Why I’m uneasy about Facebook as arbiter of acceptable

Moderating on Facebook sounds like a nightmare. Casey Newton had an explosive story last year of panic attacks and high turnover. But the problem isn’t just for the moderators themselves, but in aggregate. As a philosophical problem.

Moderation sets the bounds on reality and acceptableness for billions of people. Across cultures and contexts. Across time. Will a private organisation ever be equipped for this? Could anything, really?

I was thinking about this as I finished up Steven Levy’s new book on Facebook. It’s a sweeping account of Facebook’s rise and recent bout with internal territorialism. But there were really interesting digressions on moderating content at scale.

Levy describes intense debates over what is and isn’t kosher. I use the word deliberately as the image of ever expanding notes and commentary strikes as a quasi religious one. A guide that is first quite narrow and absolute but must be argued over, reinterpreted and contextualised to new situations. Interpreted. At scale.

The rules can venture into confounding, Jesuitical flights of logic. Some things are fairly straightforward. There are attempts to define levels of offensiveness in subjects like exposure to human viscera. Some exposure is okay. Other varieties require an “interstitial,” a warning on the screen like the one before a television show that might show a glimpse of buttocks. Outright gore is banned. It takes a judgment call to fit a given bloodbath into the right box. “If you rewind to Facebook’s early, early days, I don’t think many people would have realized that we’d have entire teams debating the nuances of how we define what is nudity, or what exactly is graphic violence,” says Guy Rosen of the Integrity team… Facebook has created a vast number of non-public supplementary documents that drill on specific examples. These are the Talmudic commentaries shedding light on Facebook’s Torah, the official Community Standards. A New York Times reporter said he had collected 1,400 pages of these interpretations

As an abstract problem, sure, Facebook needs to crackdown on abuse and misinformation etc. etc. But in practice they are dealing with oceans of grey.

And there is no average set of values. Give my grandma and me the same stack of posts and we’d whittle them down to different subsets.

This is why the word interpret is important. Not just of the rules but the posts themselves. And layered on top of all this is that it apparently takes place at such speed as to make the nuances moot.

Facebook expects moderators to make about 400 “jumps” a day, which means an “average handle time” of around 40 seconds for them to determine whether a questionable video or post must remain, be taken down, or in rare cases, escalated to a manager, who might send the most baffling decision to the policy-crats at Menlo Park. Facebook says that there is no set time limit on each decision, but reporting by journalists and several academics who have done deep dives on the process all indicate that pondering existential questions on each piece of content would put one’s low-paying moderation career at risk.

The scale and speed, maybe more than anything else, is what concerns me. At least for now it doesn’t seem like a technological solution is in the offing. The incentive of those tasked with interpreting marginal content is to be restrictive. Better over than underdo it. And recourse is opaque and minimal.

Even given good will among everyone involved, top to bottom, this isn’t a great recipe. This isn’t how we should be determining reality for billions of people.

Hide and seek during a lockdown

Foot traffic has fallen dramatically because of the coronavirus. Obvious things have stopped, like air travel and professional sports. But what about less high profile activities? One’s that aren’t explicitly banned and could even count as exercise.

Geocaching is kind of like a global game of hide and seek. Someone hides a container somewhere, publishes coordinates or clues and others try to find it. When you find a geocache you “log” it through an app or a website, maybe with tips and photos.

Geocaching should be the perfect social distancing activity. They’re usually off the beaten track. It can be done solo or just with your household. Geocache logs are also a pretty clean indicator of non-essential movement – nobody has to go geocaching or logs for work.

I’ve hidden a few geocaches. One under a bridge on the Gold Coast in Australia and another in a Sri Lankan park. Even now I get occasional alerts that they’ve been found. But I scraped the logs of 300 geocaches around the Gold Coast and there has been a 50% drop in geocaches found from March to April. April is down 45% from the previous year.

Gold Coast geocache logs

I wanted to make sure this isn’t an anomaly, or that there isn’t some state bias here. So I also scraped 300 geocaches from Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. The numbers in Adelaide aren’t as dramatic but the effect still appears. There were 38% fewer finds in April than April last year.

Adelaide geocache logs

The effect is even clearer in Sydney and Melbourne. Finds in April are about a quarter of the previous month. There were only a couple hundred finds in April, down from almost 1500 last year.

