How should anarchists deal with unwelcome elements in an online community?

A recent controversy has exploded in /r/anarchism where the issue of how to deal with white-nationalists, misogynists and other assorted scum has been raised, and particularly, if banning is an appropriate reaction. This is a question that has been asked a few times before but the can of worms was ultimately opened when one of the mods went ahead and banned one of the latest and most egregious samples of bottom-feeding scum.

The reaction was immediate, both from those congratulating the act, and those condemning it. At the start I expressed my cautious criticism as I have always been against bannination from fora and even from my own site and thus I didn’t like this turn of events which happened all of a sudden, but I was willing to let this direct action stand until I knew how the community at large felt. Of course I continued to post on my perspective on why this banning is unnecessary and/or harmful.

The subsequent figurative shitstorm allowed a lot of opportunity to discuss the issue. So I’m going to put forth some of the arguments for and against it as plainly as possible, provide my own perspective and hopefully we can discover some interesting insights and solutions.

  1. For now, lets consider /r/anarchism as a community (although there are many perspectives under which this is not the case). Lets also further consider that it’s a community for anarchists and similar minded people (again, perspectives diverge on this. More on this later)
  2. Now as a community for anarchists, it is to be expected that it should be an area where anarchists feel welcome and not assaulted for their beliefs.
    1. Point 2 can be reached organically, by making sure that discussion stays on the topic of anarchism, which is naturally libertarian socialist for everyone but a small and vocal minority on the internets. This means that the area is going to attract anarchists who are going to speak about and defend anarchism, as well as its cousin tactics of feminism, anti-racism and anti-fascism.
      1. The organic way runs always the danger of being abused by having a lot of non-anarchist “anarchists” (i.e. national “anarchists” or “anarcho”-capitalists) join the area and try to takeover with their version of it, by driving all the anarchists away.
    2. Point 2 can also be reached via a top-down method where anarchists have control of the moderator duties of the community and make sure that such unwelcome elements stay away through banning them, deleting their comments and posts etc.
      1. This assumes that it is indeed anarchists at the helm and it opens the possibility that their ranks will be infiltrated by non-anarchists using the correct rhetoric and then using their power to  to push forth a different perspective
        1. This can be countered by the ones in the moderator list making sure that the ones with power are “true anarchists”, which starts to have serious overhead issues as infighting starts to occur as accusations of leniency, weakness, betrayal and so on start to be flung around. For how extreme such a “solution” can get, I can only point out to the Russian Revolution and how many purges within their leadership they had, in increasing brutality.
        2. The above can also be countered by having the selection of the mod happen via democratic means, such as that even if quite a bit of, say, national “anarchists” managed to sneak into power, they would be able to move the theme of the community to white nationalism as the community would reject it
          1. Of course, this again encounters the flaws of 2.1.1 above, where the community might be already having a large percentage of non-anarchists who will support such a change of paradigm.
      2. This also creates the issue of an unaccountable oligarchy at the top. It is simply the case of the ones on the top being responsible for selecting which ones join them. It doesn’t matter how good intentions they have, or how pure they consider themselves, we already know that power corrupts so what will happen is that the oligarchy at the top, will slowly evolve more and more authoritarian, trusting on it (flawed) judgement to “protect the community” while being certain it’s always on the right. This can be further inflamed as more liberal members of the oligarchy are slowly driven away, either in disgust (as has started happening already in /r/anarchism) or by accusations of being soft on oppressors or providing a “platform for fascists”.
        1. The above can be countered by adding democratic accountability to the selection of the mods. This in turns opens up the issue 2.1.1
        2. The above can be countered by mods making sure each other walks the straight and narrow path of anarchism. That their fellow mods do not violate their principles.
        3. The above can also be countered by having some kind of policies or “constitution” which defines what actions the mods can take.
          1. One problem with this, is that this policy in turn needs to be decided by someone. If this someone is only the mod oligarchy, then it will not necessarily avoid the issue if the mods already have an authoritarian trend.
          2. If the ones deciding on the policy are the whole community instead, then this again falls into the problem in 2.1.1
          3. Another issue to consider is on whether this policy will be open to changes in the future, or it it will be set in stone. If it’s open to changes, then at any point in the future it can be affected by 2.1.1 or 2.2.2.2
  3. As a community, we have some bottom-up moderation tools made available by the platform we use: Reddit. Namely downvoting comments and posts. This has two significant effects. When a comment is downvoted enough (a total -5 cumulative vote), then it gets “burried”, which means it’s not shown by default unless it is expanded explicitly. A person who’s comments are consistently downvoted, starts having timing restrictions in posting. They cannot post more than once per 10 minutes. From personal experience I can explain that this can be very frustrating when you’re having an argument.
    1. The possible problem is that the voting system can be played. In a healthy anarchistic community, a sexist comment would be downvoted to oblivion and a consistent sexist would find it hard to keep posting or gain any visibility. However, given the way reddit functions, anyone registered in reddit can come to /r/anarchism and upvote any comment. This means that a sexist could theoretically call in a so called “upvote brigade” (say from /r/mensrights) which will proceed to upvote his comments to visibility
      1. The issue with this tactic is that it’s not efficient. One can only call for such upvote brigades when there’s some significance to their comments or some outrage to be caused. Fortunately, even the people in /r/mensrights do not want to be someone personal army and one can only ask for this favour so many times before they are ignored. This means that it’s unlikely that more than a few comments can gain visibility through this method and eventually the anti-sexist sentiments from the community will return them to minus
      2. It is possible to consider that someone will find a persistent “personal army”, or perhaps an invasion” will be attempted (as has been called for in the past by both national “anarchists” and by “anarcho”-capitalists). However they are unlikely to succeed as anarchists are already entrenched and all we need to do is weather a short-term influx of non-anarchists. Once no visible success is achieved, such “invasions” simply lose wind, especially given how little one can gain from taking over a community such as /r/anarchism.
        1. Perhaps one can consider that if /r/anarchism grows to sufficient size (and I consider our >10k subscribers and number of comments/posts we have have quite succesful) it will attract the attention of such organized elements, which will then attempt to take it over for propaganda purposes, much like it has happened with the Tea Party movement. However the fact that we have grown large by being a community of anarchists until then and managed to avoid such takeovers, means that it’s unlikely that we’ll be more vulnerable when we’re an even bigger society of anarchists.
    2. Another issue is that it’s possible that community moderation might not be enough to hide the most egregiously abusive comments and posts. Comments which might alienate oppressed people we would like to attract to anarchism, such as women, PoC etc. After all, they wouldn’t want to be in a community where white power apologists, holocaust deniers, misogynists and so on are seen to be accepted member and/or posters. This is because non-anarchists lurkers and even non-subscribers can vote comments up or down.
      1. One counter-argument is that people should understand the nature of this website and how voting works. An upvoted post in a deep thread does not necessarily mean that such an opinion is supported by the community. One needs to get a thicker skin and be able to ignore outright trollish comments, meant explicitly to alienate them
        1. On the other hand oppressed people shouldn’t be forced to tolerate abuse and they have every right to claim that a community where they are expected to swallow their anger is not worth it.
          1. The above argument is caused by a misunderstanding. When a “thicker skin” is mentioned, it is not a call for silence. This is not akin to saying “can’t you take a joke woman?”. Someone abused in such way has every right to be outraged and answer back in anger and/or act accordingly and they will find support in the other members of the reddit who will do the same. Rather, the thick skin refers to the idea that one should not give up on the community because the occasional troll make a nasty comment. Figuratively skewer it and move on.

