Lessons Learned From Creating Good Faith Debate In A Sea Of Garbage Disinformation

from the it's-possible dept

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Will Oremus and Gerrit De Vynck from the Washington Post published one of the most fascinating -- and in some ways, most important -- discussions of social media and dealing with "disinformation" that I've seen in a while. It touches on two things I've written about recently -- how the way we talk about disinformation is not helpful and the difficulty in determining how to deal with bad faith actors.

The WaPo article talks about a group on Facebook -- set up by concerned mothers -- that focuses on having thoughtful debate about vaccines -- an area that is fraught with misinformation, disinformation, utter nonsense, and propaganda. But where there may be legitimate causes for debate and concern. But the problem is that the space is so flooded with nonsense that it feels like any attempt to discuss stuff seriously quickly slides into the nonsense zone and everyone backs into their usual corners. But what this article notes is that it is possible to have a good faith debate on such topics, even with people who believe strongly in debunked nonsense. The real trick? Having strict rules and following them:

“The most important rule was ‘civility,’ ” Bilowitz said. “There are some groups online where people just yell at each other. We wanted to just be able to talk to one another without it getting that way.”

Vaccine Talk now has nearly 70,000 members, each of whom must gain administrators’ approval to join and commit to a code of conduct. Strict rules prohibit users from misrepresenting themselves, offering medical advice and harassing or bullying people. Another key rule: Be ready to provide citations within 24 hours for any claim you make. Twenty-five moderators and administrators in six countries monitor the posts, and those who flout the rules are kicked out.

So, there is heavy moderation going on in the group, but they're not just banning people who spout nonsense. They ask that they cite the evidence for such nonsense, and those who don't live up to the rules face consequences. It's not surprising that bad faith actors have trouble following the rules:

“Usually, the hardcore anti-vaxxers cannot follow the rules,” Bilowitz said. “They are usually spamming people with their commentary. I think it’s hard for them: They are basically coming out of an echo chamber.”

And the interesting bit is that this community seems to be working in actually convincing some skeptics:

Monica Buescher, a 32-year-old teacher in Vacaville, Calif., said she went “deep down the rabbit hole” of anti-vaccine misinformation when she had her second child in 2019. Convinced that shots were dangerous, she nonetheless wanted to hear the pro-vaccine side. She found her way to Vaccine Talk, which she said had a reputation among anti-vaccine groups as being “mean” for banning those who made claims without scientific evidence.

On Vaccine Talk, Buescher credits a handful of people with walking her through the scientific evidence and persuading her that routine childhood vaccines are safe and effective. Now, Buescher is helping her friends and family navigate conflicting information about coronavirus vaccines.

There are other examples as well.

Of course, the story also reinforces the idea that expecting the big companies to do all the moderation and enforcement themselves leads to questionable outcomes as well:

Vaccine Talk represents exactly the type of conversations Facebook says it wants to cultivate. But Bilowitz said the social network’s often clumsy and heavy-handed enforcement of covid misinformation policies has made their work more difficult. In June, Facebook temporarily shut down the group because someone posted an article deemed to be misinformation. But the poster had been seeking advice on how to rebut the article.

“We were just caught up in the algorithm,” Bilowitz said, “and felt there wasn’t a human in charge of the process.”

The article highlights how the constant drumbeat of people (including the White House) demanding that Facebook "do more" is often counterproductive.

“Facebook is attempting to shut down misinformation by shutting down all conversation entirely,” she said. “I strongly believe that civil, evidence-based discussion works, and Facebook’s policies make it extremely difficult for that to happen.”

There's a lot more in the article that is worth thinking about with regards to these debates about mis- and disinformation and how to deal with it. And it is notable that this is a successful, decently large community, that doesn't just shut down dissent, but rather simply requires those spreading it to back it up, and makes it clear that if you cannot, you face consequences. And it's also useful in highlighting how the general demands to put all the responsibility on big companies like Facebook can backfire.

