Mod­er­ate threat

Tracy King dis­cusses the role of mod­er­a­tors in on­line dis­course, and the lack of train­ing and sup­port they of­ten re­ceive

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Tracy King dis­cusses the role of mod­er­a­tors in on­line dis­course.

He once had to ban an­other mod­er­a­tor for abus­ing their power

Last month I looked at in-game bul­ly­ing and whether play­ers are en­ti­tled to an en­vi­ron­ment they con­sider safe. I demon­strated that on­line bul­ly­ing is real and some­times has con­se­quences for the bul­lied, but now I’d like to ex­am­ine the con­se­quences for the bully, and how peo­ple run­ning an on­line ser­vice – games or so­cial me­dia – deal with them. Yep, I’m go­ing to talk about mod­er­a­tors.

It’s an ugly word that con­jures up im­ages of au­thor­i­tar­i­ans mad with power, pass­ing down judge­ment on the lit­tle peo­ple at the whim of mood or too heav­ily in­ter­preted rules. This stereo­type ex­ists be­cause it can be true – I’ll never for­get a par­tic­u­larly heavy-handed mod sus­pend­ing any­one who used the word ‘nim­rod’ as an in­sult. It was ab­surd, sub­jec­tive and in­cred­i­bly hu­man. But for the most part, mod­er­a­tors only in­ter­vene when needed.

And that’ s the prob­lem. Hu­man scan be jerks. Some peo­ple want to watch the world burn – think of the pub­lic full-scale replica of Den­mark built by the Dan­ish gov­ern­ment in Mine craft and ru­ined in hours, which is re­ally funny but also aw­ful if you think about it. But th­ese peo­ple are usu­ally in the mi­nor­ity.

When rules (or in Den­mark’s case, set­tings) are in place to min­imise anti-so­cial be­hav­iour, it usu­ally has a chill­ing ef­fect and the group as a whole be­haves bet­ter than if no rules are in place. But then, for hu­mans tend­ing to­wards jerk­i­ness, it only takes one mod­er­a­tor to overdo their be­hav­iour and sud­denly a fun, safe en­vi­ron­ment be­comes a re­stric­tive, op­pres­sive one. One for­mer em­ployee of an MMO told me that, as a mod­er­a­tor, he once had to ban an­other mod­er­a­tor for abu sing their power.

The big­gest MM Os em­ploy paid mod­er­a­tors along­side trusted vol­un­teer mods. I spoke to a cou­ple of for­mer and cur­rent mods of var­i­ous games, and was sur­prised to learn how lit­tle train­ing was in­volved, although one of them said his com­mu­nity was largely self-polic­ing.

I couldn’ t find any re­li­able st at son what per­cent­age of on­line gamers re­quire in­ter­ven­tion, but a 2016 Guardian re­port said 2 per­cent of reader com­ments un­der ar­ti­cles had been man­u­ally re­moved since 1999 (that’s 1.4 mil­lion in­di­vid­ual com­ments). Also, The Guardian’s of­fi­cial po­si­tion on com­mu­nity self­polic­ing is that it doesn’t work: ‘Ex­pe­ri­ence has demon­strated that dis­rup­tive com­menters can de­rail, neg­a­tively im­pact or wreck con­ver­sa­tions de­spite [the com­mu­nity’s] best ef­forts.’ One bad ap­ple spoils the bar­rel, ba­si­cally.

Where games do rely on com­mu­nity self­polic­ing, there’s of­ten an au­to­mated ac­tion in re­sponse to a cer­tain num­ber of re­ports, which it­self can be abused if enough play­ers ma­li­ciously re­port an in­no­cent com­ment. Au­toma­tion is a blunt in­stru­ment, which can’t (yet) un­der­stand con­text, such as whether a player is us­ing a swear word to de­scribe them­selves, or an inan­i­mate ob­ject.

Al­go­rithms are only as smart as the peo­ple pro­gram­ming them, af­ter all. But if au­toma­tion isn’ t an op­ti­mal so­lu­tion, that means ac­tual peo­ple have to read abuse and de­cide if it’s suf­fi­ciently hor­ri­ble to war­rant ac­tion. That’ s a hello fa job, and one that takes a toll. Fol­low­ing a law­suit ear­lier this year against Mi­crosoft by com­mu­nity man­agers trau­ma­tised by their work, an ex­posé of the work­ing con­di­tions of Face­book con­tent mod­er­a­tors showed sim­i­lar is­sues, with a lack of train­ing and sup­port be­ing the main com­plaints.

It’s clear that while peo­ple are go­ing to be nasty on­line, and au­toma­tion is both abus­able and in­suf­fi­cient, hu­man mod­er­a­tors will be nec­es­sary and the re­al­ity of that job is read­ing in­sults (not‘nim­rod’) and abuse all day, ev­ery day.

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