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The Internet is a great place because it gives people the opportunity to engage in their passions, whether their passions are video games or taxidermy, cards or cartography. Often the embodiment of this passion is the moderator. Someone who puts in a ton of time every day to provide something for people who share interests. Good mods with a good group can create thriving communities. But mods are human, and humans have a history of abusing power, whatever power that is. Today I want to talk about what a powerful moderator can do, and why you should be as worried about it as I am.

A little while ago you probably heard some sad news about TotalBiscuit. He announced in a twitlonger post that the cancer he has been fighting has reached his liver and it doesn’t look good. You probably heard that news, unless you get your gaming content from one of the biggest communities on the Internet: Reddit’s r/games.

If you’re an r/games subscriber, you probably heard crickets and saw an all-too-common comment graveyard. 

The moderators nuked any threads about TotalBiscuit’s announcement and then (as has become common on Reddit) nuked comments mentioning TotalBiscuit, comments asking what was going on, and as the day wore on, comments calling the mods dicks. 

Initally the explanation was that TotalBiscuit is not a prominent enough figure in video games.

TotalBiscuit. Objectively the most popular PC gaming critic, with 2.1 million subscribers on YouTube and top curator on Steam wasn’t important enough. Later in a clarifying post the rationale for the takedowns given by the head moderator was a rule prohibiting posts about non-gaming events in a gaming figure’s life. 

Users were quick to point out that numerous times in the past and as recently as 3 months ago news about illness and death of gaming figures were allowed on r/games without incident. After that post though, it was radio silence from the mod team. It’s also worth mentioning that many users accused the head moderator of specific bias against TotalBiscuit based on his politics.

While this was blowing up, another moderator from r/games went to TotalBiscuit’s subreddit, r/cynicalbrit, and explained that while he and other mods agreed with the users, the top mod put his foot down and that was that. 

Deleted comments and Redditor response on a related story about Axiom Esports closing.

Deleted comments and Redditor response on a related story about Axiom Esports closing.

For a full day, posting any TB content, mentioning him in a comment, or crying foul about the heavy handed moderation would get your comment or post deleted. In a community of over 600,000, this topic was off-limits because of one person’s application of their arbitrary rules.

It might sound like a minor issue, but the ability to control information and communication for massive communities like this is important. People get their news from the Internet, and the ability to control what news is seen is power, and power can be abused.

As far as I know, this moderator is nobody. He or she is the most senior moderator of r/games, someone who either got there first or stayed on the mod team the longest and because of that they can disallow content, enact rules, and exert control on this massive community. If they get too crazy the other mods can oust them, but users, the people who make a community, can’t do anything.

As I see it, the people who have this power are the last ones who should. The people with this power aren’t elected, hired or selected, they are the people with the most free time, who will work for free and who want this power. Would you ever give someone a job because they had the most time to do it? Or because they wanted the power the job would bring?

Reddit’s argument is that if you don’t like a community, you can leave it, start your own. Thats what happened with Reddit’s LGBT subreddit; long periods of moderator drama caused an exodus and users started r/ainbow. But in cases like this, the new community is always smaller and worse for it. Not every visitor will make the switch, or learn the story; they just found a subreddit called LGBT, shrugged and planted roots.

This is an issue with Reddit. The administrators are almost completely hands-off when it comes to issues within subreddits, only really stepping in when it comes to “hate-speech” and that only recently. A while ago, a holocaust denying conspiracy theorist redditor called “soccer” got control of the subreddit for the webcomic xkcd and wreaked havoc on the board. For a long period of time, nothing could be done; he was the top moderator.

This “king of the hill” model of control shouldn’t be good enough for the self-identified “Front Page of the Internet,”. Admins don’t want to step in, in their company values, they say they want to “Be stewards, not dictators. The community owns itself.”  But they also want to “Create a safe space to encourage participation, embrace diversity of viewpoints and allow freedom of expression.”

These are lovely ideas, but at odds with each other in these cases. If a dictatorial moderator is exerting pressure on a community, they are breaching said values on their behalf. They can chase users out of a community they love because of arbitrary rules or because they have *ahem* novel theories on the gas chambers.

Dictatorial administrators can be an issue too, as we saw during the Reddit Revolt, but they are accountable. They are accountable to their organization and often to their real name. When a moderator stirs up trouble, they typically just go silent until people forget what random screenname they were mad at.

Reddit’s moderation gets a lot of attention because of its popularity and a userbase that will respond to these issues directly, but for issues of moderation it is hardly unique. For my money, Wikipedia’s system is far worse, both in terms of the actions of the moderators and the damage it can do.

Wikipedia bills itself as the free encyclopedia anyone can edit, but anyone who has tried to actually edit will probably tell you that isn’t exactly true. Behind the scenes, Wikipedia is an intensely political place. Large pages are policed, discussed, and curated by “Wikipedians” to revise page vandalism, make sure facts are sourced, and that the page is generally accurate. 

