So haha, I got to talk to this guy. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: 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 have done and what I've done is tried very hard to be respectful of the range of opinions within Christianity. [END CLIP]
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, 'uh, we'd been having sex and I want to stop and he doesn't. Um, because I've had some sort of spiritual awakening.' Or, 'I have fallen in level with an atheist. What do I do?' Um--
MICAH LOEWINGER: And do you, 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. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: That's the wholesome, altruistic side of the forum. But Bruce's mod team, 15 of them total, spend much of their time containing it's darker elements. Their volunteers scanning the forum day and night for language that breaks the subreddits rules.
AGENT SMITH RADIO: The big categories for what we deal with every day, Uh, the first one is our rule 1.3, which is for bigotry. Like calling a gay person a sodomite. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: This is another r/ Christianity Mod who goes by the screen name AGENT SMITH RADIOio, 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. [END CLIP]
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 burnout 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, uh, certainly Jews, Muslims come by as well. Every threat I've gotten, every hateful message it's been from another Christian.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Okay. So I'll be honest, one stereotype that I have of Christians is like, um, Flanders from the Simpsons.
AGENT SMITH RADIO: Hahaha
[CLIP OF THE SIMPSONS]
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 that, doesn't that sort of seem contradictory?
AGENT SMITH RADIO: 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 a Jews known as the Pharisees, especially as they try to find ways to frame him in order to have him executed by Rome.
[CLIP OF JESUS OF NAZARETH]
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. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: Bruce, the top moderator eventually agreed to let Lindsay and me tinker around in r/ Christianity. In part because he become frustrated with how liberally his team was banning difficult users, especially those fire and brimstone fundamentalist redditors ASR described.
BRUCE: I helped one guy through, uh, maybe six months of, of nonstop attempts to ban him. He called homosexuality vile affliction. And I think he might've gotten that from something Paul said. But it was all, 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 uh, there was pretty major outcry.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Why do you invest so much time in, in these people who many others would say don't deserve your--
BRUCE: Because I don't feel that way. I think that if someone is expressing a viewpoint, if someone is, is they're in good faith.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BRUCE: I, I support that. Like what you said about, about why do you spend some time on this much time, people who aren't worth it. It just enraged me. I'm not, I'm not going to take it out on you, but just that attitude, I just, it just offends me to my core. That these people are not worth it. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: Coming up, Lindsay and I put our thoroughly unscientific experiment in restorative justice to the test. This is On The Media.
MICAH LOEWINGER: 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 to just to, like, read it?
MICAH LOEWINGER: Yeah.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
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 posts?
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: I was expecting pushback. I don't think I was expecting people to be so deeply engaged.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I love this. This is the essence of Christianity. We need to reflect the example of Jesus and he was all about healing.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: 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 a screen.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Criminals need to be punished regardless if they become better people or not.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: In my mind, restorative justice would be far more in line with a loving father. [END CLIP]
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 quote unquote bad people online often have very human motivations for treating others like crap. [END CLIP]
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: You're going to make me cry. That makes you feel so good. [END CLIP]
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 subreddit, I kind of do a sort of misinformation policing or like what I like to think is correcting factual errors. [END CLIP]
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. [END CLIP]
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. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: That's Bruce again, the forums, 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, I kind of felt more like therapy and then anything else. It was very nonjudgmental, which I definitely appreciated. [END CLIP]
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 come through our questions and his old posts. I was surprised by what he said.
JAMES: Rereading these things as 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 a re-reading 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 re-evaluation 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 one person has not had a conflict with their parents and saying, 'I hate you. I wish I was never born.' [END CLIP]
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MICAH LOEWINGER: You know, I asked him to give advice to other people and he, and he basically just said, 'know your triggers.' To use a very 2019 word. Like no, 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 redditors he beefed with in the past. So Bruce decided to unbanned him. And since then Bruce says his behavior has been different. [END CLIP]
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 McCarthy fire. Like we solve 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, um, 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 a 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 a very popular with evangelicals and an 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 invited User L into our discord chat so we could get to the bottom of this. User L send 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 quote unquote ex-gay testimonials, which are stories of Christians who claimed that through conversion therapy or an alleged act of faith defeated these troublesome feelings.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It's about being emotionally pure and not having those emotional in meshments with women. Knowing that when I'm starting to cross the line in my heart, that's all--[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 notice 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.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: 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.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: 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 by 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 to screw off. It's like you're supporting evil in their minds. [END CLIP]
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, uh, 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 believe 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, 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 push back 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. [END CLIP]
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. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: Melissa is a pastor with a Protestant denomination called disciples of Christ. That website, Fig Tree Christian is her ministry, a 100% online church for people who want to pray together.
MELISSA FEIN: Fig Trees 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 um, 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, okay, 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. [END CLIP]
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, this as a giant fiasco. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: Stay with me. This gets a little complicated.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MICAH LOEWINGER: 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 [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: And things got much worse when a moderator in Melissa's cohort broke protocol and abandoned 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. [END CLIP]
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 and 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, 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 leaks some private mod conversations that ended up spreading in r/ Christianity. Still with me?
MELISSA FEIN: When everything went down. I did share some screencaps of some conversations in order to protect myself and my reputation. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: It was an utter mess. Redditors started taking sides. A bunch of mods were fired, some quit. These now public conversations featured a picture of Outsiders face, which he used as an Avatar only when he was speaking behind closed doors, revealing his true identity to any savvy redditor who knew where to look. Therefore, the leak registered as a doxing attempt. 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 unhobbled. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: So Bruce and Melissa with Lindsay acting as the mediator at 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 awhile it seemed like we were making progress until.
MICAH LOEWINGER: There was a moment where it derailed.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: Oh, totally.
MICAH LOEWINGER: And where if we were in the same room, everyone might've been out of their chairs screaming at each other.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: That's very possible.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Melissa had pulled up one of those old leaked conversations in which Bruce had called the whole 2017 or deal a witch hunt and 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[bleep]. It was impossible to move forward after that.
BRUCE: I can acknowledge the way it made her feel. I've just won't take responsibility for it. Yes, I can see how you would take it as sexist. No, it wasn't the 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. I'll explain what I was saying. And I explain 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.
BRUCE: Yes. [END CLIP]
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 LINDSAYand I don't blame them.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: If we had training in mediation, that probably would have gone a lot differently. [END CLIP]
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 like that is, that's huge in itself. So for me, this is 100% of success just because of everything I've learned [END CLIP]
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, LINDSAYand 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. [END CLIP]
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 hordes 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 gonna 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. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER: And if a victim of online bullying or hate speech is in any way uncomfortable with participating in 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. The 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. [END CLIP]
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% agree, but I also think it's really funny that you're framing it in terms of like a 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, it reduces 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 capitalists backbone.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: Haha, please don't. Oh my God. Please don't describe me as a capitalist on--
MICAH LOEWINGER: On national public radio.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: Dad will be thrilled, but like, lord. Haha. Listen, I know how to appeal to platforms. That's all I gotta say.
MICAH LOEWINGER: Lindsay, thank you for all your help.
LINDSAY BLACKWELL: Thanks so much. It's been a wild ride.
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MICAH LOEWINGER: Lindsay Blackwell is an online harassment researcher and a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan School of Information. Big thanks to BATS and the r/ Christianity community who made this piece possible. For On The Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week show, which was produced almost entirely by Micah Loewinger and was edited by our executive producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Engineered this week was Josh Han. On The Media is a production of WNYC studios. I'm Bob Garfield.
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UNDERWRITING: On The Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S and James L. Knight Foundation, and the listeners of WNYC radio.