Thursday, April 15, 2010

Arianna's Mandatory Cult Meetings

This was one of the comments that really brought home to me that perhaps there was something more serious going on with Huffpo censorship than a poorly designed expert system. On the article Why Are Children Rejecting Science? user ScienceFTW posted a comment that talked about Ms. Huffington’s ties to new age ideas. His comment included two links that were quite interesting.

The first link described Ms. Huffington’s connection to “the Movement For Spiritual Inner Awareness a cult ex-members described as sexually and financially exploitive in a series of Los Angeles Times exposés”.

The second was an announcement on the Texas Freedom Network about “an evening with Arianna Huffington”. It wasn’t the announcement itself that was interesting but the comments that followed which were quite critical of Ms. Huffington.

My reaction to both these articles was mild interest. However, I was much more interested when I saw ScienceFTW’s comment vanish as I tried to reply to it. Even more interesting was how difficult it was for me to simply reply back to ScienceFTW and acknowledge that I had seen the comments and links before they were moderated out of existence. I tried several comments all of which were deleted then I finally managed to get the following brief comment in. I’ve found that the shorter you make comments the better chance they have to make it past the many layers of Huffpo censorship:

=== Begin Comment ===
RedDogBear 134 fans permalink
I've tried leaving several comments, will try to keep this short as possible: thanks for the links, I saw and saved them before they vanished.
    Reply     Favorite     Flag as abusive Posted 03:09 PM on 4/10/2010
ScienceFTW Unfan 110 fans permalink
Yeah, don't complain about it too much. I did, and i was banned...
=== Begin Comment ===

To be honest I’m not all that concerned if Ms. Huffington likes some new age cult. I also don’t care that much if she makes her staff attend their meetings. I’ve worked in the corporate world and being forced to attend time wasting meetings is more or less expected. Also, I recognize this may be mostly or completely just rumors and things taken out of context by disgruntled ex-employees or progressive bloggers who may not like Ms. Huffington for other reasons. What doesn’t seem acceptable to me is that a progressive blog censors reasonable criticism. If this is all hooey then Huffpo should say so or ignore it not censor it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Will Anonymity be a thing of the past on Huffpo?

The following is an example of a comment that disappeared right before my eyes. To be more precise there was a comment about anonymous comments and Ms. Huffington's opinion on them. That comment contained the following link to a NY times article on anonymous online comments. I followed the link and read the article and then went back to reply to the comment. As I hit submit I received the message "the comment you are replying to no longer exists". Unfortunately at that point I hadn't yet started to copy and save anything that Huffpo might find threatening so I don't have the original comment.

OK, so its not Winston Smith or Brazil but it was a very weird feeling. There was nothing in that comment that was offensive, personal, or in any way something that people committed to free speech would want to ban. What there was was this link to the NY times article that contained quotes from Ms. Huffington that indicated anonymous posting may eventually be a thing of the past on The Huffington Post. Now its her site, she can do with it as she wishes but its also supposed to be a progressive site. It seems amazing to me first of all that this article has never appeared on Huffpo, and I've checked several times. It seems even more ominous that a perfectly harmless comment could be censored because it might contain information that The Corporation (you know the ones that give us the mandate) doesn't want the users of the site to know or discuss. Quotes like this:

“Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”

“There is a younger generation that doesn’t feel the same need for privacy,” Ms. Huffington said. “Many people, when you give them other choices, they choose not to be anonymous.”

The Out of Control Bot Example

I've come to learn that there is some kind of expert system or "bot" that pre-screens Huffpo comments. This system is out of control. It can censor comments that are perfectly acceptable. Here is one example that I found to be amazing because I actually figured out how to "beat the bot" and it seemed like such a ridiculous example. BTW, this comment is very pro-gun control but I don't mean to insult or put off any second amendment fans here. This site is about censorship and all are welcome and I want to encourage us not to get side tracked on specific issues. I'm including it because it is such a blatant example of how ridiculous the bot is. Note the words in bold.

