Gazing into social media’s moral abyss (NSFW)

Content moderation is little discussed yet half the employees of social media sites work mainly on it. How do these people cope with spending their working days holding back a tide of extreme depravity?

If you report a post on a social media site as being offensive or inappropriate what happens next? An article by Adrian Chen in Wired magazine explores this question and the answer is equal parts fascinating and disturbing. He suggests this is crucial for the future of social media because if “won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video.” However, it’s not a job which can really be done by machine. Therefore, a small army of content moderators has arisen. While many of these moderators are still based in or around Silicon Valley, it’s increasingly being outsourced to the Philippines. Chen estimates that moderators account for half the people employed by social media companies. Their work involves looking at thousands of disturbing images every day:

Rob became a content moderator in 2010. He’d graduated from college and followed his girlfriend to the Bay Area, where he found his history degree had approximately the same effect on employers as a face tattoo. Months went by, and Rob grew increasingly desperate. Then came the cold call from CDI, a contracting firm. The recruiter wanted him to interview for a position with Google, moderating videos on YouTube. Google! Sure, he would just be a contractor, but he was told there was a chance of turning the job into a real career there. The pay, at roughly $20 an hour, was far superior to a fast-food salary. He interviewed and was given a one-year contract. “I was pretty stoked,” Rob said. “It paid well, and I figured YouTube would look good on a résumé.”

For the first few months, Rob didn’t mind his job moderating videos at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno. His coworkers were mostly new graduates like himself, many of them liberal arts majors just happy to have found employment that didn’t require a hairnet. His supervisor was great, and there were even a few perks, like free lunch at the cafeteria. During his eight-hour shifts, Rob sat at a desk in YouTube’s open office with two monitors. On one he flicked through batches of 10 videos at a time. On the other monitor, he could do whatever he wanted. He watched the entire Battlestar Galactica series with one eye while nuking torture videos and hate speech with the other. He also got a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of YouTube. For instance, in late 2010, Google’s legal team gave moderators the urgent task of deleting the violent sermons of American radical Islamist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, after a British woman said she was inspired by them to stab a politician.

But as months dragged on, the rough stuff began to take a toll. The worst was the gore: brutal street fights, animal torture, suicide bombings, decapitations, and horrific traffic accidents. The Arab Spring was in full swing, and activists were using YouTube to show the world the government crackdowns that resulted. Moderators were instructed to leave such “newsworthy” videos up with a warning, even if they violated the content guidelines. But the close-ups of protesters’ corpses and street battles were tough for Rob and his coworkers to handle. So were the videos that documented misery just for the sick thrill of it.

“If someone was uploading animal abuse, a lot of the time it was the person who did it. He was proud of that,” Rob says. “And seeing it from the eyes of someone who was proud to do the fucked-up thing, rather than news reporting on the fucked-up thing—it just hurts you so much harder, for some reason. It just gives you a much darker view of humanity.”

Rob began to dwell on the videos outside of work. He became withdrawn and testy. YouTube employs counselors whom moderators can theoretically talk to, but Rob had no idea how to access them. He didn’t know anyone who had. Instead, he self-medicated. He began drinking more and gained weight.

It became clear to Rob that he would likely never become a real Google employee. A few months into his contract, he applied for a job with Google but says he was turned down for an interview because his GPA didn’t meet the requirement. (Google denies that GPA alone would be a deciding factor in its hiring.) Even if it had, Rob says, he’s heard of only a few contractors who ended up with staff positions at Google.

A couple of months before the end of his contract, he found another job and quit. When Rob’s last shift ended at 7 pm, he left feeling elated. He jumped into his car, drove to his parents’ house in Orange County, and slept for three days straight.

Stories like this lead Chen and a number of experts he interviews to conclude that moderators should receive the same kind of support that police officers looking at abusive images do.

Moronic responses to ebola

OK, let’s be clear what is happening in West Africa is horrifying and worthy of a very serious response. However, there have been some really callous and dumb responses. Salon reports some of them of which the most shocking is this:

Howard Yocum Elementary School, in Maple Shade, New Jersey, is across the river from Philadelphia. It’s 146 miles away from a hospital in Maryland, 782 miles from a hospital in Georgia, and 1,475 miles from a hospital in Texas, where Ebola patients are located. However, when parents and school officials heard that two students from the East African country of Rwanda were enrolled, they lost it—even though Rwanda, which has no Ebola cases, is 2,846 miles from the virus’ epicenter, Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa.

The school’s staff told teachers (but not parents) that Rwandan students were coming and not to worry. That lit up the rumor mill, and here’s what parents told Fox News:

  • “I don’t feel comfortable sending my daughter to school with people who could be infected with Ebola.”
  • “Really concerns me. I don’t want to keep my boy out of school.”
  • “Don’t smile in my face and have a secret like that.”
  • “Stay there until all this stuff is resolved. There’s nobody affected here—let’s just keep it that way.”