I honestly think this article is one of the most important ones we've seen on various content moderation debates regarding misinformation, and I expect to cite back to it often.

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: anti-vax, content moderation, covid-19, evidence, rules, vaccines
Companies: facebook


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    Koby (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 11:20am

    Fake It Until You Make It

    They ask that they cite the evidence for such nonsense, and those who don't live up to the rules face consequences.

    This sounds like a way for government to control debate. Take, for example, the bs FCC wireless coverage maps. Many knew that it was bogus. Providing a citation to refute otherwise within 24 hours might not be possible. Sometimes, we "officially" prove what we thought was true only months afterward.

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

    • identicon
      Rocky, 7 Sep 2021 @ 11:43am

      Re: Fake It Until You Make It

      This sounds like a way for government to control debate.

      Someone asks someone else to back up an assertion with verifiable facts if they want to continue participating in a debate and somehow you think that means government control?

      Providing a citation to refute otherwise within 24 hours might not be possible.

      Which makes we wonder why someone would say something they actually can't prove in the first place.

      Sometimes, we "officially" prove what we thought was true only months afterward.

      Then you don't present it as an undisputable fact, simple as that.

      Which begs the question, what conservatives views are being censored? Be specific in your answer.

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 12:12pm

      What a surprise, someone who constantly makes claims and then runs away when asked to support them isn't a fan of a system where that sort of behavior is penalized.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 12:52pm

      Re: Fake It Until You Make It

      This rule for requiring a citation to backup claims made in the group, would have directly led to you specifically being banned.

      You come in here constantly spewing bunk as if it were the truth, and not once have you backed up your statements with verifiable fact.

      Not a single time have you been able to make a truthful statement backed up by verifiable fact.

      Why is that Koby?

      Too bad we didn't have the same rules here, as you would have been given the boot long ago!

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

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 1:39pm

      Hey, Koby: What “conservative opinions” do you believe are being censored from social media? Be specific.

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

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 1:47pm

      Re: Fake It Until You Make It

      This sounds like a way for government to control debate.

      Saying you need to present evidence for claims? No, it does not, Koby. It does not at all.

      Take, for example, the bs FCC wireless coverage maps.

      Huh?

      Many knew that it was bogus. Providing a citation to refute otherwise within 24 hours might not be possible.

      What?

      Sometimes, we "officially" prove what we thought was true only months afterward.

      The only point here is that people need to show evidence to post about it. Your broadband map example has nothing to do with that, and none of this has anything to do with "government" controlling the debate.

      Koby, seriously: this kind of nonsense comment makes you look really fucking stupid.

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

      • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
        icon
        Koby (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 3:12pm

        Re: Re: Fake It Until You Make It

        Sorry, BROADBAND maps. But also carriers have been misleading on their 5G coverage maps as well.

        https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20210511/07082546773/microsoft-data-shows-that-fccs-broadband-map s-are-fantasy.shtml

        Techdirt here would have been censored for several months if subjected to the Vaccine Talk rules regarding high speed internet availability back in 2018.

        Personally, I don't think Techdirt or anyone else should get censored because they disagree with some official FCC coverage map, or any other government study. Indeed, there was no counter "study" available to refute the FCC for some time, certainly not within 24 hours. When it comes to censorship, social media companies are looking to government as to what can and cannot be said, whether the topic is coronavirus, CSAM, terrorism, or any other political hot button issue. Trying to eliminate bad faith arguments by saying that you can't contradict the official government study is in bad faith.

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

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 3:19pm

          Techdirt here would have been censored for several months

          By who? Because Techdirt authors being moderated off a privately owned interactive web service not owned or operated by Techdirt/Mike Masnick/those authors isn’t censorship.

