The tribunal of the marshals

There has been a longstanding surmise amongst disgruntled Quora users that Top Writers are treated more leniently by Moderation than other Quora users, particularly when it comes to BNBR.

I’ve recently stumbled across what may be the smoking gun for this surmise:

Jon Davis’ answer to What was the 2017 New York Top Writer’s meetup like?

I also got to finally meet two employees of Quora who I simply had to greet with, “Oh! Jonathan Brill/Tatiana Estévez. I’m Jon Davis and I’m so sorry!” I say that because the topics I write in cause more moderation headaches than just about anyone on the site. Since Jonathan Brill gets all reports about Top Writers, I’m sure he spends a good chunk of his professional life weeding through my content to see if this time the report was valid. Since they are the only two people who must become well acquainted with my work, I had to thank them sincerely. All kidding aside, I’m really glad I got to attend to meet them both. I am often in the middle of sophomoric nonsense by people who really don’t like different ideas, so that makes me interact with moderation a lot. So it was a great experience meeting the people who back up the fact that I’ve (usually) done nothing wrong far more than I give them credit for. It’s nice to get a face on the people you often only interact with in “times of inclement weather”. Followers of my blog The War Elephant (website) know what I’m talking about.


I’ll be fine because moderation for Top Writers is always reviewed by humans. I’m frustrated for new writers because they are susceptible to the manipulation.

These two paragraphs indicate that reports against Top Writers are scrutinised by Quora Staff, in order to determine their validity, before any sanction is applied. Reports against other writers, by implication, are not subject to the same scrutiny, if any.

Before you all reach for your pitchforks, I’d like to try to discuss, dispassionately:

  • What we do not yet know
  • Why this is a good thing
  • Why this is a bad thing
  • What the implications of this are

What we do not know

This is a remark in passing by a writer on something discussed (leaked?) in the latest NY TW meetup. This seems to have been a fertile field for information about moderation, as we have also had information about moderation of anonymous content from it: Anonymous Screening.

  • We don’t know how accurately Jon is relaying this, and we have not heard it from the horse’s mouth. That said, I’m not interested in disputing Jon’s veracity, and I will note that Jon in the same answer published an interview with Brill, and he was upvoted by Tatiana. If they really took objection to what he said, one presumes they would have reacted somehow.
  • We don’t know how accurately Quora staff have communicated the status of TW moderation to Jon. For example, whether it really is every single TW, Old Planter TWs, highly popular TWs, controversial TWs.
  • We don’t know how thorough or complete the human review of TW content is. Jon Davis’ answer to If you’re a conservative, have you ever felt silenced by liberal popular opinion or colleagues? nominates himself as the third most reported user on all of Quora, based on information from Quora staff; I’ve seen him nominate the second most reported user, also a TW. (I can’t find the comment, so he may have deleted it.) Even if there only a thousand-odd TWs, that means a lot of TW reports to sift through.
  • We don’t know how long this has been the case.

Why this is a good thing

Let us see this from the perspective of Quora.

Top Writers are given the Quill because they generate the kind of content Quora wants to see more of, and they are cultivated to that end. The extent of cultivation is not clear to me, and from what I’ve heard, it’s less than I’ve assumed; but it does happen. Making sure that users who generate good content are not unnecessarily turned off from Quora is a good thing for Quora. And in fact, the intervention of Brill in reports demonstrates that good writers are maybe not as fungible to Quora as I’d assumed.

We also know that TWs, because of their visibility, are disproportionately targeted for reporting. (The same applies to highly popular writers who are not TWs; Feifei Wang has articulated this well.) Stepping in to weed out spurious reports is a more pressing need for highly visible writers.

Special treatment of writers who have proven themselves is longstanding, and reflects increased confidence in their output—which underlies Quora giving them the Quill in the first place. We know that a good track record with Moderation is one the criteria for getting the Quill. We know that the Collapsebot stops collapsing short answers of writers who have been here long enough—I stopped being collapsed after six months. This is more of the same: writers that Quora has confirmed are in good standing are given more of the benefit of the doubt.

Special treatment does not mean impunity. Quora, in weeding out reports, acknowledges that many of them are spurious; it also weeds them because some of them are not. As it happens, Jon Davis himself is currently on a two week edit block.

Quora is a private entity, that pursues moderation for its own ends of providing a safe environment, comfortable for its users and for its advertisers. It is not obligated to prioritise fairness over these goals.

Why this is a bad thing

I have already posted about how Quora Moderation violates the norms of natural justice (Nick Nicholas’ answer to Should Quorans be allowed to present a statement of defense before being sentenced to a permanent ban?): “Noone should be a judge in their own case”, and “Hear the other party.” Those norms are there to guarantee equity before the law.

This revelation indicates that Quora Moderation is also violating equality before the law. The title of this post is an allusion to the Tribunal des maréchaux de France, the court system specific to the nobility in pre-Revolutionary France. Pre-Enlightenment regimes routinely thought equality before the law was ridiculous, though that did not mean the nobility had impunity.

(The tribunal des maréchaux was also called the tribunal du point d’honneur, because they were meant to replace duels, fought on points of honour. At least that much, we are being spared.)

(For now.)

There is little incentive for Quora to repair problems with moderation, such as the long queue of appeals (congratulations on hiring Roger), the more draconian criteria now being applied to BNBR (as at least some former moderators now acknowledge), the refusal to consider context let alone content, the lack of transparency, and so on. If the most visible and trusted writers are exempt from the worst of Moderation, then the users who could advocate for Moderation reform the most are deprived of any motivation to. Jon Davis himself has said “moderation is now better than it was”, because he is no longer being sanctioned as much as he used to be. Those without a Quill, as he acknowledges, still are.

Differential treatment is divisive, and supports feelings of entitlement and resentment. It’s not a surprise that Quora has not stated this is going on publicly; then again, it states very little publicly. There is a reason why Equality Before The Law matters to those subject to the law. And there’s a reason why users deserve to be made aware of this.

What the implications of this are

  • Any defence of Moderation by a beneficiary of the Tribunal of the Marshals has to be seen in that light. Their experience of moderation is not the same as others’, and they are strongly subject to the The Tale Of The Stairs effect.
  • There is an intrinsic bias in reporting against the highly visible, which presumably the Tribunal of the Marshals seeks to redress. The sans-culottes have no access to the Tribunal of the Marshals, and there will be no French Revolution. But the sans-culottes still get to report infractions. If you see someone doing the wrong thing, have no compunction in reporting them, whatever their status. (That applies, of course, just as much to those on Jon Davis’ side of the aisle, as to those opposite.)
  • Moderation is still necessary. Just because there are issues with equity and equality does not mean that there should be no moderation, or that moderation is always or even mostly doing a bad job.
  • We do not get a say in how moderation is run in a private concern. But information is power; it is, in fact, empowerment. And any reaction to Quora should seek to be informed.

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