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:
- There is a cost to dealing with trolls. It takes time and energy. Sometimes a lot of time and energy.
- A movement has a finite amount of energy.
- It is not always trivial to distinguish trolls from the earnestly curious or concerned.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.