Perspectives on the Insurgency #4: Check your bias at the submit button

This is part #4 in a sequence of exchanges between myself and Jennifer Edeburn, on the appropriateness of complaints against Quora. See:

As with the preceding piece, Jennifer’s contribution has been significantly edited from her initial PM to me, as we’ve both been refining our thinking.

I can see a whole lot of people in my mind’s eye, arcing and and ready to holler at what Jennifer is saying here. Just pause a minute and think, folks. In my judgement, Jennifer’s not wrong in what she’s saying. Verbera sed audi. And don’t Verbera either, for that matter. (Nick Nicholas’ answer to What is your personal pretentious Latin motto?)


Now that I’ve dinged Quora, I’m going to go back to where I think the movement is coming up short. Here, I see two major aspects. The first is what I would refer to as person-bias / lack of discrimination.

When I say person-bias, I refer to the assumption that because the Mods are a (relatively) faceless collective, and the people who are getting edit-blocked are real users who you have some interaction with or experience of their content, that there is an intrinsic bias to have a higher trust level in the users than in the mods.

(Aside, prior to our editing here, Achilleas Vortselas wrote about this as well elsewhere in a post that has been shared to this blog: Moderation is silly because Quora isn’t real – or is it? by Achilleas Vortselas on Posts by Achillea)

I mostly see this in two forms:

  1. Comments like “I can’t believe so and so got edit blocked, I never see them say anything off, it must have been a mistake”
  2. The tendency to believe users who return from their edit-blocks to announce that their BNBR violations were undeserved (I am not referring to cases where the status was changed on appeal).

On believing users: exactly what is it that makes the self-report of a user who may obviously have a conflict of interest in reporting their own guilt appear to be immediately more reliable than the moderators? We do know that Quora makes mistakes sometimes and issues apologies. However, to assume that Quora moderation is mistaken all or most of the time when they have access to the user’s entire interaction on the site including the content of their private messages, their Anonymous postings, and their moderation history—and the average observer does not—is, to me, a bit of a stretch. And yet I rarely see anyone tend to immediately support the idea that the user’s edit-block for BNBR may have been completely deserved.

On comments: I had not been here for a particularly long time when I came across an answer by a former mod to a question about why such-and-such had yielded a BNBR warning. The ex-mod also noted in her answer something like “I also went and had a look at your edit log and I see several other items there that are likely to result in a BNBR warning if they are reported, you may want to go back and look critically at your content and review the BNBR policy found here (with a link)”.

Since then, whenever I come across someone commenting that they cannot understand how such-and-such a user has been edit-blocked, the first thing I do is go and look at the user’s edit log. And I would say that roughly 50% of the time, I am able to see quite well from the content that remains in the log exactly why that user was edit-blocked. So the fact that the commenters do not know is due either to a) they don’t understand the the definitions of “nice” and “respectful” (unlikely) or b) they did not look. And then others see these comments, and you know what? They don’t look either, they assume they can be taken at face value based on a trust relationship with the commenter. And pretty soon everyone is convinced that because nobody knows why so-and-so was edit-blocked, it must mean that the mods are running wild again.

I think a problem with this attitude being increasingly visible is that it is contagious. It may encourage users to think that they are the best judge of their own BNBR reports, and does not encourage them to make an effort to interpret the policy as Quora means it to be interpreted. As an example, recently a Quoran returned from an edit block and wrote an answer in which she detailed some of her BNBR violations. There were two that she admitted were legitimate, but one of the ones that she said was “not a real BNBR violation” was that she wrote “Shame on you.” to the question asker in one of her answers, with enough context of the question for me to see that it was intended literally.

I have to wonder if her willingness to disregard the notification and apply her own standard of BNBR was not nourished by seeing again and again statements on how draconian and inconsistent the moderation is on this site, and how everyone should expect sooner or later to get a BNBR warning that they didn’t deserve.

I’ll also note that this was a user with a pretty clean edit log, so even if someone had taken the effort to go back and check they would not have seen anything, and yet by the admission of her own answer it was obvious that her edit-block was reasonably applied and deserved.

