Wherein Jean Luc Picard Learns How Not To Moderate Twitter

from the instructive-allegory dept

For those not familiar with the Star Trek: the Next Generation canon, in the episode "Hero Worship" the Enterprise receives a distress call from somewhere deep in space, and in responding discovers a heavily-damaged ship with just one survivor. While the Enterprise crew is investigating what happened to the ship, they soon realize that they are being pounded by energy waves, and eventually it dawns on them that these waves could eventually destroy their ship like they apparently did the other. As the Enterprise tries to channel more and more power to its shields to protect itself from the battering, the waves hitting the ship become more and more violent. Until finally – spoiler alert! (although let's be honest: the episode basically telegraphs that this will be the solution) – Commander Data realizes that the waves are reflecting back the energy the Enterprise is expending, and that the solution is to cut the power or else be destroyed by the slapback.

This is a sci fi story illustrating a phenomenon with which we're all familiar. It's that basic principle: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And that's what's happening as people demand more censorship from platforms like Twitter, and then get more outraged when platforms have inevitably censored things they like. Of course increased calls to remove content will inevitably result in increased calls not to. And of course platforms' efforts to comply with all these competing demands will just make the platform more unusable until, like the wrecked ship, it will have torn itself apart to the point that it's hardly recognizable.

As the Enterprise crew learned, solutions don't always require figuring out ways to expend more energy. Sometimes they involve disengaging from a struggle that can never be won and finding new ways to view the problem. And when it comes to platform moderation, that same lesson seems relevant here.

Because just as the challenge facing the Enterprise was not actually to overpower the energy rocking it, that is not really the platforms' challenge either. The essential, and much less pugilistic, challenge they face is to figure out how to successfully facilitate the exchange of staggering amounts of expression between an unprecedented number of people. Content moderation is but one tool, but it's not the only one available, nor is it the best one for achieving that ultimate goal. Platforms shouldn't need to completely control the user experience; instead they need to deliver the control users need to optimize it for themselves. Being fixated only on the former at the expense of the latter is doomed to be no more successful than when the Enterprise was focused on doing nothing but feeding more power to the shields. In the end it wouldn't have saved the ship, because ultimately the solution it needed was something far less antagonistic. And the same is just as true for platforms.

Internet platforms of course are not fictional starships. And unlike fictional starships they can't depend on artificial intelligence to set them on the right path. Theirs is a very human exercise, that first requires understanding the human beings who use their systems and then ensuring that the interfaces of these systems are built in accordance with how those users expect to use them, and need to.

Which itself is a lesson the story teaches. The survivor of that wrecked ship happened to have been a child, who was worried that it was he who had accidentally destroyed his ship when he stumbled during a wave attack and hit a computer console during his fall. The Enterprise crew assured him there was nothing he could have done to hurt anything. The engineers who had designed those consoles understood what their users needed from their interfaces, including the protection the interfaces needed to afford, and the enormous stakes if users didn't get it. And that's what the people building computer systems always need to do, no matter what the century.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 2:11pm

    Seeing reason in the midst of commitment

    When one is severely focused on their agenda and see a path to aiding that agenda that also hurts those in opposition the blinders to other solutions impair thinking about other possibilities. Being reasonable isn't usually in the cards for such dedicated people. They want what they want and how they want it. Hurting the opposition can be as important to them as achieving their own objective, and may in fact be a significant part of their objective.

    The issue is then how to go about getting them to focus not only on their cause, but to consider the unintended consequences of their actions. The result not in their plan but is inevitable given the lack of consideration of the whole picture. The 'for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction' concept only goes part way as it does not expose the big picture, the consequences not predicted, the ricochet. And the blinded by commitment to their cause will make it difficult to get through.

    The method in this case then should be for the platforms to listen to all three sides and take the middle ground and give control over to individual users so they can get what they want but also not get what they don't want. At the same time, they should stick to their guns about enforcing an appropriate TOS for their platform, and enforce it strictly. When bias is charged they will then be able to point to the TOS issue and suggest that if the speaker had been a bit more moderate in their behavior then they would not have had the sanction.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 7:42pm

      Re: Seeing reason in the midst of commitment

      Balance is the hardest thing you will ever find.

      the best way is EASY, Understandable rules..for any site..