As a result, the Rwandan children have been “voluntarily” quarantined by their parents for 21 days, which is the Ebola incubation period. “I don’t think it would hurt,” one parent told Fox News. “You have a lot of children that are involved, so I don’t think it would hurt.”

Really? Do they think those two Rwandan kids will return to class free of stigma?

La vie sans sucre: 5 things I’ve learned by avoiding sweet foods

 

 

I’m now 9 days away from finishing my month without sweet food and drink to raise money for Mind. Thanks to Tom, Sarah, Helen and Duncan who’ve donated already. If you would like to join them then please visit my page on Just Giving.

Here are 5 things I’ve learned so far:

1. A tougher rule can actually be easier to follow

I’ve spent more of the past few years than not trying to moderate how much sugar I ate. Frankly it’s been a bit of a waste of time. If I try only to eat sugar on ‘special occasions’ then an awful lot of occasions become special. If I resolve to only to eat small amounts, I start noticing that the marginal impact of a ‘little bit more’ is insignificant, and eat a little bit a lot. If I limit myself to certain days, then they become a 24 hour long bout of gorging.

Having a blanket month long ban, removes these loopholes. That makes it harder for me to defeat my own good intentions.

2. That said it’s still hard because sweet things are so nice

I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking longingly through the windows of bakeries or into supermarket freezer cabinets. There’s something uniquely tempting about sugary foods. Eating a muffin gives me a warm feeling that say a packet of crisps just doesn’t. Sweet foods feel so much lighter and smoother than most savoury ones.

There is science that explains why I feel like this. The brain rewards us when we eat pleasant foods by releasing a chemical called dopamine. With most foods, the more reguarly we eat them the less dopamine is released when we do. However, with

3. It’s hard to snack without eating sugar

This is a not unrelated point. A chocolate bar or a pastry are by far the simplest way to pick up something quick yet pleasant on the go. If they are not an option I’ve found I’ll often opt to go hungry instead.

4. It’s harder to give myself a treat

This is – besides the taste of chocolate – the thing I miss the most. I’ve come to realise that before this month that if I wanted to celebrate or cheer myself up then the way I did it would almost invariably involve sugar in some way.

5. My mood swings around a lot less than it did

This has been a definite upside, which tempts me to continue going without sugar beyond this month. I don’t know if this is a real effect, a placebo or just something I’m imagining but I do feel like more stable blood sugar levels have translated into my mood and energy levels also being more stable. For me that’s a big deal.

 

Goldsmith Students Union thinks Holocaust Memorial Day is “eurocentric”

Following on from the depressing news that the NUS will condemn UKIP but not ISIS, there’s been more nasty nonsense from the world of student politics. The Tab reports:

A motion was proposed at the Goldsmiths Students’ Assembly yesterday to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day and victims of genocide.

Education officer Sarah El-alfy urged students to vote against the proposal, rejecting it as “eurocentric”.

This comes a day after it emerged the NUS voted against a motion to condemn ISIS and support the Kurdish resistance on the grounds of “Islamophobia”.

One student added: “The motion would force people to remember things they may not want to remember.”

Another suggested she couldn’t commemorate the Holocaust because she thought the Union was explicitly “anti-Zionist”.

One of the students present said the proposal should be voted against as it would affect the Union’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The unfortunately-named President Howard Littler said after: “Someone brought up Israel-Palestine out of the blue but I made a point of information and said I didn’t want to conflate the two.”

He later audaciously added that the whole thing is just “a storm in a teacup”.

This is all rather strange. Justifying the charge of Eurocentrism, El-alfy argued that “remembrance days should not be reduced to a list of European historical dates only…I offered to sit down with the Proposer and rewrite it in time for next Student Assembly.” This suggests that she does not realise:

Even were that not true, the Holocaust would still be a fitting paradigm for genocide as whole. It stands out both quantitively for its death toll and the qualitatively because of horribly methodical way it was carried out.

As for the concerns that it’s ‘colonialist’, try as I might I’ve been unable to decipher precisely what that’s all about.  Both twitter and the articles reporting on the matter have been unhelpful. There’s one student who tweeted that “white people should not be proposing motions condemning genocide without a lot of thought” and (predictably and irrelevantly) Israel-Palestine seems to have been brought into it. In response to this I would hope that it suffices to say that condemning genocide should have no racial boundaries and that the necessity of not holding Jews as a whole responsible for what Israel does applies even more strongly to Jews who were murdered before Israel even existed.

Now some people will sniff anti-Semitism in all this. I’m inclined to be more charitable. It appears from the reporting that the SU has in the past commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day and was prepared to do this again if the motion was rewritten. However, this is not to excuse them altogether. There is something rather insensitive about what was demanded of the proposer of this notion.