So I would suggest that if the movement is to be a force for good, then they need to ensure that their complaint is credible. They need to be aware of their own intrinsic bias, and they need to police themselves, making sure not to comment in defense of individual users without at least doing the basic homework to make sure nothing is obviously present, and calling out others who do. They need to remember that even if they don’t find anything obvious, that doesn’t mean there was no offense committed, and that a user’s protestation of innocence may actually be ignorance.

My response:

Moderation is not always wrong; it may (may) not even be usually wrong, in applying its rules in a rigorous, rigid fashion. (Whether rigidity is the way to go is a different question.) And for what it’s worth, I also have seen people come back from edit blocks, and say “You know what, I deserved that.”

There’s a few things going on that encourage people to get out their pitchforks

:Social things:

  • Loyalty to friends. (You will see a lot more about this in the next section.)
  • Loyalty to the collective. (Ditto)
  • Mistrust of Moderation (which you have acknowledged): the mods don’t get the benefit of the doubt, because of several public missteps, and exacerbated by lack of transparency.
  • Closely allied with that: Sense of waging skirmishes against an implacable opponent, so you can’t afford to give ground during the campaign.
    • No, feeling at war with your host is not a healthy thing.
    • And I acknowledge my own acute and irrational resentment of those users who say Quora Moderation is just fine, there’s nothing for you to protest. I don’t regard those users (who are often long-time TWs) as my peers. I suspect that they, too, are speaking out of their own peer loyalty.
    • And no, Jennifer, I’ve never felt that about you, because you did not speak to me with self-righteousness or complacency when you criticised me.
  • Common to all of the above: groupthink. Groupthink is not intrinsically a bad thing. There can be no social change without groupthink. But groupthink does lead to bias in how you view the world. (Then again, so does any non-trivial framework of thought.)

Political things:

  • A commonly held view that BNBR is overly rigorous. I will admit, I don’t regard “Shame on you” as out of bounds, although I admit it is close (and that’s a separate discussion worth having). That is a disagreement with the application of the law, rather than the law itself.
  • A possibly less commonly held view that BNBR is not applied consistently, that some users are exempt from its rigours. I don’t particularly feel that (but then, I think the rigour is excessive to begin with, so I welcome the chinks). But I have seen others say it explicitly.
  • A definitely less commonly held view that BNBR is misconceived to begin with. It certainly isn’t the cultural norm online, and it takes a lot of getting used to for people from other online cultures.


  • And, yes, self-interest, all-round combativeness, and cluelessness is in there too.


The responsible thing to do, always, is if I hear of a sanction of someone I’ve never heard of, to check the edit logs before protesting. I do that for Necrologue anyway.

If I have heard of those sanctioned, well, if I know they’ve been acting up, maybe give the devil (er, angel, totally angel) their due. Sanctions have to be on the table, even for your buddies. It’s not the very application of sanctions that have to be called into question, but the consistency and transparency and constructive engagement.

  • I will not sit on my hands, I will fight the good fight. But what I hope I’ve done and hope to keep doing is to pick my battles, to defend those who deserve it most.
  • And where I don’t protest, I will never be gleeful about bans either: that’s what ghouls do, we are all diminished when one of us is exiled.

If I have heard of those sanctioned, and know of no discernable reason why they were banned… maybe there was a good reason. Maybe there wasn’t, maybe the reason was specious. But maybe there was.

The 6 month ban-hammer on Xu Beixi for using externally sourced infographics is a poster child for what looks like moderator caprice. (All the more because the infographics policy has since been silently rescinded.) But if you read the other side of the story (…), where it is claimed that Xu received repeated warnings and engagement which she declined to comply with—the ban makes a little more sense.

This is not to say there shall be no protests of sanctions, and no sadness at sanctions. This is to say protests should seek to be as informed as possible, and sadness should be as wise as possible. Which is not very possible, and some of us have more information than others. But anger is not an end in itself for me.

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