      NOT 6 Books/pages/dictionaries of LEGAL TALK.
      It took me along time to get my online friends to understand a comment..Everyone is an idiot, everyone is an A$$whole..everyone is everything, and Many things he may NOT want to be, there is a time you have to do something you Dont want to..

      Let the Squirrels and nuts, run around the net and learn something. Let them Do the stupid things and we can see it, and show our kids, and HOPE they dont do the same.

      If the Governments WANT to be paranoid Let them.. The Feeling tends to come if you THINK you are not doing good by your OWN PEOPLE..
      Before pointing fingers...the Net did this, the NET did that, its BECAUSE of the net...are excuses.. Look around, we are human beings, and we are the meanest, most obnoxious, Opportunists in Every way possible..WE will hurt, murder, ???, ???, ??? each other just for entertainment..and to Get our way.
      we could put a list up of all the Crap humans have done to each other...BUT IT IN NO WAY, REQUIRED THE INTERNET TO BE HERE FIRST..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2018 @ 2:35pm

    As usual

    "And that's what's happening as people demand more censorship from platforms like Twitter, and then get more outraged when platforms have inevitably censored things they like."

    People are predisposed to create the very problem they are seeking to avoid. There is no sector of politics that escapes this simple principle.

    A lesson no one learns when they are led as a group.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lorenzo St. Dubois, 20 Sep 2018 @ 2:44pm

    canon != cannon

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    K`Tetch (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 3:32pm

    That was the second time they'd used that plot, the first was two seasons earlier in Booby Trap, where it was the A plot (whereas it was the B-plot in hero worship) (http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Booby_Trap_(episode)).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    D Bunker, 20 Sep 2018 @ 8:07pm

    SHEESH covers "energy waves", but I'll quote and contradict some

    This is a sci fi

    No, it's "Star Trek", sheer fantasy, not based on any known science, and in fact, contradicting what is now "known".

    story

    Okay, you're right there...

    illustrating a phenomenon with which we're all familiar.

    NO, none of us have ever been -- or ever will be -- stuck in sourceless "energy waves" that increase with struggles.

    It's that basic principle: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    NO, in this fantasy, there's ADDED energy from somewhere, it's not in any way known physics.

    And that's what's happening as people demand more censorship from platforms like Twitter, and then get more outraged when platforms have inevitably censored things they like.

    NO, Facebook / Google / Twitter are seletively censoring on own initiative -- after years of and still while ignoring what wish too.

    At best, these mega-corporations let problems grow to crisis which they now use as excuse for selective political censoring.

    Just watch recent video of Google billionaires in pastel shirts weeping and wailing after Trump was elected. -- Those wacky solid-color shirts were chosen by someone for an effect, and just that is reason to hoot them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 8:38pm

      Re: SHEESH

      Wow. Everything D Bunk said was wrong and/or incoherent. And IN CAPS. So Exciting to see.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 6:32am

      Epic fail

      No, it's "Star Trek", sheer fantasy

      I'm sorry, do you not understand that sci fi is short for "science fiction"? As in, not reality?

      not based on any known science

      This is categorically false. Or are you saying they didn't base gravity in the series on real world gravity? Star Trek based the entire series off of a known science, and extrapolated it from there to come up with all the fictional technology they had. They even had physicists and scientists come in and consult on the show and ask if what they wanted to do made sense from a scientific standpoint.

      in fact, contradicting what is now "known"

      1. A lot of science and tech that was first dreamed up in Star Trek, and other scifi series, is actually now a reality. See touch screens, virtual reality, computers that fit in your pocket, etc...

      2. So, you're going to berate a show for guessing on how some fictional science might work, when the actual science for it wouldn't be discovered for another decade or so? Are you saying scifi writers need to be able to predict the future?

      Okay, you're right there...

      Well yeah, it doesn't make the lesson any less true. Star Trek was all about social lessons and how people work, interact with each other, and should be treated. If you don't get that, you didn't actually watch Star Trek.

      NO, none of us have ever been...stuck in sourceless "energy waves" that increase with struggles.

      Many people would describe you trolls as just such a situation. But regardless of that, the author wasn't saying we were experiencing the identical situation, merely that there are many situations where the solution is not to keep fighting someone or something, but to step back and walk away, and was using this as a metaphor to help explain it. You know, kind of like how to deal with a bully 101.