I would hypothesise that what happened at Goldsmiths was essentially that groupthink congealed into form of political narcissism. The Goldsmith Student’s hectoring use of unwieldy jargon like “Eurocentric” ought to alert us to the fact that they are people who hold their beliefs passionately but have picked them up ready made from a certain kind of left-wing politics infused with ideas taken from critical theory. This is all too common in student politics and it is sadly an environment in which people who think this way can cloister themselves amongst those with similar views. Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law professor, explains how this kind of insularity and narrow-mindedness develops among closed group:

The first answer involves information. Suppose that most group members begin by thinking that some religious group, leader or nation is evil. If so, they will hear a lot of arguments to that effect. As they absorb them, they will be inclined to move toward a more extreme version of their initial judgment.

People also care about their reputations, so some group members will adjust their positions in the direction of the dominant view. A disturbing implication is that if group members listen only to one another, and if most of them have extremist tendencies, the whole group might well march toward greater radicalism and even brutality.

Thus student politics is an environment where hobbyhorses become their obsessions and they lose proportion. They reach a position where they actually think a call to commemorate the Holocaust and other genocides is something which needs to be vetted for heresies. And won’t agree to pass a motion supporting it unless it is rewritten to scratch their ideological itches like Israel-Palestine and “Eurocentrism.” That’s a sorry piece of dogmatism and it’s hard to see how engaging in it promotes the SU’s core purpose in any way.

Dracula was NOT modelled on Vlad the Impaler

Like most people – including apparently the makers of the atrocious looking new film Dracula: Untold – I’d thought it was a fact that Bram Stoker had modelled his vampiric villain on the notoriously cruel medieval Romanian ruler Vlad the Impaler.

IO9 suggests this is a myth. Apparently it arose because Stoker’s notes of his research for Dracula went missing for many decades. In their absence, speculation about Dracula’s came to focus on the idea that as the name Dracula was derived from Vlad’s patronymic, so might the rest of his character. However, when the notes eventually resurfaced they didn’t really bare this out:

The truth is, there’s no evidence that Bram Stoker was even aware of the name Vlad III—much less that he was called “Vlad the Impaler.” [Stoker scholar] Miller warns that we can’t assume that Stoker’s notes are the end-all, be-all of the creation of Dracula, but they do provide the only factual information we currently have about Stoker’s research. And the notes tell us exactly where Stoker got the name “Dracula.”

While in Whitby in the summer of 1890…Stoker came across a copy of William Wilkinson’s book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. We know that, because he copied sections of the book into his notes. Wilkinson’s book contains references to multiple voivodes named Dracula, and some of the sparse details on one such Voivode Dracula make it into Stoker’s text: that he crossed the Danube to attack Turkish troops and had some success. That’s it. There is no reference to a “Vlad,” no mention of a nickname Tepes or “the Impaler,” no detailing of his legendary atrocities.

So why did Stoker choose that name, Dracula? Well, we can infer that from his own notes. He copied information from a footnote from Wilkinson’s book that read in his own notes, “DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL,” with those capital letters. The footnote explained that Wallachians gave the name “Dracula” to people who were especially courageous, cruel, or cunning. Stoker chose the name, it appears, because of its devilish associations, not because of the history and legends attached to its owner.

This is the only reference to the historical Voivode Dracula that appears in Stoker’s notes. Is it possible he knew more? Sure, it’s possible. But this all we know for certain.

The article does, however, eventually conclude that – whatever the initial truth – Vlad III and Dracula have been conflated for so long that they will probably remain so even though the truth is now known.

More on why perfectionism sucks

I’ve done a couple of posts so far on why perfection is so awful. But I wanted to share this very good piece from Salon by Erica Larsen writing about her own experience battling with it:

It’s this loss of connection with the self, I think, that really makes perfectionists so prone to mental illness. Perfectionists’ self-esteem is always yo-yoing between self-importance and self-loathing. We hold ourselves to higher standards than we demand of the rest of the world, yet we refuse to acknowledge anything less than a full-on victory. I’ve seen this same contradiction in the rooms of recovery. Even though addiction causes people to be extremely selfish, many addicts acknowledge that they’re harder on themselves than on anyone else.

Can we have high standards without being perfectionists? Maybe, but it can seem as daunting as stopping at one Oreo. Being okay with “good enough” takes daily practice, daily surrender. Perfectionism is really the opposite of acceptance, which is one of the keys to recovery from anything. No matter how many times we say or hear the Serenity Prayer, it doesn’t come easy.

