Saturday, September 6, 2014

Another Weekend, Another Discussion of Censorship: You Don't Build a Credible Catholic Community by Driving People Out of Community

Last year, as I tried to drum up discussion about what seems to me a serious shortcoming of the way National Catholic Reporter moderates comments at its discussion threads, I pointed out that the heavy reliance of NCR on a flagging system to weed out undesirable comments positively invites abuse, and lends itself to a lack of transparency. As I noted, individuals working in tandem with each other to make some people personae non gratae in NCR discussion threads clearly do gang up on those they choose to target and use the flagging system to draw negative attention on the part of NCR's moderators to these commenters.

And they do this under the guise of anonymity, both because their own usernames are quite frequently anonymous ones, and, more to the point, because the flagging system is set up to allow them to flag comments in a completely non-public way. That fact in itself invites abuse, and then when one adds to it the fact that the moderators make decisions about how to deal with flagged comments in a hidden way — apparently choosing to pay attention to flags in some cases, while completely ignoring them in other cases — one can only conclude that the system by which comments, or even commenters, are weeded out of NCR conversation threads is non-transparent. And ripe for abuse. 

It's ripe for abuse of particular people whom various other commenters may choose to target and drive from the discussion threads, because they dislike those individuals or their opinions, etc. Because that potential for abuse has concerned me for some time now, my comments about the recent censorship of Jerry Slevin by NCR have focused on the question of transparency and accountability in how NCR moderates its threads, and how it chooses to ban certain people from commenting at its site.

These issues should concern anyone promoting healthy, open, wide-ranging discussion of significant issues at Catholic blog sites, it seems to me. NCR has not chosen to engage in any kind of open discussion of how its moderators use the flagging system to moderate comments, and not even the persistent discussion of Jerry Slevin's banning at NCR has provoked that kind of transparency on the part of the NCR managing staff about how its censorship system works.

Even so, that persistent discussion is now producing some interesting case studies in the problem. Take the thread following the editorial about Archbishop Nienstedt on which I concentrated yesterday. As that thread has continued and as it has tossed around the issue of Jerry Slevin's banning, some commentators have stated overtly in the thread that they do, in fact, use the flagging system to drive people out of the discussion — off the NCR discussion threads altogether and into "billgrimspage oblivion," as the anonymous user employing the Hindi name for Brahmin, ब्राह्मण, tells John David yesterday.

Brahmin writes, 

NCR provides a little flag above each post. If you find a poster "problematic", hit the flag. Maybe with enough of those flags, the posters whose tone bothers you will go the way of your guy. Into billsgrimpage oblivion.

Brahmin's encouragment of commenters to use the flagging system to drive targeted commenters from the NCR discussion board is then followed by two comments (and here) by ATF45 in which she  (I think ATF is a she, and apologize to him/her if I have the gender wrong) states frankly that she has used the flagging system to flag every comment in the whole thread that deals with Jerry Slevin's censorship by NCR, since she agrees with AileenUSA that this discussion is beside the point — though it's responding to an NCR editorial calling for Archbishop Nienstedt to be transparent and accountable! 

ATF45 states plainly that her goal in flagging every comment in the thread dealing with Jerry Slevin's banishment is the following:

It is my hope the entire thing is taken out so that the subject of the article regarding disclosure of the results of the investigation into Nienstedt's behavior can be discussed.  

She hopes, in other words, to exercise a kind of veto power over the comments of a whole string of other commenters at NCR by using the hidden, non-transparent system of flagging a string of comments, and she encourages others to join her in that task, with the goal of having an entire discussion vanish from this NCR discussion thread. As she adds in a subsequent comment, she wants to see the "real issues" discussed, not these fringe ones.

The real issues as she determines them to be, that is to say, since not even the question of NCR's own transparency and accountability is, in her view, a real issue in a thread discussing NCR's call to be an archbishop to be transparent and accountability. 

And then there's this important aspect of the preceding thread to note: the person who directly responded to Brahmin when he called for the flagging system to be used to drive unwelcome commenters off the NCR discussion board and into "billgrimspage oblivion" was John David, a persistent and always irenic and kind commenter at NCR threads. Then as John David sought to engage Brahmin in a discussion of his proposal to use the flagging system to make targeted participants unwelcome in NCR discussion threads, suddenly at least one of John David's comments vanished from the thread, with a note indicating it had been flagged and was awaiting moderation.

(I actually had thought I had seen more than one comment by John David fall into the flagging oblivion in this thread last evening, but now, as I'm writing this posting, NCR appears to be moderating the thread and the postings in the thread marked for moderation are being approved, it seems, and it's not possible to determine how many of John David's postings had been flagged and removed to a moderation queue.*

Here's what I think happens when comments get moved to a moderation queue in NCR discussion threads: there is evidently a trigger number for flags for any given comment that automatically moves a flagged comment into a moderation queue, and once it goes into that queue, it then has to be approved by the NCR moderators before it can reappear on the thread. If, as ATF45 states she was doing, every comment in the thread has been flagged by at least one contributor — ATF45 herself — then it appears John David's irenic, kind comment(s) in response to Brahmin had been flagged by more than one user, in order to be shunted into the moderation queue.

It would seem to have been flagged by more than one user with the deliberate purpose of shutting John David down as a contributor to this NCR discussion thread, of making him unwelcome and sending him off the board into oblivion. Two other people contributing to the discussion, Terri Hemker and caiside, both note how perplexing it is that John David's comment(s) have been placed in a moderation queue, when the comment(s) in question is eminently thoughtful and measured.)

A case study that shows us a serious problem in how the NCR commenting and moderating system works, in a nutshell:

1. At least one contributor to this discussion frankly statees that he uses the flagging system to drive people he dislikes from the discussion board. 
2. That contributor functions under the anonymity of a username — and he uses an anonymous, hidden system to do his work of making targeted contributors to NCR discussion threads unwelcome. 
3. Another contributor, also one using an anonymous username, encourages people to flag every comment in a thread to which she objects, with the goal of having it erased, because it is not discussing "real issues" — though the thread began with a statement that NCR's call for transparency and accountability in Nienstedt's case is directly related to NCR's own behavior in censoring people in its discussion threads.

As I said when I first noted Jerry Slevin's censorship by NCR several days ago, 

There's a total lack of transparency in this entire process, and the process is used — again, in a very authoritarian and non-transparent "Catholic" way — to slap down and silence people who are read out of communion with no explanation. 
You don't build a credible Catholic community by behaving this way.

As I also noted in a comment in one of the lengthy threads about censorship that have developed here in recent days, though I've kvetched about comments by some NCR regulars that I consider toxic and beyond the pale, especially as those comments address gay people and gay issues, I have never called for (or wanted) those people to be driven out of NCR discussion threads altogether. I have merely asked repeatedly that they not be permitted to make ugly attacks against a targeted minority community. 

You don't build a credible Catholic community by driving people out of community, by sending them signals that their issues aren't "real issues" (while yours are, it goes without saying, real), by letting them know in no uncertain terms that they're unwelcome and deserve to be shunted off into oblivion.  This is the opposite of what being a welcoming and inclusive catholic community is all about.

Period. Bottom line.

* Please see my correction of my mistake here: I mistakenly thought these comments were being returned to the discussion thread by NCR moderators after I myself had clicked on the "awaiting moderation" tag for each of these comments, and they became visible to me. It then appeared that they had been returned to the thread, but that turns out to have been the case only because I had clicked on the "awaiting moderation" tag. After I returned to the thread this morning, they once again appear as awaiting moderation.

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