      NO, in this fantasy, there's ADDED energy from somewhere

      Then you didn't actually watch the episode, or understand the summary. There was some force that was reacting to the presence of the Enterprise's shields. The stronger the shields, the more pushback they got. Action -> equal and opposite reaction.

      NO, Facebook / Google / Twitter are seletively censoring on own initiative

      This is also categorically false and easily disproven by the fact that groups from both sides are still up and available on all platforms.

      At best, these mega-corporations let problems grow to crisis which they now use as excuse for selective political censoring.

      In your dreams. More accurately they hope they finally got it right until some nut job like you screams bloody murder so they re-tune everything all over again.

      Just watch recent video of Google billionaires in pastel shirts weeping and wailing after Trump was elected.

      This proves nothing other than people have political opinions.

      Those wacky solid-color shirts were chosen by someone for an effect, and just that is reason to hoot them.

      You are literally a moron.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    John mith, 20 Sep 2018 @ 10:31pm

    So let's give phone companies (of which there aer many, no monopoly) and the post office (we have private delivery services) the power to moderate content over their wires.

    We can have a conservative and liberal phone company and mail service. Or we can rule the internet is a common carrier or that sites above X in size no longer have the right to micromanage content. We can also keep what we have now, which seems to work very well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2018 @ 10:47pm

      Re:

      Stop drinking gramps. You can’t even spell your own name right.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 11:11pm

      We can also keep what we have now, which seems to work very well.

      I…but…if you think things work well the way they are now, why the hell would you want to change anything?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 6:40am

      Re:

      We can have a conservative and liberal phone company and mail service.

      I'm sorry, what?

      Or we can rule the internet is a common carrier

      No, you are wrong. ISPs are a common carrier. The internet doesn't enter into it.

      that sites above X in size no longer have the right to micromanage content

      Why? What would be the benefit? Also, what is X? And who gets to determine it? And what sites do you think are actually engaging in micromanaging content? Do you not understand that the larger something gets, the more impossible it becomes to micromanage it? You can only do micromanagement on a small scale, not a large one.

      We can also keep what we have now, which seems to work very well.

      As Stephen pointed out, then why are you wanting to change the way it works? Your statements contradict each other.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Cowherd, 21 Sep 2018 @ 3:00am

    >Internet platforms of course are not fictional starships. And unlike fictional starships they can't depend on artificial intelligence to set them on the right path.

    Not yet anyway. There is always the chance that as they continue to pass on ever more decision-making power to algorithms, at some point said algorithms will detect the self-defeating nature of appeasing human emotional outbursts and filter them out as decision-making parameters.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 4:08am

      Re:

      "Sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't allow you to do that"

      You really want to be at the mercy of HAL?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Cathy Gellis (profile), 21 Sep 2018 @ 11:08am

      Re:

      I've updated the post with a link to what I'd written about the Scunthorpe problem, which discusses AI in platform moderation.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Cowherd, 23 Sep 2018 @ 8:54am

        Re: Re:

        I wasn't actually referring to AI being able to solve the impossible problem of who's opinions to censor based on others not liking them. What I meant was an emotionless machine with no opinion of it's own may be more able to recognize that attempting to avoid public outrage by censoring controversial opinions will just generate more public outrage, and stop doing it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 22 Sep 2018 @ 11:50am

    This is actually why it is dangerous to outlaw subjective things like hate speech*. I believe that platforms should let the users do their moderation even if they let them use some AI to assist in such task while placing tools to report clearly criminal content such as child porn. CP is easily recognized as a crime. It's one of those topics everybody generally agrees with (even if some people are a little overzealous). This would trigger further review from the staff while things that fall into the "I don't like" category would be just hidden by the user him/herself. It would lessen the burden on platforms and foster the much needed competition Facebook needs for instance.

    Sure there would be abuses like people reporting others for "CP" to try to silence them but instead of an automated response that could effectively censor innocents it would be humans doing the review which would reduce false positives and abuses. Not that it would be easy to implement but we need to try. The other option is destruction.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 22 Sep 2018 @ 3:55pm

    Just one question....

    How *did* we avoid getting hundreds of comments when content moderation was discussed????

    And Ninja, Child Porn is also quite subjective...as some are turned on by the pictures of the kids crawling around on the Huggies diaper box, and have been convicted for it. The connection to harming children there is, well, tenuous.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.