I’d Rather Ten Guilty Trolls Go Unbanned

Matt Dillahunty was recently involved in an incident on the atheism plus forums. The pertinent details with respect to this post are that he posted with an account not associated with his name asking why another poster had been banned. His post was rejected by a moderator who said that they thought it was concern-trolly, off-topic, and TLDR. Matt disputes these details, but unfortunately due to the way the forum was working at the time, the post is unrecoverable, and that discussion is a nonstarter (this issue has since been fixed—unapproved posts are no longer automatically deleted). In the aftermath of the incident, Matt has been talking about the need to give new commenters the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are not trolly. I want to talk about why this reasoning is flawed, and why blanket benefit of the doubt is not possible in some situations if a movement is to be effective*.

Here are the facts we need:

  1. There is a cost to dealing with trolls. It takes time and energy. Sometimes a lot of time and energy.
  2. A movement has a finite amount of energy.
  3. It is not always trivial to distinguish trolls from the earnestly curious or concerned.
  4. More confidence that someone is or isn’t trolling can only be gained by expending more energy engaging the person, or by looking at their reputation for trollish or nontrollish behavior.
  5. There are a number of key phrases and ways of addressing issues that longtime participants of atheism plus rightly identify as red flags that increase the likelihood that someone is a troll (think how you feel when you see someone say something like, “I’m not a racist/homophobe/sexist, but…” in other contexts—are you more or less likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt after they open with that? Crommunist recently wrote a wonderful post about this type of thing that I highly recommend).
  6. The atheism plus movement is under heavy attack by trolls.

So you have a movement. It’s a movement under attack. You have a finite amount of energy, and an imperfect means of determining who is going to be costly to engage with. You have determined that there are a few red flags you can look for that correlate with trolly behavior (though they aren’t perfect). They unfortunately overlap with what some well-intentioned commenters will also say:

A troll trying to look genuinely concerned to avoid banning will say things like: “I’m just curious”, “I have some concerns”, “I just think you’re overreacting”, etc.

A person who is genuinely concerned will say things like: “I’m just curious”, “I have some concerns”, “I just think you’re overreacting”, etc.

If a forum is being constantly bombarded by trolls, there is a very real chance that the majority of people using flag phrases are trolls. Differentiating between the well-intentioned ones and the trolls is not easy. Mistakes will be made.

The default benefit of the doubt approach costs a lot of energy. It’s all well and good to say, “I’d rather ten guilty trolls go free than one honest questioner be dismissed as trolling”, if you’re not the one dealing with the constant attacks. When you are, however, you come to realize that there simply isn’t the time or energy to give everyone who throws out a few of the early warning signs of being a troll the benefit of the doubt. If this movement had to do that, there would be no one left in it.

Nearly everyone I have had an argument with about atheism plus has started out sounding reasonable. One of those, early in the /r/atheismplus subreddit’s existence, later devolved into asking us when we were going to start shoving our dissenters into ovens. You know, like Hitler did. This commenter is an extreme example, but the general pattern of going from apparently reasonable to batshit is not. This person opened the conversation in a way that was apparently innocuous. They were curious, trying to understand, had some concerns. They were given the benefit of the doubt. They did not deserve it.

Matt, you may have opened your conversations on the forums in ways that seemed innocuous to you. You were not given the benefit of the doubt, even though extending  the benefit of the doubt would have paid off in your case. That is unfortunate, but in context, it’s unavoidable. We cannot both avoid expending huge amounts of energy battling trolls and avoid ever banning (or not approving posts by) false positives.

Saying we should always give new posters the benefit of the doubt is making the perfect the enemy of the good. When the majority of trolls open conversations in characteristic ways, people who open conversations in those ways may not be given the benefit of the doubt. Good people may not be given the benefit of the doubt. That sucks, but it’s the only way to keep the movement from being driven into the ground by trolls, especially when you’re talking about posting in spaces designated as safe.

It sucks that an environment has been created where your concerns couldn’t be assumed legitimate, Matt, but your proposed solution is unworkable given the context of the situation. The problem is not atheism plussers failing to give blanket benefit of the doubt, the problem is a volume of trolls that makes giving the benefit of the doubt to everyone an impossible solution. If we literally had to give every new commenter the benefit of the doubt, the trolls would win. The way they’ve driven Jen and others off of the internet, they’d succeed with the rest of us as well.

You could, if you wanted, try to make the argument that the level of trolling is not bad enough to warrant the current balance of benefit-of-the-doubt that is given to new commenters. Making the argument that we should always extend the benefit of the doubt to new commenters, however, regardless of context, is a context-blind solution to an extremely context-dependent situation.

* There is a lot of conversation going on around this whole incident, and I want to state explicitly that this post is only intended to address the “Give new people the benefit of the doubt” part of the discussion. I have complicated opinions about other aspects of this discussion. They will be in their own post if I decide I want to weigh in on them.


18 comments on “I’d Rather Ten Guilty Trolls Go Unbanned

  1. The line between trolling and just being angry can be pretty thin. I used to frequent the BioWare boards about their rpg Dragon Age. Several discussions about women in gaming and about sexism in general REALLY set me off.

    So despite the mods being sympathetic to me I ended up banned. And they were right to do so. It wasn’t about prioritizing one user over another it was simply that a poster who was becoming increasingly angry and hostile had to be shut down. Because it was a gaming forum, those boards had to be more open than A+ but I think the general principle still stands.

