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.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: censorship, restorative justice, social media, trolls

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2019 @ 10:52pm

    Re: You are pretending it's about ethics in content moderation

    Sup liar. Are you in pain?

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Essential Reading
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

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