Internet Content Moderation Isn't Politically Biased, It's Just Impossible To Do Well At Scale

from the stop-this-dumb-narrative dept

The narrative making the political rounds recently is that the big social media platforms are somehow "biased against conservatives" and deliberately trying to silence them (meanwhile, there are some in the liberal camp who are complaining that sites like Twitter have not killed off certain accounts, arguing -- incorrectly -- that they're now overcompensating in trying to not kick off angry ideologues). This has been a stupid narrative from the beginning, but the refrain on it has only been getting louder and louder, especially as Donald Trump has gone off on one of his ill-informed rants claming that "Social Media Giants are silencing millions of people." Let's be clear: this is all nonsense.

The real issue -- as we've been trying to explain for quite some time now -- is that basic content moderation at scale is nearly impossible to do well. That doesn't mean sites can't do better, but the failures are not because of some institutional bias. Will Oremus, over at Slate, has a good article up detailing why this narrative is nonsense, and he points to the episode of Radiolab we recently wrote about, that digs deep on how Facebook moderation choices happen, where you quickly begin to get a sense of why it's impossible to do it well. I would add to that a recent piece from Motherboard, accurately titled The Impossible Job: Inside Facebook’s Struggle to Moderate Two Billion People.

These all highlight a few simple facts that lots of angry people (on all sides of political debates) are having trouble grasping.

  1. If you leave a platform completely unmoderated, it will fill up with junk, spam, trolling and the like, thereby decreasing its overall utility and pushing people away.
  2. If you do decide to moderate, you have a set of impossible choices. So much content requires understanding context, and context may be very different, even for the same content when viewed by different people.
  3. If you're going to moderate at scale, you're going to need a set of "rules" that thousands of generally low paid individuals will have to be able to put into practice, reviewing pieces of content for just a few seconds (a recent report said that Facebook reviewers were expect to review 5,000 pieces of content per day.
  4. It is impossible to make rules like that that can easily be applied to all content. A significant percentage of content falls into gray areas, where it then becomes a judgment call by people in a cubicle in the middle of reviewing 5,000 pieces of content.
  5. At that rate, many mistakes are made. It is collateral damage of moderation at scale.
  6. People caught in the crossfire of collateral damage will rightly make a big stink about it and the social media companies will look bad.
  7. Meanwhile, some of the reasonable moderation decisions will hit trolls hard (see point 1 above) and those trolls will then take to other platforms and make a huge stink about how unfair it all is, and the social media companies will look bad.
Put this all together and it is a no win situation. You can't leave the platform completely unmoderated. But any attempt at moderation at scale is going to have problems. The "scale" part of this is what's the most difficult for most people to grasp. As Kate Klonick (again, author of an incredible paper on content moderation that you should read as well as author of a guest post here on Techdirt) notes in the Motherboard piece:

“This is the difference between having 100 million people and a few billion people on your platform,” Kate Klonick... told Motherboard. “If you moderate posts 40 million times a day, the chance of one of those wrong decisions blowing up in your face is so much higher.”

Later in the piece, Klonick again makes an important point:

“The really easy answer is outrage, and that reaction is so useless,” Klonick said. “The other easy thing is to create an evil corporate narrative, and that is also not right. I’m not letting them off the hook, but these are mind-bending problems and I think sometimes they don’t get enough credit for how hard these problems are.”

This is why I've been advocating loudly for platforms to move the moderation decisions further out to the ends of the network, rather than doing it in a centralized fashion. Let end users create their own moderation system, or adapt ones put together by third parties. But, of course, even that has problems as well.

No matter what choices are made, there are significant tradeoffs. As the Motherboard article also highlights, what seems like a "simple" rule gets hellishly complex quickly when applied to other situations, and then you've suddenly increased the "error" rate and people get angry all over again and the whole mess gets blown out of proportion again.

“There's always a balance between: do we add this exception, this nuance, this regional trade-off, and maybe incur lower accuracy and more errors,” Guy Rosen, VP of product management at Facebook, said. "[Or] do we keep it simple, but maybe not quite as nuanced in some of the edge cases? Balance that's really hard to strike at the end of the day.”