But sometimes it seems like the Wikipedians’ first priority is bureaucracy, not accuracy. When author Philip Roth pointed out a large mistake on the page of one of his books, his efforts to correct were stymied by the Wikipedians running the page. Roth wasn’t considered a reliable enough source on his own work. 

This story got visibility via Roth’s open letter in the New Yorker, but this sort of thing happens all the time on Wikipedia. I’ve had to fight to correct my father’s Wikipedia page on events I was present for, because there wasn’t an acceptable secondary source. Obviously Wikipedia needs rules to maintain the integrity of its information, but when zealous moderators are arguing with an author about his own book, or a son about what his father died of, I question whether accuracy is the veteran Wikipedian’s highest priority.

The other issue with Wikipedia’s power editors is that they are just people, and people are eminently fallible. It’s the same issue that leads to holocaust deniers running subreddits; to be a respected Wikipedian, you just need to invest time. Once you have this status, you can revert changes, ban people from editing, and wield a measure of authority over one of the biggest repositories of information in history. 

People have biases. Either intentionally or subconsciously people will bring their own politics, their own agenda into whatever they do. Wikipedia would argue that with thousands of editors, biases are filtered out, but thats not really true is it? If I edit a page that user: Ser Amantio Di Nicolao (Wikipedia’s 2nd most prolific editor with over 1.4 million edits) has an interest in, how likely is it that my edit will be accepted?

These power editors are people, they have their interests, and they have their agendas, and we don’t know anything about them. When the Encyclopedia Britannica is published, there’s an expectation that the curators know what they’re talking about; for one of the most highly active Wikipedians, we know that “For a living, (he) do(es) things. And stuff.”

Wikipedia is not Reddit. If a malicious moderator gets control of a popular subreddit, they can kill a community. A powerful Wikipedian, however, has much more influence. Everyone uses Wikipedia, for everything; it is the closest thing to a last word possible on the Internet. If they want to spin a controversial subject or remove an unflattering fact on a subject they’re fond of, they can.

When someone goes to Wikipedia they aren’t looking for nuance, or considering that what they’re reading is anything short of fact. The ability to control what it says is incredibly important, and it seems like that control is awarded based on who has the most free time to wield it.

The more important the Internet becomes, the more these positions matter, and nobody seems to be worried about it. Does this stuff not make you a bit concerned? I’m not ashamed to say it does me.

The issue with moderation is that in exchange for the free work performed, accountability is sacrificed. You can address Jimbo Wales, Steve Huffman or Alexis Ohanian far more than you can address JSm1th89. If a bad moderator does something, it is the easiest thing in the world to say “the community runs itself, we had no idea;” the hard thing and the right thing is to recognize abuses of power taking place on your website.

Sites like Reddit and Wikipedia matter, and if they’re going to continue to matter, people need to start paying attention to the potentially troubling power of the Internet moderator.

What are your thoughts on Internet Moderation? Do you have any horror stories about bad communities? Or am I just doomsaying on a non-issue?

Wyatt Hnatiw

Staff Writer

Wyatt Hnatiw is a lifelong gamer with a borderline inappropriate love of BioWare RPGs and Bioshock. Maybe he just loves the prefix Bio...

  • m0r1arty

    The left has become the right and vehemently deny it as much as they can.

    But they know what they’ve done, they know, they just try to justify it as meaningful.

    See you at Nuremberg folks!

  • webkilla

    No surprise here. Recently it was found that if you post on r/KiA you basically get auto-banned from a number of other subreddits, simply because the mods of those other subs don’t like the things generally discussed on KiA – guilt by association. They don’t even check what you post…

    As for wikipedia? Didn’t a bunch of relatively high profile wiki-editors get permabanned from a number of wiki-pages after it was found that they had conspired to cover up certain facts – one of them had even taken bribes to keep up the effort.

  • webkilla

    no, its a little more complicated than that.

    its not just left vs right – there are two axis to the political compass now:

    Its left and right, and then authoritarian and libertarian.

    What you’re describing is the rise of an authoritarian left.

  • m0r1arty

    Should the left ever be authoritarian?

  • webkilla

    You’re asking the wrong question.

    It’s a question of should – people ‘should’ have the right to express any kind of political conviction.

    I’m guessing you mean whether leftist authoritarianism is a bad thing or not. Any political extreme tends to end badly, at least when you look back in history.

  • Joseph F

    While I mostly agree with your assessment of the problem with mods, I do think that Reddit’s suggested solution is the right one. I think that people should create their own subreddits if they can’t find an existing one that suits them. I don’t want Reddit’s administrators stepping in and telling people what rules they can or can’t make in their own subreddits. In my opinion, Reddit’s admins should only intervene if a subreddit is allowing its users to post illegal content.

    You say “Yeah, but if I create a new subreddit, it’ll have less people.” So what? Why are you entitled to have more people? I don’t see how this justifies Reddit’s admins stepping in and forcing a subreddit to allow certain posts. For one thing, it begs the question. It assumes that your ideal rule set is objectively the better one and therefor should be forced onto the main subreddit of its particular topic. This is not the case.

