Draining The Comment Swamp

Pick your comment policy wisely. (Image Credit: Thinkstock)

As a frightening and dangerous new regime takes office and the resistance begins in earnest, many of us will face the sometimes daunting task of moderating our social media spaces during political discussions (or, as I’ve taken to calling it, “draining the comment swamp.”) 

This can be more difficult than you might think. I am an intersectional fat activist, and yet people are often shocked that their anti-fat sentiment gets deleted from my Facebook wall. I’m shocked that they’re shocked. 

I also moderate groups that have a rule of “ABSOLUTELY NO DIET OR WEIGHT LOSS TALK.” (Seriously, it’s pinned at the top in all caps.) And people regularly leave posts that start “I know that there is a rule against diet and weight loss talk, but I think that this is important so [insert diet and weight loss talk here].” Then when their comment is deleted they leave an angry message and flounce. 

While people are allowed to talk about whatever they want, they are not necessarily allowed to talk about it in every space.

I am not under any obligation to host weight loss talk, or to allow my online spaces to become a cesspool of weight-based bigotry and bullying.

I didn’t always feel this way. There was a time when I thought that I had to allow anybody to say anything in my spaces in the spirit of “open debate.” Then I realized how completely fucked up it is that I should have to debate for my right to exist and be treated with basic human respect — including and especially in my own spaces. I also realized that by allowing people to say anything, I was creating spaces that supported and perpetuated oppression.

This election has upped the ante on that. A man who ran on a campaign of unabashed racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-Queer and anti-Trans sentiment, twitter tantrum throwing, and lies is about to take the office of the President. Many of us are very aware that this is going to require a massive amount of sustained resistance, but we can be less sure what that means in terms of how we moderate our social media.

First, let’s start with two premises:

  1. You are responsible for what happens in the spaces that you created on the internet.
  2. You have every right to decide what is allowed in spaces that you created/run on the internet.

Some questions to think about:

  • Am I going to allow pro-Trump comments (i.e., Trump isn’t racist at all and is going to be the greatest President ever!)?
  • Am I going to allow Trump apologism (i.e., There are good reasons to vote for Trump; just because he ran on a campaign of blatant racism doesn’t mean that voting for him was racist.)?
  • Am I going to allow centering the feelings of Trump voters (i.e., It’s important that we take time to understand why people voted for this dumpster fire of a human being.)?
  • When people say things that are racist, sexist, ageist, classist, ableist, sizeist, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise oppressive, am I going to delete it, leave a comment to educate them, or say nothing?

Below are some samples for moderation strategies for individual spaces:

“Hardline” Approach

  • Delete any comments that support Trump, Trump apologists, center the feelings of those who voted for him and are therefore responsible for his becoming president, and all oppressive comments.

Pros: People know that they can come to your space and experience a conversation about progressive people working for progressive outcomes and resisting the tyranny of the current regime.

Cons: You may alienate people. By deleting oppressive comments and not responding to them you are missing the chance for some ally work.*

“Say Anything” Approach

  • Allow comments that support Trump, that come from Trump apologists, that center the feelings of those who voted for him, and that are oppressive.

Pros: If you feel that moderating spaces constitutes inappropriate censorship, then this will not force you into doing that.

Cons: You will alienate people who are more interested in forwarding a progressive agenda. You will support and perpetuate oppression in your space.*

Moderate Approach

  • Delete any comments that support Trump.
  • Respond to Trump apologists by explaining that people are, in fact, responsible for the outcome of their choices.
  • Respond to comments that try to center the feelings of Trump voters by explaining that they are welcome to come back to the progressive fold, but that the people responsible for this disaster that will oppress and possibly kill countless people are not those whose feelings are the most important right now. And, that we can cultivate new voters from people who didn’t actively support an absolute horror of a human being for president.
  • Respond to comments that are oppressive by pointing out that they are oppressive.

Pros: You allow more discussion, while also drawing a line about what is important to you, as well as the realities of the situation.

Cons: You may still alienate people (though fewer people than the other two approaches). You are leaving open the potential for repeated tangential discussions that don’t move a progressive agenda forward, and the amount of work that this requires can be substantial.

*Oppressive comments and ally work: There is a school of thought (to which I subscribe) that suggests that while it’s fine to delete comments that oppress a group to which you belong, if you want to work in solidarity with other oppressed groups then, when you can, you should take the time to try to educate people and give them resources instead of simply deleting their comments. It can also be helpful to remember that leaving a comment with education and resources isn’t necessarily to convince the person who made the comment, but rather to make sure that other people who see the comment (and perhaps share the sentiment) are given the opportunity to be educated.

Group Moderation

Any of the above methods can be taken in group moderation as well, but there are other considerations for groups:

  • State community rules and expectations up front.
  • Get moderators who are on the same page.
  • You can choose to address oppressive comments in your group, or you can choose to delete the comments and educate in private messages. There are pros and cons to both — leaving them up can be triggering, but deleting and educating in private messages means that you aren’t doing the education publicly where more people can see it. 
  • Understand that moderating a group can be amazing and rewarding, but it can also be a thankless job you perform for free that ends up with everyone yelling at you. Clearly stating expectations and moderating consistently can help make more good times, and make the bad times easier to get through.

Resisting the new regime is important work and a lot of that work will be done in online spaces. Taking some time now to think through how you’ll moderate the spaces that you are responsible for can save you a lot of headaches moving forward.

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