There are, of course, things we perfectionists can do to ease up on ourselves. Hokemeyer urges his patients to see that “releasing their grip on perfection, if even ever so slightly,” will allow them to have “the peace of mind, connection with the world and a grounding that they’ve hungered for their whole lives.” But I know from dealing with my own mind that it’s one thing to learn to accept things that are obviously out of our hands, like traffic or the weather but much harder to accept and forgive our own mistakes. Still, the truth is that we can’t change those either, and we also can’t change the fact that we’re going to make more no matter how hard we try. Whatever the Higher Power that guides us through our recovery might be, it’s sure as hell not us. And if we’re not God, how can we expect to be perfect? Regardless of what Steps Six and Seven say about removing our shortcomings, recovery won’t make anybody perfect. Nothing can. And that’s not only okay, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. 

Care for yourself as you care for your neighbour

Earlier this week, I blogged about the damaging and potentially deadly effects of perfectionism.  That explored it as a psychological phenomenon but for some people it can have a theological dimension too.

Christianity is apparently pretty clear on human beings being imperfect. In Romans 3, the Apostle Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and the notion that all humans are impregnated with original sin is widespread. And it’s moral standards are exceedingly enacting: it’s not enough to do the right thing, you also have to do it for the right reason.

Perhaps surprisingly there is a tradition – particularly associated with John Wesley – that teaches otherwise. Wesley believed that Christians could with God’s help perfect themselves and that would mean:

…his one desire is the one design of his life, namely, “to do not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him.” His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please Himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He hath a single eye; and because his “eye is single, his whole body is full of light.” The whole is light, as when “the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.” God reigns alone: all that is in the soul is holiness to the Lord. There is not a motion in his heart but is according to His will. Every thought that arises points to Him, and is in obedience to the law of Christ.

And the tree is known by its fruits. For as he loves God, “so he keeps His commandments”: not only some, or most of them, but ALL, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to “keep the whole law, and offend in one point,” but has, in all points, “a conscience void of offence, towards God, and towards man.” Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God has enjoined, he does. “He runs the way of God’s commandments”: now He hath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory and joy so to do: it is his daily crown of rejoicing, to do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.

It is worth clarifying at this point that Wesley did not think that this was necessary for someone to be saved: God’s love was all that was necessary for that. However, that does not mean one can relax about not being ‘perfect.’ If you can be perfect then don’t you owe it the God who saved you to be perfect?

And that’s an idea that can eat away at people. There is a brand of Christian I’ve come across often working for the church or in the caring professions and generally with mental health problems. They are compulsively trying to do the right thing and mortified by falling short in any way. In short, they exhibit precisely the kind of problems that one associates with perfectionism.

My friend Ed Watson recently blogged about a similar issue drawing on his own experience of living in a residential faith community in which he observes thatthe people who most want to do good in the world are among the very worst at taking care of themselves.”

He goes onto unpick the theology underlying this mindset:

“Let’s look first at what it means to say that we stand in need of redemption. This is not, in my mind, the clarion call to self-flagellating guilt so typically thought of as part of the doctrine of Original Sin. It is rather the observation that we are finite and fallible creatures, capable of mistakes, easily worn out, and above all incapable of absolute self-sufficiency. This is not, of course, to say that this finitude is what we need to be redeemed from (after all, it is as finite and fallible creatures that we were created and loved): it is to say that we will always need external things to sustain us, whether it be food, the company of others, or the redemptive love of God. This is no cause for shame: it merely implies that when we get home on a Friday night, utterly exhausted, it is a part of our nature to require something beyond our own sense of duty or resilience to help us carry our work on joyfully into the next week.

Insofar as this is the case, the recognition that from time to time we need to take the time for proper self-care is not a denial of the command to put the needs of others before our own: it is rather the recognition of our own finitude. Here we find another meaning in the ‘as thyself’ in the command to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (one which I’ve lifted from Karl Barth). We cannot love our neighbour as God loves them, for we are not God: we can only love them as we are capable of loving them, as ourselves. Thus to love others as God commands, we must be honest with ourselves about the limits of our own capacities.

There are times, then, when if we are to carry any cross at all, we have to stumble, rest, and allow others to help us along our way. We have to recognise our own limits and so learn to say no to jobs which take us over those limits. We have to learn to accept the loving gifts of others, whatever they may be.”

Now to be clear the kind of people whose problem is giving up too much for others are a definite rarity even among the kind of people I described at the outset: Christians working for the church or in caring roles. However, they do exist. And for their sake the notion of perfectibility must be handled carefully.  If it even possible – which I doubt – then it is incredibly difficult. It is a notion roughly equivalent to enlightenment in Eastern traditions but they also embrace the notion of reincarnation which gives one many lifetimes to achieve it. If you only have one, you are very unlikely to manage it. And as even Wesley acknowledged doing so would not free someone from ordinary human ‘infirmities’ like imperfect knowledge and judgement. To which we might add the need for mental and physical recuperation.

We probably will be imperfect but God still loves us. So hating oneself is an unnecessary tragedy.