          COPYPASTA TIME! [ahem]

          The First Amendment protects your rights to speak freely and associate with whomever you want. It doesn’t give you the right to make others listen. It doesn’t give you the right to make others give you access to an audience. And it doesn’t give you the right to make a personal soapbox out of private property you don’t own. Nobody is entitled to a platform or an audience at the expense of someone else.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 3:30pm

          Re: Re: Re: Fake It Until You Make It

          Techdirt here would have been censored for several months if subjected to the Vaccine Talk rules regarding high speed internet availability back in 2018.

          Why, when the linked to stories of people not getting what the map said, and various speed test results. Unlike you, Techdirt writers support their opiniobns with actual citationscitations.

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

          • icon
            That One Guy (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 3:51pm

            TD's trolls can be so bloody lazy at times though watching them faceplant in such spectacular fashion can be funny. 'If TD was forced to deal with a demand for citations their extensive history of providing citations(unlike me) would have seen them silenced!'

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

        • icon
          Mike Masnick (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 3:47pm

          Re: Re: Re: Fake It Until You Make It

          Techdirt here would have been censored for several months if subjected to the Vaccine Talk rules regarding high speed internet availability back in 2018.

          No. We wouldn't. For multiple reasons. First, we can actually back up what we say with evidence. We can show why the maps are wrong. With evidence. Which is all that this group is asking for.

          Second, the rules on disinformation are mostly targeted at spewing disinformation that might actually harm someone. No one is physically harmed by false broadband map information

          Personally, I don't think Techdirt or anyone else should get censored because they disagree with some official FCC coverage map, or any other government study.

          If someone doesn't want us posting in their group, that's on them. It's not censorship. It's on them.

          Indeed, there was no counter "study" available to refute the FCC for some time, certainly not within 24 hours.

          You don't need "a study." You could easily present refuting evidence -- such as example on the broadband map that claim coverage, and showing that said coverage is not available. That's evidence.

          Trying to eliminate bad faith arguments by saying that you can't contradict the official government study is in bad faith.

          You're making up the claim that you can't contradict government officials. That was never a part of this.

          The only "bad faith" argument here is you. You're making shit up. So here, Koby: provide some fucking evidence to back up your false claim that Vaccine Talk only accepts "official gov't studies". You have 24 hours or you've admitted that you're acting in bad faith.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 8 Sep 2021 @ 4:55am

          Re: Re: Re: Fake It Until You Make It

          Koby, just because Singapore does it doesn't mean every country does it.

          Perhaps you'd like to move there? Oh, right. We have your likes there. Don't.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 2:13pm

      Re: Fake It Until You Make It

      Sup lil ISIS!

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Sep 2021 @ 5:08am

      Re: Fake It Until You Make It

      This sounds like a way for government to control debate.

      Just because Singapore and China do it (and the caveat here is total information control is needed to actually do this) does NOT mean the rest of the world does it.

      Just because I say the world wants to have that sort of information control does not mean they are already there, even though I say every government in the world is transitioning to that sort of heavy-handed censorship.

      This is why the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. To find NeoNazis like you, call you out, and send you packing.

      Providing a citation to refute otherwise within 24 hours might not be possible.

      While I agree that the time period should be extended, the principle is to prove your argument. If you can't even STATE YOUR STAND AND POLITICAL AFFILIATIONS, MUCH LESS SAY WHICH OPINIONS ARE BEING CENSORED, you are no different from the Russian and Chinese instigators on various websites trying to spread fear, misunderstanding, and doubt. Perhaps you'd like to prove us wrong and state them, or if that's not possible, turn yourself in to your FBI handler at least?

      But to echo a certain commenter...

      What “conservative opinions” do you believe are being censored from social media? Be specific.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 11:28am

    25 moderators for 70,000 members (or so). Linear scaling: 2500 for 7 million. 25,0000 for 700 million. 100,000 moderators would cover the 2.8 billion people who use facebook monthly. So, how deep are facebook's pockets?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 11:45am

      Re:

      Consider also, these are 25 moderators who only need to understand one topic.

      Anyone think that they'd be equally efficient if they needed to moderate communities on guns, welfare, and affirmative action?

