ADAM SOKOL - New York Times Op-Ed
SIX YEARS IN THE COMMENT MODERATION TRENCHES
For six years, from 2012 to 2018, my job was to read and delete the most inappropriate comments on a conservative news site. Not all the inappropriate comments. Just the most inappropriate comments. Hundreds of comments an hour. Thousands of comments a day. Tens of thousands of comments a week. More than a million comments a year.
I started my day at 8 a.m., and by then it was already bedlam. My first task was to go over the flagged comments, and ones from problem users, that had been held throughout the night. I have only anecdotal evidence to base this on, but anti-Semites and spambots, speaking generally, tend to be night owls. It’s a weird way to start the day: Good morning! “Jews control the banks, and you should try this amazing new weight loss shake!”
Some of the choices people make on the internet, and in life in general, remain baffling to me. Not just in their intolerance, but also in their sheer stupidity. I would tell a user that he was banned, and instead of choosing a unique user name to throw us, he would immediately sign back up with a nearly identical name. Just an extra “L” to SickOfItAlll. Some people are really loyal to the name they use to be racist on a website.
It was an odd turn of events for me to be working there at all. The site (which I’m not allowed to publicly name) is one that I knew some friends and family read, but it wasn’t for me. I’ve always been a pretty liberal guy. A friend got a job there, though, so I applied too. Liberal or not, the rent needed to be paid. After doing the job for a while, I wasn’t liberal anymore. I certainly wasn’t conservative. I just resented everyone with opinions and an internet connection.
Before working as a moderator, I never would have known how many comments on a story about Africanized bees it would take before they started taking a racist turn. Now, having done the job, I know that that’s a trick question, because the answer is: immediately. It will happen on the first comment and keep on going until the last one.
If you’ve ever spent any time reading comments on a website, you’re no doubt surprised to find out that anybody had deleted anything. The internet often seems like a lawless wasteland. But there was a law. And it was me.
In case you’re curious about what called for deletion, here are the guidelines: Anything that was overtly racist, sexist, homophobic or violent had to be deleted. Along with spam. So much spam. Hundreds of links a day to jobs that promised riches while working at home. I worked at home. I was not getting riches. I was losing a part of me every day. You read the comments and you feel awful. You take down comments and people get angry. You ban certain slurs and then people create new ones. The resilience they show is heartbreaking. They get angry at the fact that they’re not allowed to say certain things. They never seemed to ask themselves why they thought they needed to say them in the first place.
It was an easy job for the most part. And I used to joke about how easy it was. I worked in my underwear a lot of times. I went jogging at lunch. It was a job, though, and like all jobs, it took its toll. Sometimes, the only human contact I had all day was with racist avatars on a webpage and then different avatars on a different page wanting to discuss what we were going to do about the other avatars. I’d go out to meet friends after doing that all day and have absolutely no idea how to talk to real non-avatar people.
This was the only job that made me cry. I’ve had jobs where I got chewed out by bosses or customers. That’s not fun. I’ve had to deal with people who made me angry, but this was the only job that made me lose faith in humanity. The night Trayvon Martin died, before his body was even cold, I had to work through hundreds of comments about how he deserved it. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I sat at my computer and cried.
I think that’s why they let comment moderators work from home. Nobody wants to work next to the guy who’s quietly weeping at his desk. It just brings everyone else down and is a real bummer in terms of productivity.
In 2016, things got weird. Even for a job like that. I thought the whole Donald Trump thing was just going to peter out. Then it just kept on not petering out. Cable news anchors couldn’t hide their smirks when they talked about him. But of all the people who initially thought his candidacy was a joke, I’m the one without a real excuse to have missed it. Because I got to see it play out in comment threads.
Even in the early days of the campaign, cultural conservatives, fiscal conservatives, the weirdos who talked only about chemtrails — they all had one thing in common. They wanted a president who would stick it to the liberals. They didn’t care that supporting him would mean changing their positions on any number of issues.
All they knew was that he drove the liberals crazy. He was just like all of the anonymous internet commenters. He justified their existence, and they justified his. And they all rallied around him. The campaign was seemingly born out of, and supported by, comment sections. Our job became tougher. As a news blog, we were covering stories featuring a man running for president saying things that I would have deleted his account for had he been just another troll on the site. But he wasn’t just another troll.
I no longer do that job. Not too long ago we all got laid off. No need for us anymore. After six years, the comment section won.
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