Using Restorative Justice To Deal With Internet Trolls And Jackasses

from the that's-one-approach dept

One of the things that I’ve tried to highlight over the years, when it comes to questions of content moderation on internet platforms, is that there is a much wider spectrum of options than just “take it down” or “leave it up.” Many people seem to think that those are the only two options — and this is especially true when it comes to policymakers looking to create new laws to moderate types of content online. So much of it is focused on getting sites to remove content. But there are other options — and sometimes those other options can be more effective.

The latest episode of the radio program On The Media is an interesting (and admittedly unscientific) experiment in using techniques of “restorative justice” in response to internet trolling and harassment. On The Media has been doing an interesting series of episodes on the concepts of “restorative justice,” highlighting that focusing just on punishing those who engage in bad behavior often leads to more of their bad behavior, rather than an improvement going forward. There are a variety of programs these days, that seek to come up with more proactive approaches to dealing with criminal behavior that is driven by circumstances, and it’s likely there will be many more as well.

For the experiment, OTM producer Micah Loewinger teamed up with researcher Lindsay Blackwell, to see if they could use restorative justice techniques to deal with internet fights that resulted in someone being banned from a particular platform. They specifically chose a potentially controversial subreddit, and tried to get fighting parties to come together to discuss things. They did three such cases — and arguably one was a pretty clear success, one was a pretty clear failure, and one was… somewhere in the middle. I won’t breakdown the whole thing, but suggest you listen:

In listening to it, it reminded me of a couple of other stories that I’ve pointed to over the years, both involving cases where people you don’t expect end up “befriending” and talking to KKK members. One is the story of Rabbi Michael Weisser, who after moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, started receiving a bunch of hate mail from a local racist named Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Nebraska. Over time Weisser befriended Trapp and tried to help him. The story is covered in a variety of articles, but here’s one from the NY Times:

In a 1992 interview with Time magazine, Mr. Trapp said he had wanted to scare Rabbi Weisser into moving out of Lincoln. ?As the state leader, the Grand Dragon, I did more than my share of work because I wanted to build up the state of Nebraska into a state as hateful as North Carolina and Florida,? he said. ?I spent a lot of money and went out of my way to instill fear.?

Rabbi Weisser, who suspected the person threatening him was Mr. Trapp, got his telephone number and started leaving messages on the answering machine. ?I would say things like: ?Larry, there?s a lot of love out there. You?re not getting any of it. Don?t you want some?? And hang up,? he said. ?And, ?Larry, why do you love the Nazis so much? They?d have killed you first because you?re disabled.? And hang up. I did it once a week.?

Eventually, Trapp and Weisser became so friendly that Trapp not only renounced his previous beliefs, but converted to Judaism and even moved in with Weisser when he became ill later in life. It’s quite a story.

And then there’s the story of Daryl Davis, a black musician who set up a “hobby” of befriending KKK members. Over the past 30 years, he claims he’s been able to convince somewhere around 200 Klansmen to leave the KKK. As with the Weisser story, you can find Daryl Davis’ story in many places, including at the CBC:

“He remarked then that this was the first time he had ever had a drink with a black man,” says Daryl. “I asked him why…and eventually it came out. He said that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

“He gave me his phone number and he wanted me to call him any time I was to return to this bar with this band because he wanted to bring his friends, meaning Klansmen and Klanswomen, to see this black guy play like Jerry Lee.”

Ever since then, Daryl has been befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan and attempting to love the hate out of them.

In fact, both of these stories have been featured on the excellent Snap Judgment podcast: The Rabbi and the KKK and The Silver Dollar Lounge.

I think about both of those stories quite a bit — especially over the past few years as it has certainly felt as if the world has grown more tribalistic and angry. Obviously, that kind of thing does not and cannot work in lots of situations. But the fact that we almost never even try is concerning. So much of the hate and anger often comes from the general feeling that the people you dislike are not human or are somehow less than you. Getting to know them, personally, shatters that illusion. It’s very difficult to do — and there are certainly some situations that would give me pause before even trying it. But, at the same time, I’m curious if it could be done more often — and that’s a big part of what the latest On the Media episode suggests.