      Anyone?

      Bueller?

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

      • icon
        BernardoVerda (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 12:40pm

        Re: Re:

        Why would anyone presume that any random moderator would be equally well qualified to, or expected to, moderate every random topic, in a massive forum?

        In a reasonable system, moderators would presumably have their own areas of actual expertise, and/or a broader area of general competence. Then there would be items any moderator could handle. And finally, there would be those subjects where some other , better qualified moderator would get tasked with the job.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 1:05pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          who is tasking all the moderators, and sorting posts into their areas of expertise?

          how do you effectively watch 100k moderators?

          why do you and the OP of this idea think linear scaling is valid option or idea at all in the first place?

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

          • identicon
            Christenson, 7 Sep 2021 @ 2:31pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Sir,
            This group is actually very close to the reddit model,there are lots of ways of organizing moderation.

            The 100K was given as a very rough, back of the envelope estimate, where getting the number of zeros right is about all that can be expected; there aren't strong reasons to think scaling is much worse than linear, for example. Assume 10 moderators can be supervised by one person, and 10 supervisors can be supervised by a manager, and so on, you still get that the work to be done scales linearly, with the overhead adding 10-15%.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 2:22pm

      Re:

      Pocket depth isn't the issue for Facebook. They have a conflict of interest. FB makes money off of that misinformation. FB has no incentive to remove misinformation. FB still hasn't banned Trump.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 8 Sep 2021 @ 8:17am

      Re:

      In addition to the non-linear scaling introduced by the need for management:

      • Even with good managers, those moderators are not all going to be on the same page to the extent 25 moderators can be.

      • This is 25 moderators moderating one group with 70,000 members. They're not moderating everything those 70,000 people do, just their contributions to that one group. I don't know what that scale factor would be, as probably most of the 2.8 billion people post little or nothing to FB, and a lot of them post constantly. But it's probably greater than one.

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 12:11pm

    'You can't do that, that's our entire game plan!'

    Another key rule: Be ready to provide citations within 24 hours for any claim you make. Twenty-five moderators and administrators in six countries monitor the posts, and those who flout the rules are kicked out.

    Ah the bane of liars, quacks and trolls everywhere: Citation Needed or you're out the door. If you can't back it up don't say it or be ready to retract your statement/be shown the door, it's no wonder the anti-vax nuts aren't fans of the group and call it 'mean' as that's basically their entire shtick.

    While their complete 'solution' to trolls and bad faith actors doesn't exactly scale well(as the AC above notes expecting moderators to understand one topic is world's different than expecting them to understand every topic) there are certainly some good takeaways here, from putting high importance on supporting your claims to showing people the door if they're just ranting and/or harassing people so that those that are genuinely interested in an honest conversation can get on with that.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 1:10pm

      Re: 'You can't do that, that's our entire game plan!'

      I bet the "no giving advice" rule really puts a wrinkle in the agendas of some as well.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 12:13pm

    USENET still works if anyone truly wants free speech.

    They don't.

    USENET-style moderation limiting posts to X per time period also works.

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

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 8 Sep 2021 @ 2:33am

      Re:

      "USENET still works if anyone truly wants free speech."

      Yes, and there are reasons why people abandoned it. In my case, it became unusable because all the spam allowed by "free speech" made the groups I was in flooded the actual discussions, so they were abandoned in favour of moderate boards. Right-wing nutjobs weren't whining about that at the time because they did the same and were fine with Stormfront until they were reminded how much of an audience mainstream sites had compared to them.

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

    • identicon
      Rocky, 8 Sep 2021 @ 3:59am

      Re:

      USENET still works if anyone truly wants free speech.

      If it's free speech you want, don't rely on others property to disseminate it. USENET was never the free speech bastion you think it was - what you got was what your server-admin decided you should get which is still true to this day.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Sep 2021 @ 6:38pm

      Re:

      Where's the press release, John Smith?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2021 @ 2:54pm

    Quality over quantity

    Sounds refreshingly reasonable. Shows that it is possible to do moderation well, as long as you don't bite off more than you can chew.

