Censorship gone awry on Reddit: the aftermath of our r/science AMA
You may remember my announcement earlier this week of our AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit Science. Overall, the AMA, which was about Sci-Hub and our recent study on its coverage, was a success and generated lot's of interesting discussion:
From the outside, it looks like everything ran smoothly. The AMA generated 65 comments and has a score of 116 (upvotes − downvotes). There are plenty of high-impact quotes, but my favorite comes from coauthor Thomas Munro, who wrote:
lucaxx85's questions themselves illustrate how paywalls raise costs, by allowing authors to externalize these ruinous costs to society: a vast public subsidy — tens of billions of dollars a year — [for] the concealment of publicly-funded research from the public. We argue that Sci-Hub is hastening the end of this grotesque situation.
However, on the inside, the AMA was anything but smooth. For those who are unfamiliar with r/science AMAs, they are scheduled events were Redditors ask questions to a pre-approved group of scientists. In this case, all coauthors from our study were given the login to the eLife_AMA account, and we were all instructed to respond using this account. The AMA was organized by the journal eLife and the r/science moderators.
@greenescientist and I were sitting back-to-back in the Childhood Cancer Data Lab in #Philly. Outside, a nor'easter raged. We were typing away furiously, answering questions. Miserlou was also in the office, and asked, "guys, why are you ignoring my question?" What question!? We went over to Miserlou's workstation, and here's the comment we saw:
However, from our viewpoint there was nothing. Miserlou's comment had been shadowbanned! Shadowbanning is where a comment appears as if it posted while logged in as its creator, but does not appear for anyone else. The goal of shadowbanning is to censor content without its creator realizing. Not only was Miserlou's question a fantastic one, but he's had this Reddit account since 2007 and has accumulated 17,692 post karma and 12,879 comment karma, in addition to being a moderator for 17 subreddits.
Given that Miserlou was shadowbanned, we decided to check whether our own comments from the eLife_AMA account showed up if we were logged out. Many did not show up. So here we were leading this AMA and Reddit was deceiving us into thinking we were having a conversation, while we really just posting to the void. Then things got even more ridiculous. Two of @greenescientist's comments that had initially posted got deleted. When we were logged in, we saw:
But everyone else saw (Internet Archive snapshot):
At this point, we almost called off the whole AMA. What's the point of doing it if all of our comments were going to be censored or deleted? Was there a troll moderator that wanted to sabotage the event?
I took a few emergency actions. First, I tweeted the issue. I wanted to establish documentation on an independent platform in case this was an adversarial situation. Second, I messaged the mods. Third, I posted a comment from the eLife_AMA account describing the issue:
Of course, this comment was shadowbanned. Therefore, I edited the initial thread description to include:
We have temporarily stopped responding to comments using the eLife_AMA account because our comments are getting deleted. See this tweet thread for details. Can a mod please leave a reply on this comment when this issue has been fixed?
Eventually, a moderator got back to us. Here is our entire exchange which transpired over the next several hours:
So according to the moderator, it was the automated "automod" rather than a human saboteur that was censoring our comments. This negatively impacted the AMA, since many comments would take several hours to post (only once a moderator had un-banned them). Hence, back-and-forth conversation wasn't really possible.
Interestingly, I believe the comment shown above where I detail the censorship was eventually un-banned by a mod but is now back to being banned. However, maybe I was just confused since shadowbanning is so misleading and annoying. The number of false positives is absolutely unacceptable and indicates a major issue with r/science's automod.
One reason I suspect our posts were flagged is because we use links. Yes, since we're scientists and believing in crediting sources, we link a lot. I've also had this problem with Disqus, where my comments with links always get marked as spam. People complain about fake news, but combating fake news requires a culture of attributing sources, which starts with encouraging (and not discouraging) hyperlinking. At least however, Disqus is slightly more forthcoming that your comment has been flagged as spam:
Why decentralized social networks are the solution?
Could this situation have happened were we using Steem? Yes and no. On Steem, the blockchain is permissionless and decentralized. Therefore, if we were commenting on a Steem post to do an AMA, anyone could comment (within the limits of their bandwidth which depends on their Power). Now certain comments may get downvoted. Each explorer (like https://steemit.com, https://busy.org/, or https://stage.steemiz.io/) is able to sort and hide comments however it'd like.
This means that if I were unhappy with the filtering of one Steem explorer, I could switch to another one. Unlike Reddit, there is not the possibility that comments could be deleted or hidden from the world. This means that all censorship is elective. For example, I may want to use an explorer that censors certain types of content, such as offensive, illegal, or low-quality content. However, neither I nor the content is beholden to any specific frontend. For example, I certainly wouldn't use an explorer that censored content with such carelessness as r/science's automod. And with Steem I have a choice.
r/science has 18.4 million subscribers and has been around for 11 years. How could such a popular forum have such terrible and erratic censorship? I think the main issue is that Reddit is a centralized platform. Therefore, subreddits and users have a high degree of reliance is placed Reddit Inc. In this instance, it seems that r/science developed a custom "automod" program, which has its problems. Decentralized protocols allow for much more innovation, since no permission is needed to innovate. Check out SteemTools to see how many services and applications have been built on Steem since its creation in 2016.
Let's check back in 5 years and see whether online communities still aggregate on centralized platforms or whether decentralized, incentived platforms are home to the best communities and best AMAs!