I hope you’re still with me after all those numbers and indents.The reason I chose this format is just so that I can refer to specific arguments and counter arguments by their number. The above are, from my understanding, the core arguments having to do with the reasons for banning.

Proponents of banning as a legitimate tactic commonly seem to reject democratic or crowdsourced solutions. We are very often informed that democracy does not work, that lurkers shouldn’t count, that there’s only a few anarchists in /r/anarchism and so on. I find such arguments disheartening and wrong. The reason is that open online communities such as a subreddit can easily serve as a “petri dish” for the ideas of anarchism. If we can’t stick to our principles here, how can we ever convince others that we can stick to our principles in a real life scenario?

Consider a possible revolutionary situation. Your real life community is not going to be comprised 100% of anarchists. not even close. In fact, it’s very likely that there’s going to be very few conscious anarchists while the vast majority of people follow anarchistic principles (direct action and mutual aid)to some extent. Even if you collectively start progressing to an anarchist society, there’s always going to be elements advocating a return to the old ways or to something worse, like fascism. What are you going to do with someone suggesting that a strong leader takes control? What about free markets? Are you going to silence them or exile them and how? Will you declare that since this is an anarchist revolution, only anarchist deserve to be in the democratic decision making? Or will you request the leadership in order to guide society on the right path.

People online love to sarcastically point out how little an online forum has to do with reality but fail to understand the impression they give to anyone outside looking in. The first thing they see anarchists doing, is fall back to the same old methods. Use central power to control. Sure you may think that they don’t count, but how the hell else are we even going to convince others that we have a superior solution to what they already do? If your solution for an Internet forum is to use central mod power to ban racism, sexism and fascism, then why shouldn’t a statist believe that the central power of the state can do likewise?

Yes, the Internet does put limits on the actions we can follow, which is why it’s even more important that we stick to decentralized, bottom-up solutions when possible. If we can do it on the internet, imagine how well it will work in the real world, where accountability and peer pressure exists.

A recent controversy has exploded in /r/anarchism where the issue of how to deal with white-nationalists, misogynists and other assorted scum has been raised, and particularly, if banning is an appropriate reaction. This is a question that has been asked a few times before but the can of worms was ultimately opened when one of the mods went ahead and banned one of the latest and most egregious samples of bottom-feeding scum.

The reaction was immediate, both from those congragulating the act, and those condemning it. At the start I expressed my cautious criticism as I have always been against bannination from fora and even from my own site and thus I didn’t like this turn of events which happened all of a sudden, but I was willing to let this direct action stand until I knew how the community at large felt. Of course I continued to post on my perspective on why this banning is unnecessary and/or harmful.

The subsequent figurative shitstorm allowed a lot of opportunity to discuss the issue. So I’m going to put forth some of the arguments for and against it as plainly as possible, provide my own perspective and hopefully we can discover some interesting insights and solutions.

  1. For now, lets consider /r/anarchism as a community (although there are many perspectives under which this is not the case). Lets also further consider that it’s a community for anarchists and similar minded people (again, perspectives diverge on this. More on this later)
  2. Now as a community for anarchists, it is to be expected that it should be an area where anarchists feel welcome and not assaulted for their beliefs.
    1. Point 2 can be reached organically, by making sure that discussion stays on the topic of anarchism, which is naturally libertarian socialist for everyone but a small and vocal minority on the internets. This means that the area is going to attract anarchists who are going to speak about and defend anarchism, as well as its cousin tactics of feminism, anti-racism and anti-fascism.
      1. The organic way runs always the danger of being abused by having a lot of non-anarchist “anarchists” (i.e. national “anarchists” or “anarcho”-capitalists) join the area and try to takeover with their version of it, by driving all the anarchists away.
    2. Point 2 can also be reached via a top-down method where anarchists have control of the moderator duties of the community and make sure that such unwelcome elements stay away through banning them, deleting their comments and posts etc.