    It's ironic that these people are doing so much better than Facebook, only to suffer the inevitable mistakes of Facebook's perpetual drive to do more at any cost.

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 7 Sep 2021 @ 6:40pm

    "had a reputation among anti-vaccine groups as being “mean” for banning those who made claims without scientific evidence"

    stares

    How dare they ban me for refusing to backup my position, they are meanies!!

    My brain wants to but can't manage a bang on the law, bang on the table, chew on the corner of the table & claim you're Napoleon example for this thinking.

    It also provides a tiny bit of insight into why no one is making real progress in this "debate".
    Strip away the "beliefs" they really do not matter, what matters is people finding a sense of community.
    When they feel they belong they defend the community, and often manage to overlook that the community might be wrong.
    People don't want to think the group they joined might be bad & belonging makes them bad as well.
    No it's the children who are wrong.
    They invent reasons why the really bad people are calling them names & dig in more to their newfound community.

    Forcing them to show their work on a separate page is mean, because they know it won't stand up to even a gentle breeze so they reframe it as emotional attacks rather than rational so they can use the well they were mean escape hatch to keep believing.

    600K+ dead we still have people convinced that Drs are classifying all deaths as covid because that gets them paid more.
    I personally am unaware of any insurance that pays a Dr more if someone dies from a specific disease, and none of the people who push this claim have offered anything to support it beyond seeing a few death certificates where there were multiple comorbidity's listed as reason for death & they assumed covid was just tacked on.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 8 Sep 2021 @ 9:00am

      Re:

      600K+ dead we still have people convinced that Drs are classifying all deaths as covid because that gets them paid more.

      Which also twists the numbers in the wrong direction. If that were really happening, we should see 600,000 fewer deaths than normal from all other causes, as those deaths were miscounted as Covid deaths. Instead, we're seeing excess deaths beyond normal even in addition to the 600,000 Covid deaths, indicating that Covid deaths have been undercounted, not overcounted.

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

      • icon
        That Anonymous Coward (profile), 8 Sep 2021 @ 9:12pm

        Re: Re:

        Well and it is "well known" that many states were/are/still playing hide the stats trying to hide that they were sacrificing the elderly by hiding covid patients in senior care facilities.

        The toll of the pandemic is so much worse than anyone wants to admit to or really think about.

        Elected officials killing off citizens to please the party.
        Elected officials downplaying the danger.
        Elected officials putting business before human life.
        Elected officials appeasing a small vocal minority hellbent on trying to kill themselves & to have the right to try to kill others.

        SCOTUS cared more about if restrictions on churches (aka superspreader super sites) hurt citizens rights than if the TX abortion law that interferes with an established right by picking and choosing which rights are worthy of them doing anything about it.

        But then Christians do have a history of attacking nonbelievers and forcing them to convert or die.

        600K+ dead... pity the data has been spun so much that its impossible to build detailed models showing how the 'muh rights' crowd made it so much worse for everyone else so we could ask why their right to be assholes trumps our right to live.

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

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 8 Sep 2021 @ 8:20am

    Seems like simply asking for citations does a lot of the job but there are limitations. The other day I had a discussion with one of these idiots and they had the citations. A site called Mises and a bunch of debunked studies. The site is structured to sound credible by featuring legitimate content, including news, with all sorts absurdity mixed in, including anti-vax material. We still need to shut down this kind of misinformation hub that pretends to be serious.

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

  • icon
    Lostinlodos (profile), 9 Sep 2021 @ 1:05pm

    I’m shocked!

    WaPo put out something journalistic?
    …must be an OpEd or outside writer. 😉

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


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.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

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



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Sponsored Promotion
Public Money, Public Code - Sign The Open Letter at publiccode.eu
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
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
Close

Email This

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