It certainly recognizes that it doesn’t make sense in every situation (and even its own experiment wasn’t all that successful in two out of the three cases). But that one success story certainly suggests that there are scenarios and there are cases where actually getting people together in some form, just to talk, and to better understand each other, leads to more of an understanding between them and a de-escalation of the more personalized, generalized hatred. It seems like that’s something that the internet could better enable, if everyone wasn’t so quick to retreat away from such scenarios.

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Comments on “Using Restorative Justice To Deal With Internet Trolls And Jackasses”

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Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

They did three such cases — and arguably one was a pretty clear success, one was a pretty clear failure, and one was… somewhere in the middle.

That’s rather inconclusive, then. It reminds me of the automaker bailouts of about a decade ago. Out of the three major "big 3" car companies, one took the bailout money and recovered, one took the bailout money and failed and needed heavy assistance from a European car company, and one didn’t take the bailout money and recovered. (Quick, can you name which is which without looking it up?) Which, taken in that overall context, strongly suggests that the bailouts were essentially useless, but somehow you always hear people talking about how they "saved the auto industry."

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So of two bailouts, one was successful? Id need to know a lot more to figure out if id consider the bailout "useless", as I imagine even the failed bailout could have been economically stimulative. It really depends on if you think we needed 100% recovery from all takers of the bailout for it to be useful, or if you think the bailout was more about keeping people employed during the resession/recovery, and stimulating the economy, and so even if the automakers still eventually folded the bailout might have helped a bunch of employees on the low end. Perspective.

The report showed that such actions can work. It functioned as a proof of concept, and the article here agrees. Mike notes that this approach wont always work, but that we can’t figure that out if we don’t try. What approaches and techniques are best would be a great way to follow up.

I am overall unsure what you think Mike is saying, because you seem to think he claims this is a resounding success. He is not.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

So of two bailouts, one was successful?

No. Of three candidates, one was successful with the bailout, one was unsuccessful with the bailout, and in one case the bailout proved unnecessary for successful recovery. (That third one provides some very important context, by acting as a "control group" of sorts.)

you seem to think he claims this is a resounding success

Nope, just drawing an interesting parallel.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Your control group was not in a similar state.

Ford was not in ongoing financial distress. They believed they had a way out of the red and were only asking for the bailout because they didn’t want to compete with competitors who had gotten a subsidy when they did not. Expressly. When it became a system of government run reorginization and loans, they weren’t interested, because they had already expressed they didn’t need these things – they believed they didn’t need the funding and reorganization.

To use Ford as a control group doesn’t work. A control group is supposed to be as similar to the test group as possible, and should weed out contributing factors. A control whose starting position was "we don’t need a bailout" is not an effective comparison to "We have no path forward without support" when the issue you want to look at is the effectiveness of a bailout. To claim they are equivalent, you have to assert both that you know, without a doubt, that GM was in the same financial position as Ford and that you know, without a doubt, that the US Government providing funding to the US Auto Industry didn’t improve the overall availability of short and long term financing to Ford, something that is impossible to determine.

Also, When you draw a parallel to something you describe as useless without drawing an explicit conclusion, you are implicitly concluding that the original thing is also useless. Otherwise why draw that parallel?

TFG says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Additionally, to bring things back to the article and the point it’s making, one success, one failure, and one inconclusive result out of a trial group of three indicates mostly that there is more research to be done.

With at least one success, it’s worth investigating how effective such tactics can be on a larger scale. It’s also worth asking the following question: "Where is the harm?"

The bailout comparison fails at this juncture, since these are fully different realms of economics vs. social interaction, with rather different consequences. So, putting that aside, I posit that there’s far more to potentially gain by attempting this sort of reconciliation effort than there is to lose.