    While I personally agree with you that Total Biscuit’s health situation is relevant to a forum that discusses gaming news, that’s a matter of opinion. There’s no reason why the admins should step in and force the most popular gaming subreddit to cater to our subjective preferences. For all you know, it could be the case that the majority of people who post on r/gaming agree with the mod and think that Total Biscuit’s health situation isn’t relevant to that subreddit.

  • birdboy2000

    This is right but I wish you took aim at some smaller sites in this piece too. Sites like reddit got so big in large part because sites like NeoGAF or RPGnet have such appalling and abusive moderation.

  • SugarFreeTargets

    I think it’s because there’s little or no consequences when a mod does do something irresponsible. They don’t care what they do as long they’re getting traffic, attention or some sort of control.

    People need to learn how to leave a community when there’s something terribly wrong with it. You don’t stay in a abusive relationship and hope it’ll all go away sooner or later because you think you have the ability to change them. As long you’re there, they will continue acting the way they are right now.

  • vivianjames

    “He or she is the most senior moderator of r/games, someone who either got there first or stayed on the mod team the longest and because of that they can disallow content, enact rules, and exert control on this massive community”

    I agree, this is why gamers ends up giving control of their online communities. This leaves their/our community to be easily taken over by any ideologue who is patient enough to stay and participate in our community to gain moderator status, because we would rather spend most of our time gaming than run a community.

  • Yosharian

    ‘Abuses of power don’t matter if its the right people getting abused.’

  • Oerwinde

    I was a member of the Alternate History Wiki mod team, our head moderator was a great guy who promoted a great atmosphere. He decided to leave to pursue interests/opportunities outside the community and most of the other mods had left as well, and he recommended me promoting one guy to brass(top moderator status on wikia) once his minimum membership time had passed. Once he was promoted he was a tireless worker, but he was cold.

    Many of the rules were vaguely stated as they were intended to be more guidelines and applied case by case to promote an inclusive atmosphere. This guy started applying bans and deleting articles based on the slightest deviation of a rule’s wording, and flipping out about disrespect when I would overrule him. The constant fighting got tiring and I and much of the lower mods from before the old head left just decided it wasn’t worth the energy and we left. Now the wiki is less of a community and more of a series of walled gardens with collaboration on articles not happening often, and a lot of new users were turned off quickly by the cold rules lawyering of the mods.

  • LePatriote1980

    It’s true that moderators have way too much power. It is basically an authoritarian dictatorship where a few people decide everything and nobody else can’t say anything about it. Abuse of power at its worst.

  • youareivan

    someone had a post on voat that wondered about the issue of mods and i suggested that perhap a vote of confidence option for subverse/subreddit subscribers would alieve the problem of mods who no longer have the member’s best interests in mind.

    i would also like to suggest another option that i believe arstechnica uses in their forums. a quick clarification- i haven’t been to ars a lot since the censoring about #gamergate began so they might not do it any more- but they used to just grey out and colapse comments that were deemed inappropriate by the mods.

    you could still read the post if you wanted to, the reader just had to make the decision for themselves and expand the post.

  • Dave

    That is a brilliant suggestion A timed (like say, once a month) vote of confidence that alerts all sub subscribers would be a FANTASTIC solution to this problem. Bring this up, it needs more attention 🙂

  • Yep, at one point RPGNet was banning articles about RPGs from devs who supported #GamerGate. So for a short while Kingdom Come stuff was off limits.

  • Toastrider

    No one should be authoritarian. As webkilla has stated, the problem isn’t left vs right. It’s statism versus liberty.

  • JD Fox

    I wouldn’t mind reading an article critical of Wikipedia for its downsides. Everyone swears by Wkipedia, but it’s obviously not perfect.

  • Parrikle

    In regard to Wikipedia – no. The problem was the approach some people took to editing the article, rather than any accusations of covering up facts.

  • Strazdas

    “But sometimes it seems like the Wikipedians’ first priority is bureaucracy, not accuracy.”

    Wikipedias priority was never accuracy. It is a second hand source regurgitation website. It does not care about accuracy, only about representing what second hand sources are saying. they flat out ban first hand sources and consider third hand sources unreliable, ironically. I got no idea where this notion that wikipedia was ever accurate came from.

  • Strazdas

    please dont mix authoritarian with statism.

  • Strazdas

    from what i heard one of those subs you get autobanned for is a porn sub, because porn cares about GG apparently. And you know i really dont mind, if the sub is going to ban me for posting in another sub, its not a sub id visit anyway.

  • Strazdas

    people being assholes isnt going to change any time soon. Neither in real life nor on the internet. you are right about the consequences. if a CEO of a company starts killing off his employees he will end up in jail. On the internet though, worst case scenario is hes going to get less page clicks.

  • Strazdas

    i have to wonder, how does NeoGAF stays alive. every time i hear about it its either:

    a) a mod abusing something

    b) users being crazy being congratulated for being crazy

    c) some hacker leaked some source code.

    thats literally all neoGAF seems to be.

    P.S. everyone seems to forget NeoSeeker nowadays, that were pretty cool.