Melbourne geocache logs

My dataset goes back almost a decade. April normally is a solid month, with a couple of public holidays and the weather starting to turn. There’s also a general upward trend over the decade, probably due to an accumulating number of geocaches but maybe also smartphone uptake. Apart from those succeeding a massive outlier, this kind of drop off seems anomalous.

Sydney geocache logs

This is a pretty clear sign of how hunkered down everyone is. It hasn’t fallen off completely because some people probably use it as exercise – I often plan my walks around where geocaches are present. But the marginal users have completely fallen away.

Tab dump

You can find previous tab dumps here.

What is natural?

What does it mean for something to be “natural”? The concept is all over the place. As branding it is something to aspire to. A state that must be protected. Something distinct from humans.

It’s especially jarring in discussions of nutrition and health. The absence of chemicals is ipso facto better for you. The diets of generations past something sacrosanct.

But it’s often an arbitrary distinction.

These orange carrots may not have been sprayed or grown with chemicals, but they’ve been altered by generations of farming. This slice of land may not have any obvious human alterations, no buildings or roads. But our presence in and around it has changed it. We’ve thinned it with our steps and diets. We’ve changed the climate, macro and micro.

Our perceptions of nature are almost always skin deep. Our recognised impact only the most brutal. I’m halfway through a Quarterly Essay on the Murray-Darling Basin, where much of Australia’s agriculture is located and water politics is fierce.

But right now I’m gripped by a contested state of nature:

These stories of the river are increasingly contested, as the engineers attempt to model and restore some portion of “natural” flows. The irrigators on the Lachlan, in their interviews with me, posed the question of what the Water Holder thought the “natural” state of the Cumbung Swamp would have been, and what “sustainable” might look like. What is natural? What people remember from their childhood, what the traditional owners have recorded in stories, or what the water engineers’ models tell us would once have happened before we built dams and locks and weirs and drew away so much of the water for our own use? And how to account for climate change?

The natural state lies outside living memory, in the realm of dreaming and anecdote. In both the real and the political landscape of the Murray–Darling Basin, nature is often referred to, used as a justification for action, but increasingly it is out of reach, a concept rather than a reality.

Put aside that natural appears to be conflated with “healthy”. It’s temporal.

The question seems to be about the baseline. At what point was the river system “natural”? And, if we pick a time when humans were present, why is it any more natural than it is now?

Does it pay to win the toss?

Something that has always bugged me about cricket is that the coin toss seems to have a huge impact. That’s the framing, anyway. The entire first morning of a test match is usually taken with what the winner should do – bat or bowl first.

Innumerable factors play into this decision, including weather, recent games, psychology and schedule. It sometimes seems more art than science.

But does it matter? Between 2000 and 2018 the toss winner won about 40% of games and the loser about 35%, according to noted cricket statistician Ric Finlay. Considering the sheer number of games, this seems pretty significant. I decided to scrape Cricinfo’s stat page to see if there’s anything else to tease out.

Firstly, as you’d expect from a coin toss, the results of a coin toss are about 50/50. Here’s Australia’s record at home:

 

tosses

But let’s go a bit deeper and break it down by country. The results of test matches played in Australia roughly line up with what Finlay says. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, it seems winning the toss is slightly more advantageous in the shorter formats. I would have thought the opposite, as pitches deteriorate and there’s more time for poor weather etc. in a test match.

oztosswon

Some of this is probably noise. There have been significantly fewer T20s than test matches played, for instance. Maybe more to unpack in the ODI’s.

Funnily enough, India is pretty dire for my theory. It’s even worse for test matches in India and even better for T20 matches. But, again, relatively few T20 matches. Also significantly fewer test matches played in India than in Australia, so that’s one to watch.

indiatosswon

Let’s look at England. This one is a little closer to what we saw in Australia, which makes me think the quantity of matches played is important. It also makes me question the connection between the toss and weather.

 

engtosswon

All of this is roughly around with Finlay says, which makes me think there’s something to winning the toss. And the advantage for one dayers is pretty consistent across these countries. I’m not prepared to call it yet. But there could be a marginal effect here. Gonna keep exploring.