After all, if it fails, you’re only where you started.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

these are fully different realms of economics vs. social interaction

If you think that economics is something "fully different" (or separable at all) from the study of social interaction, you’re already severely confused. Understanding either one helps greatly with the other, because they’re two sides of the same coin. (No pun intended.)

TFG says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Very well, then. Enlighten me.

Please explain how economics relates to the pitfalls of attempting reconciliation of those who hate and those they hate via restorative justice tactics, and please elaborate on your position vis a vis restorative justice as attempted within the article.

If you are against it, please explain why we should not try it, given there is at least one indication of success, which to my mind bears out further research.

If you are not against it, please explain what your purpose is in comparing the attempts the article is about to the automaker bailout.

tl;dr – I don’t know what point you’re trying to make. Please spell it out.


Re: Re: Re: Re:

The one who wasn’t included in the main bailout proper still benefited from direct government loans, when bank funding was not available to them during the crisis, and from the stimulus package encouraging car loans.

The government program ended up making money on number 2 who essentially ended owned by Fiat. The government made an overall net loss on the bailout of the “successful” company.

The “successful” company’s financials were so bad that it had to shed most of its liabilities into a separate “bad” company. That company died and the “new” GM rose from its ashes reasonably profitable but with stockholders etc all wiped out or nearly wiped out.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I forget who, I want to say Sarah Silverman, was getting tons of hate from some idiot on Twitter. Rather than rip his head off, she found out he was in pain & had problems. She helped him get assistance & treated him like a person.

Sometimes trying to get noticed, people do stupid things.
What mom taught you was true, any attention even bad is better than no attention.

I chat with all sorts of people on the Twitters, I follow people (and they follow me) who don’t share my ideas/views/whatever but we have had intelligent conversations on many topics. We’re smart enough to know that some of the live wire topics are pointless to bring up, they have their views I have mine. I respect that they can have their views, they respect I can have mine and neither one of us demands the other conform to the others or else.

Much of whats happening today is the belief that everyone needs to be the same at any costs & if they don’t agree they are evil and should be destroyed. There is only one right way to see things and we’ll unleash hell to get there.

Agreeing to disagree doesn’t seem to work much anymore.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: You are pretending it's about content moderation

Its so cute, I didn’t even see the hucksters lips moving as you just repeated what they told you to believe.

This story had not a single fscking thing to do with conservatives and liberals, but do not allow that to stop you from screaming how your rights are being trampled because a private company got tired of you sending messages to everyone telling them mom said you were cute.

Conservatives aren’t being censored, they are behaving badly & being shown the door. If I came into your house and started explaining in graphic detail how teh homosex is the bestest thing EVAH, you’d totally be within your rights to tell me to GTFO.
Get your followers to send enough messages to people you dislike suggesting they shoudl be killed, raped, worse… its not censorship its them politely telling you to GTFO.

If you can’t talk like a grownup without screaming ZOMG CENSORSHIP!!!!!! (Because Ted Cruz couldn’t figure out how to find a single tweet from anyone who liked him) You get tiresome & then asked to leave the party.

Now if you were able to present the most mythical thing, which is evidence that stands up outside the hall of mirrors that are your mind we might listen, but Alex Jones was screaming he was being censored from his social media accounts before the axe fell on someone who helped encourage death threats to grieving families. (But then you are sure they are all crisis actors & it never happened because someone told you so.)

But please explain how its censoring conservatives, show your work on a separate website with links & evidence and not just the rantings of someone who has been huffing glue and posting as Q.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

Re: You are pretending it's about content moderation

they are doubling down on being unethical because they haven’t learned anything.


Republicans know it’s impossible for them to win a fair election. That’s why all the tampering, aiding the Russians hacking, the anti-Democrat projection, amd the ridoculous false narratives like "busfuls of illegals."

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