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.

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Kicking People Out: It Isn’t About Punishment, It’s About Pragmatism

Imagine you’re a scientist. You work in a lab with some dangerous chemical shit. Shit that will eat your face. It’s generally a safe environment, though. Protocols are followed, the people who work there know what they’re dealing with and how to contain it safely. They know what will react badly with it and what won’t. Chemical A is dangerous to mix with Chemical B, to expose to ultraviolet light, whatever.

One day, walking through the lab, you see a fellow lab worker deliberately mixing Chemicals A and B right under an ultraviolet light.

You sound an alarm, get everyone out of the room, and turn to them.

“Why the fuck are you trying to get us all killed?”

“I wasn’t trying to get anyone killed, I was running an experiment!”

“You never mix those! Ever! ALL OF OUR FACES COULD HAVE BEEN EATEN!”

“Dude, calm down. Just tell me why I shouldn’t mix them. I’m sure I’ll get it. Won’t happen again.”

“No. If you don’t know that stuff already, you’re a danger to yourself and to everyone in this lab. You’re fired. Get out.”

Labmate didn’t mean to put everyone’s faces at risk, but if a situation like that happened, I still wouldn’t let them back in the lab. It wouldn’t matter if the cause of the mistake was malice or ignorance, because no matter which one it was, there would be no reason to think something similar wouldn’t happen again. It wouldn’t matter if Labmate’s feelings were hurt. It wouldn’t matter if all of their friends worked there. It wouldn’t matter if they thought I was overreacting. What would matter is that if they stayed, people’s safety would be at risk.

Kicking this person out isn’t about punishing them, it’s about pragmatism. It’s about harm reduction. Functionally, when the concern is safety, it doesn’t matter whether that safety is put at risk because of malice or ignorance. Whether a person meant to hurt people or just didn’t know how to act in a way that wouldn’t hurt people, the end result is the same: that person’s presence put others at risk. Labmate intentionally mixed dangerous chemicals: people get hurt. Labmate mixed the chemicals because he didn’t know any better: people get hurt.

Functionally, the impact of sufficiently advanced ignorance is indistinguishable from malice (in this example, horrible chemical face-eating), and as such, functionally, it should be treated the same way. Functionally, in many cases, both malice and ignorance are signs that you cannot be relied on not to hurt people. Sometimes the end result is so similar that it’s difficult to tell which one it is in the first place. It doesn’t matter, though, because the outcome is just as destructive in either case.

This is an analogy for why I don’t give a fuck if someone who sexually assaulted someone else meant to or not, I still want them kicked out of the scene.

This is an analogy for why I don’t give a fuck if someone has poor social skills or not, if they regularly sexually harass people, unknowingly or not, I don’t want them at my conferences.

This is an analogy for why I don’t give a fuck if someone is really a good person and doesn’t mean to be racist, sexist, classist, etc, I still want them kicked out of safe spaces.

If you lack the knowledge or skills to recognize when you’re crossing a line, you have my sympathy and empathy. That lack of perception can be difficult to deal with. If you think the fact that it’s not intentional makes the harm you do irrelevant, though, reread the beginning of this post, and tell me you think Labmate should be allowed to continue handling dangerous substances. Tell me the fact that their feelings are hurt is more important than the safety of the people around them.

If someone doesn’t realize that they are making other people uncomfortable, acting inappropriately, insulting, minimizing, degrading others, violating boundaries, etc—that doesn’t mean they aren’t still doing real damage. It may not be intentional, it may be that they’re a product of an environment that failed to prepare them for the environment they find themselves in. That sucks. Be that as it may, the damage done is no less real on account of it. It is no less real and it is no less destructive.

Sexual assault hurts people and it hurts communities. Sexual harassment hurts people and it hurts communities. Discrimination and unchecked privilege hurt people and hurt communities. That damage matters. Full stop.

If people tell you to leave a public space, online or offline, because your presence is causing harm, and you don’t understand why, the correct move is to leave, educate yourself, and come back when you understand what happened well enough to reliably not cause harm in the future. If your presence presents a danger to your community, and they tell you to leave, and you make the conversation about how they shouldn’t kick you out because of your hurt feelings, then you are using emotional blackmail to justify putting people in your community at risk. You are demonstrating how right they are to kick you out in the first place. Full stop.

This post dedicated to everyone who has ever knowingly or unknowingly abused, harassed, discriminated against, minimized the problems of, or otherwise done damage to the communities they participate in and then, when called on it, tried to make the resulting conversation about them and their hurt feelings.