Techdirt's think tank, the Copia Institute, is working with the Trust & Safety Professional Association and its sister organization, the Trust & Safety Foundation, to produce an ongoing series of case studies about content moderation decisions. These case studies are presented in a neutral fashion, not aiming to criticize or applaud any particular decision, but to highlight the many different challenges that content moderators face and the tradeoffs they result in. Find more case studies here on Techdirt and on the TSF website.

Content Moderation Case Study: Understanding Cultural Context To Detect Satire (2020)

from the she's-a-witch,-burn-her dept

Summary: During the somewhat controversial Senate confirmation hearings for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, there were a few moments that gained extra attention, including a confrontation between Senator Mazie Hirono and the nominee concerning statements regarding LGBTQ rights that Barrett had made in the past. Hirono, who had separately called the hearings themselves illegitimate, was then criticized by traditionally right-leaning media for what they felt was overly aggressive questioning.

The satirical site The Babylon Bee, which frequently targets Democrats for satirization, published a piece roughly parodying a famous Monty Python sketch in which villagers in a medieval town try to determine if someone is a witch, including by weighing them to see if they weigh the same as a duck. The Babylon Bee took that sketch’s premise and ran a satirical article claiming that Hirono demanded that Barrett be weighed against a duck.

Facebook had the article removed, saying that it was “inciting violence.” The Babylon Bee appealed the decision, only to be told that upon a further “manual” review, Facebook had decided that its original analysis stood, and that the article “incites violence.”

Decisions to be made by Facebook:

  • How do you handle moderation that requires understanding both current political controversies and historical cultural references?
  • How do you distinguish actual satire from that which only pretends to be satire?
  • How do you determine what is actually likely to incite violence?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
  • How can rules against “inciting violence” be written to take into account satire and cultural references?
  • Is it reasonable to expect that content moderators will understand cultural references as satirical?
  • How much should a platform be expected to take into account the target audience of a particular website?
Resolution: As the tweet from The Babylon Bee’s CEO started to go viral, leading to another round of news coverage in traditionally right-wing focused publications, Facebook eventually apologized and said that the moderation decision (and the manual review) were a mistake.

"This was a mistake and we apologize that it happened. Satire can be difficult for our systems to identify, but we've restored the article and their ability to monetize," a Facebook spokesperson told Fox News.

As often happens in these situations, the CEO of the Babylon Bee insisted that this response was implausible, apparently believing that everyone would recognize the cultural references his site’s article was making use of for satire.

"Why did it have to take getting the media involved to fix this? And why did it happen in the first place?" Dillon asked in response to Facebook. "This was not just an algorithm flagging an article in error. Yes, that happened. But then a manual review took place and the ruling to penalize us was upheld. I notice they left that part out."

Originally posted to the Trust & Safety Foundation website.

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Filed Under: amy coney barrett, content moderation, mazie hirono, monty python, satire
Companies: babylon bee, facebook


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  1. icon
    bhull242 (profile), 2 Jan 2021 @ 11:53am

    Re: You're an academic full of advice without ever having DONE.

    So tell me, Maz, what experience at "moderation" do you have which qualifies you to advise anyone?

    Again, this article was written by the Copia Institute, and all it does is state facts and testimony; it doesn’t advise anyone to do anything in particular. Thus, your question is both misdirected and irrelevant.

    You avoid responsibility for the censoring here so cannot count these 20 years!

    Well, he actually does take responsibility for setting up the system used to hide flagged comments, the spam filter, and the removal of obvious commercial spam. That much of it is hands-off is irrelevant when most sites use some sort of automation for their moderation, too.

    I conclude that the "hiding" is not done as you claim, but by someone with Administrator privileges soon as recognize my deliberately distinctive style (perhaps alerted by a "flag" click but not necessarily)

    You have offered absolutely zero reasons to seriously entertain that as a possibility, let alone a reason to conclude that that’s actually the case. You’ve offered absolutely no reason to conclude that it’s anything other than the stated method of comments being hidden automatically after receiving a sufficient number of flags from users. You simply assert your conclusion without presenting any evidence or reasoning behind it whatsoever. As such, this claim and any derived from it can be dismissed as speculative wishful thinking without any basis in logic or fact.

    also, my browser sessions are often blocked after one comment, and you won't dispute it a bit!

    That your browser acts up isn’t disputed is because we simply don’t know. We only know that you are the only one who has claimed to have this problem at all, let alone consistently, which suggests that either your device, your browser, a plugin, or your internet connection is faulty somehow, especially since you’ve given us nothing else to work from. As such, that this website or the people running it are somehow blocking you has been disputed repeatedly, especially since nothing in the code suggests that that’s anywhere close to a plausible theory, especially compared to the other ones.

    You won't of late even admit that Techdirt has an Administrator! (Though I do recall remarks you made long ago...)

    That hasn’t even really come up. Also, literally every site has an admin, not just the ones that accept user-generated content. The one(s) on this site is/are pretty much completely hands-off outside of removing commercial spam, and—again—you’ve offered no reason to believe otherwise.

    That's because any additional specific you give will reveal that the little you have previously stated is TOTAL BALONEY. -- Another fact or two admitted would reveal that you've lied directly and tacitly about it for years.

    Actually, it’s entirely plausible that, like on many other sites that depend on user feedback to perform moderation, the number of flags and number of users are dependent on a number of variables that makes it too complicated to be worth explain it to some random guy on the internet already believed to be operating in bad faith, which is supported by your clearly stated assumptions about this site and the fact that you keep demanding answers already given to you while also claiming that you’ve received none despite clear evidence to the contrary.

    Those are the only specifics that have not been given to you, and since there’s an entirely plausible innocent explanation behind that, there’s no reason to suspect anything else.

    Really, your questions have been answered repeatedly; you just refuse to accept the answers for no apparent reason other than you don’t like them for some unknown reason.

    There's an Administrator making decisions to "hide" my comments, therefore it's viewpoint discrimination. Period.

    First, you still haven’t proven either of those is true, but even if your premise is true, your conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from that. It would also change nothing other than to help refute your original point (that doesn’t even matter) about Mike’s supposed experience (or lack thereof) in moderation.

    Therefore any actual advice you have is unwanted by bigger sites because your own actions are illegal!

    Again, no advice was actually given in the article, and this article wasn’t even written by anyone working at Techdirt, let alone Mike specifically. You also still haven’t proven anything.

    More importantly, even if your allegations were true prior to this point, it is not illegal for privately owned websites or their owners to engage in viewpoint discrimination or do anything else you accused them of; in fact, doing so is protected by the 1A.

    Once again, your premises wouldn’t support your conclusion even if they were true, and you haven’t done anything to prove your premises true to begin with.


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