As the Oremus piece notes, the "bias" of platforms when it comes to moderation is not "liberal" or "conservative," it's Capitalist. Having a platform overrun with spam and trolls is bad for business. Hiring enough people who can adequately review content within the correct context is somewhere between insanely cost prohibitive and impossible. So the platforms muddle by with imperfect review processes. Making moderation mistakes is also bad for business, and the platforms would love to minimize them, but "mistakes" are often in the eye of the beholder as well, again reinforcing that this is an impossible task. For everyone screaming about how Alex Jones should be kicked off platforms, there's a similar number of people screaming about how awful the platforms are that do kick him off. There is no "right" way to do this, and that's what every platform struggles with.

And, if you think that these platforms are unfairly silencing "conservatives" (which is the prevailing narrative right now), it's probably because you're not paying enough attention elsewhere. Black Lives Matter and other civil rights groups have complained about "racially biased" moderation in the opposite direction, saying that minority groups are regularly silenced on these platforms. Indeed, it's not hard to find a ton of reports about black activists having content removed from social media platforms. And for all the talk of Infowars being taken off these platforms, how many people noticed that the Facebook page of the Venezuelan socialist TV station Telesur was recently taken down as well.

Yes, it's fine to point out that these platforms (mainly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) are really bad at moderating. But, unless you're willing to actually understand the scale at play, recognize how many mistakes are going to be made (and recognize how trolls are going to go nuts over correct decisions), you're playing into a false narrative to argue that any of these platforms are "targeting" anyone. It's not true.

Filed Under: bias, content moderation, errors, filters, mistakes, scale, social media, spam, trolls
Companies: facebook, google, twitter, youtube


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  1. identicon
    Will B., 31 Aug 2018 @ 11:49am

    Re: Heads and Tails

    Y'know, in retrospect, that is not a fair portrayal of your assertion, I'm sorry. Lemme try again.

    A coin which is weighted to land on tails more than heads could be considered a "biased" coin, yes. However, a coin which is not weighted landing on tails more than heads does not in any way mean that coin is "biased" toward landing on tails.

    This is my complaint about the idea that evolution is "biased;" the coin isn't weighted. People saying that there's a bias toward things that survive is, to me, like saying a coin, when flipped, is biased to land; it's going to land, due to the reality of gravity and what a coin is, but that is not a bias, it's just what a coin does when flipped. (Excusing, of course, situations where there is no gravity :p)

    People keep viewing natural selection as a mechanism, a motive force, a method. It isn't; natural selection is an observation of how the world works. It isn't "biased" toward things that survive; it is the fact that things survive. The mechanism by which things evolve is mutation and genetic drift, which are generally pretty incredibly random; natural selection is the observation that beneficial mutations propagate and negative mutations don't, due to the nature of life and survival. To call this a "bias" seems incredibly disingenious to me; it's like saying circles are biased toward their radius being one half their diameter, or once again, that the Sahara is biased against rainfall. It's not a bias, it's reality.

    This is why I keep saying that this definiton of "bias" people are using looks like saying "any situation that has a result." Perhaps it'd be better to say "any situation that has a result that is not 100% random."

    My contention is - and has been through this whole thread - that this definition of "biased" is meaningless for the discussion of this article, and possibly meaningless for any discussion at all. Like it or not, the word "bias" carries wih it an implication, and is used in nearly all cases, to mean some form of prejudged conclusion influencing results; hence why saying a scientific study was biased is a big, potentially study-ruining claim. The definition people are working with here suggests that if a study comes to a particular conclusion, it was inherently biased toward that conclusion - or, perhaps, that reality itself is "biased" toward that conclusion? Both statements seem absurd on their faces; that's simply not what people mean by biased, and in relation to the original post here, claiming anything non-random is in some way "biased" and extrapolating it to mean political bias specifically is inevitable in relation to the article is incredibly disingenuous.


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