    Banning and moderation are about preserving an environment and discouraging hostility. So mods naturally look to past experiences, key words, patterns and of course, their guidelines when deciding how to handle new people or known people who are suspicious or misbehaving.

    Dillahunty is very much a man who likes debate, who does not shy from debate and sees anyone stepping forward to argue as worth engaging. In a way that’s admirable but those values aren’t shared by everyone nor is it fair to expect everyone, regardless of their context, to embrace that approach.

  2. Two points: First, the true troll will, as you say, start out with certain subtle flag phrases intended to convey the desire for honest understanding, phrases that experienced users recognize. The troll will gradually attempt to engage and escalate. But one of the troll’s goals during what may be a long period of gradual escalation is to con as many sincere users as possible into taking the troll’s side and sympathizing with it. This pushes the bar for a great mass of such users far above where it would have been without that preconditioning, and you end up with a large number of true users that have been suckered into taking the side of the troll when it claims to be falsely accused.

    The other point is that the simple questions the troll starts by asking are questions that have been answered already an infinite number of times on the internet. So the fact that someone shows up in a forum to ask such questions means that at best they have never been curious or done any reading on the topic before showing up at a site that is considered ripe for flaming. This certainly justifies a high level of skepticism on the part of moderators.

    I was once a moderator on a forum where I called out a troll who was getting out of control. I was removed as moderator as members flocked to defend it. A week later, after much more damage to the community, the troll finally was banned.

    • Sure you were, hun. I’m approving your comment to serve as a nice, concise example of the level of discourse presented by many of the people who have attempted to comment here and not been approved. No promises on approving any further comments, naturally.

  3. I agree with this.

    The internet is a huge place. If you get banned from one little corner of it, unjustly or otherwise, go somewhere else. It’s not such a big deal.

  4. You know, it’s an easy enough thing to post a list of the banned. Why not do so and let the people considering joining judge for themselves if the modding is being performed with a judicious hand.

    Of course, the list will not include the many, many polite intelligent posters who were given warnings for disagreeing with mods and never returned (another externalized cost).

      • I was banned. According to the “flair” Elphaba added to my user name at the time, I’m still banned. I think your list is alarmingly incomplete. If you provide a complete list, I will happily provide the screen shot of my banning.

      • Understood.

        As my favorite boss once said to me ResearchToBeDone, beware the power of your own prejudices.

      • So…you know enough about the forum to analyze their modding policy but you don’t spent “a whole lot of time on the forums”?


        Since you don’t spend much time there you should know it isn’t a movement it is a support group. You should heavily mod a support group, so that’s completely appropriate. If they would stop pretending to be a movement you’d have fewer “trolls” like the posters above banned for having contrary opinions. I’m one of the “faded away” after it was made clear that I’m not “disabled enough” to have an opinion on ableism.

      • @cynedyr

        I know enough to know that context-blind advice in a context-dependent situation is generally a bad idea, yes. Most of my time in the atheism plus community is spent on the subreddit.

  5. The problem with your analysis is that you’ve externalized the cost of a false negative. I was banned for being antiwar and as a consequence, anti-Obama. Another redditor I know was banned for being anti gun.

    What was revealed in the comment section of the Matt’s apologist post is that the number of people treated unjustly is large and growing.If it hasn’t already happened, the inappropriately banned will soon outnumber the active participants in the forums. How will you ever garner public support in such circumstances?

    The policy was suicide – a shame, because Atheism+ was a great concept.

    • “I was banned for being antiwar and as a consequence, anti-Obama. Another redditor I know was banned for being anti gun.”

      If this is true and all there was to the bannings then it’s entirely possible I would agree your bannings were unjust. I’m not saying that unjust bannings are impossible when you’re under attack, I’m saying that proposing a blanket benefit-of-the-doubt policy is not a workable solution when you’re under attack, which seemed to be what Matt was suggesting in his video.

      For the record, there are definitely some commenters on the situation who are ostensibly “taking the side” of the forum with whom I vehemently disagree. I just didn’t want to muddle the thrust of this post by trying to address all angles at once.

      “How will you ever garner public support in such circumstances?”

      Outreach is not the point of a safe space. Have you seen David Silverman’s response to people telling him the billboards aren’t going to convince people? It’s more or less that the point isn’t to win over the religious, the point is to tell the already-deconverted that there is a place for them. Similarly, the point of a safe space isn’t to get people to agree with you, it’s to have a safe space.

      • No, I had not seen Silverman’s response. I will probably go search for it now, though understandably I’m considerably less vested than I was at the start.

        If safe space is the goal, though, and not outreach, they are still failing. Solutions have been put out there – but they were from non-mods, and you know what happens to ‘concern trolls.’

    • I notice you haven’t linked to the comments that got you banned. You wouldn’t be the first troll to lie about the reason you got banned from somewhere.

      • Sharing my story with an unsympathetic viewer costs me something and I gain nothing, but, as I’ve stated below, I would be willing to do it for a chance to see the complete banned list which I expect includes over 100 redditors at this point.

        Your tone has the angry indignation of a mod, khantron. If you feel righteous about your decisions, going public with that shouldn’t be an issue.

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