      1. This assumes that it is indeed anarchists at the helm and it opens the possibility that their ranks will be infiltrated by non-anarchists using the correct rhetoric and then using their power to  to push forth a different perspective
        1. This can be countered by the ones in the moderator list making sure that the ones with power are “true anarchists”, which starts to have serious overhead issues as infighting starts to occur as accusations of leniency, weakness, betrayal and so on start to be flinged around. For how extreme such a “solution” can get, I can only point out to the Russian Revolution and how many purges within their leadership they had, in increasing brutality.
        2. The above can also be countered by having the selection of the mod happen via democratic means, such as that even if quite a bit of, say, national “anarchists” managed to sneak into power, they would be able to move the theme of the community to white nationalism as the community would reject it
          1. Of course, this again encounters the flaws of 2.1.1 above, where the community might be already having a large percentage of non-anarchists who will support such a change of paradigm.
      2. This also creates the issue of an unaccountable oligarchy at the top. It is simply the case of the ones on the top being responsible for selecting which ones join them. It doesn’t matter how good intentions they have, or how pure they consider themselves, we already know that power corrupts so what will happen is that the oligarchy at the top, will slowly evolve more and more authoritarian, trusting on it (flawed) judgement to “protect the community” while being certain it’s always on the right. This can be further inflamed as more liberal members of the oligarchy are slowly driven away, either in disgust (as has started happening already in /r/anarchism) or by accusations of being soft on oppressors or providing a “platform for fascists”.
        1. The above can be countered by adding democratic accountability to the selection of the mods. This in turns opens up the issue 2.1.1
        2. The above can be countered by mods making sure each other walks the straight and narrow path of anarchism. That their fellow mods do not violate their principles.
        3. The above can also be countered by having some kind of policies or “constitution” which defines what actions the mods can take.
          1. One problem with this, is that this policy in turn needs to be decided by someone. If this someone is only the mod oligarchy, then it will not necessarily avoid the issue if the mods already have an authoritarian trend.
          2. If the ones deciding on the policy are the whole community instead, then this again falls into the problem in 2.1.1
          3. Another issue to consider is on whether this policy will be open to changes in the future, or it it will be set in stone. If it’s open to changes, then at any point in the future it can be affected by 2.1.1 or 2.2.2.2
  3. As a community, we have some bottom-up moderation tools made available by the platform we use: Reddit. Namely downvoting comments and posts. This has two significant effects. When a comment is downvoted enough (a total -5 cumulative vote), then it gets “burried”, which means it’s not shown by default unless it is expanded explicitly. A person who’s comments are consistently downvoted, starts having timing restrictions in posting. They cannot post more than once per 10 minutes. From personal experience I can explain that this can be very frustrating when you’re having an argument.
    1. The possible problem is that the voting system can be played. In a healthy anarchistic community, a sexist comment would be downvoted to oblivion and a consistent sexist would find it hard to keep posting or gain any visibility. However, given the way reddit functions, anyone registered in reddit can come to /r/anarchism and upvote any comment. This means that a sexist could theoretically call in a so called “upvote brigade” (say from /r/mensrights) which will proceed to upvote his comments to visibility
      1. The issue with this tactic is that it’s not efficient. One can only call for such upvote brigades when there’s some significance to their comments or some outrage to be caused. Fortunately, even the people in /r/mensrights do not want to be someone personal army and one can only ask for this favour so many times before they are ignored. This means that it’s unlikely that more than a few comments can gain visibility through this method and eventually the anti-sexist sentiments from the community will return them to minus
      2. It is possible to consider that someone will find a persistent “personal army”, or perhaps an invasion” will be attempted (as has been called for in the past by both national “anarchists” and by “anarcho”-capitalists). However they are unlikely to succeed as anarchists are already entrenched and all we need to do is weather a short-term influx of non-anarchists. Once no visible success is achieved, such “invasions” simply lose wind, especially given how little one can gain from taking over a community such as /r/anarchism.
        1. Perhaps one can consider that if /r/anarchism grows to sufficient size (and I consider our 10k subscribers and

7 thoughts on “How should anarchists deal with unwelcome elements in an online community?

  1. It's been an interesting drama so far. I haven't really involved myself in the community enough to dive into the fray. I understand both sides, but I tend to agree with you. There have definitely been some comments that have pissed me off, but not enough drop the reddit off my blog reader. Honestly, if I ever do drop it off my reader, it will probably be because of general crankypants commenters, rather than anything misogynistic. I usually find them pretty easy to ignore.

      1. Yeah because women can't be ignorant/reactionary when it comes to feminism at all, right? Hey, whatever let's you sleep at night.

  2. Good discussion on the problems and challenges of moderating discussion lists.

    I was banned from a socialist discussion list, not because I proposed something other than socialism, but because I did not agree with the group stand on a particular issue.

    Two things are important: 1) as you've implied, anarchy is not about no rules, it's about no rulers. Therefore, anarchist discussion lists can have no full-time, authoritarian moderators. The job of moderator is not to control list content and members, but to facilitate discussion on all sides of any issue. The fear that unwelcome posters will somehow "take over" the list and bend it to their own devices is groundless. Everyone on the list has the power of the delete key, the kill file and the ability to shun unwanted posters. Discussion lists are a perfect forum for anarchist decision-making. Discussion lists are not a crowded room where he who shouts the loudest wins. If no one responds to their unwelcome posts, they will go away, as they can get no traction from list members.

    Secondly, and more importantly in relation to the real world, we must not be so thin-skinned and hypersensitive that we must carefully guard against exposure to contrary world views. In the real world, we are a tiny minority. If we are to advance the cause of anarchism, we must be able to stand up in a room of non-anarchists and proclaim our cause. If we can't hold our own in a forum we maintain, how can our voices be heard in an open forum.

    Anarchism is the model of change we wish to see in the world. We must first practice anarchism among ourselves before we can hope to convince others of the worthiness of our cause

  3. Your numbering/indenting scheme is just too confusing. I’m re-reading to try and get a better handle on it. Why didn’t you go for an outline scheme? Switch between roman numerals, capital letters, ‘regular’ numerals, then lower case letters, then i’s.

    I
    A
    1
    a
    i

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