=== Begin Comment ===
I lived in a VERY scary neighborhood for about a year. The Richmond neighborhood in the SF Bay area. It makes the worst areas of Oakland seem like gated communities. It was the only time I seriously considered buying a gun. But I was living with a wonderful but psychotic girl friend and I was afraid that one of us might at some point pick up the gun. Given that while I lived there she did things like throw her Mac laptop at me (and it still worked after, another testament to Apple) I'm glad I never did. Instead we got a wonderful rescue Rotweiller dog. He was one mean MoFo, to everyone else that is to us he was the sweetest thing in the world. After a while I felt perfectly fine taking him on walks at 2am. NO ONE would mess with me when he was there.
So for all you people living in fear, please get a dog and ditch your guns. Statistics (sorry yes this is that liberal science stuff) show unequivocally that a gun in the home is much more likely to be used against a friend or family than an intruder. But to my knowledge no one ever picked up their dog and shot someone in a fit of anger.
=== End Comment ===

The words in bold were the reason the bot rejected my comment. I resubmitted the comment without those words and the comment made it through.

The Quantum Consciousness

One of the disturbing trends I've noticed at Huffpo lately are the amazing number of articles on new age topics without appropriate responses from the science community. Three of the most prevalent new agers are Depak Chopra, Robert Lanza, and Ervin Laszlo.

These authors like to post articles that talk about scientific phenomenon such as quantum entanglement, quantum computers, and the multiverse. My knowledge of physics comes from a few introductory courses in college and reading popular books by people like Brian Green. However, even with my basic knowledge it is obvious that these authors don't really understand the topics they are talking about. They simply use the trappings of quantum physics to give a scientific veneer to their new age speculations and to help sell their books and promote their TV appearances. Which is fine. But it should also be fine to respectfully point out their errors and give links to sites that correct them. Here is just one of many, many, comments I posted to a recent Lanza article that was censored -- all word in quotes are from the original article:

=== Begin Comment ===
"Physicists find that almost all models for reality from Newton's laws through Einstein's field equations, have no need for time"

False. Some examples:
Velocity = dx/dt
Acceleration = dv/dt

Those are pretty foundational formulas for Newtonian physics, and the t stands for time.
And Einstein demonstrated that our common sense (Newtonian) notion of time needed to be refined, not that time doesn't exist. Space and time are one concept: space-time but the time part is still pretty important.

"experiments confirm that Zeno was right. Scientists proved what in the world of quantum physics is equivalent to demonstrating that a watched pot doesn't boil."

Uhm, a watched pot DOES boil. Try it.

For some more critiques of the science in this and other articles by Lanza see:
=== End Comment ===

I can't begin to understand how that comment was considered inappropriate.

The Mandate is from the Corporation

Here is an interesting exchange I had with Rob S. from the Huffington Post. I've put his comment about users vs. the corporation in bold. I think its an interesting point of view for a supposedly progressive site.:

=== Begin Email Thread ===
from Community
date Tue, Apr 13, 2010 at 9:28 AM
subject Re: Moderation Concerns
Apr 13 (2 days ago)

We understand all of these difficulties extremely well. & again, I believe it's a frustrating experience for some users.

We have a mandate to moderate. We have a fixed amount of money & a fixed amount of support--and so we meet that mandate as best we can with a limited budget.

Not everyone is as frustrated as you are. We have 900,000+ users and most of them are, if not comfortable, not unhappy with how the system works.

& we are well aware of people gaming the system. If they do it too much, and we identify them--we ban them.

All that being said, moderation will chage radically in the coming weeks, and further in the coming months. I'm not free to currently discuss the details. I suspect the new system will be both 1) more effective in publishing what should be, 2) more responsive & in real time when something is deleted which shouldn't be.

We'll have to see how it all plays out once we put it in place--but the changes are specifically designed to help folks who have the same impression you do.

Give us 4 months (tthough I think you'll see significant changes in the next 2-3 weeks)--and you may be much happier.

Best I can offer at this point,

Rob S.
Senior Moderator, Administrative
Huffington Post
Original Message
Subject: Re: Moderation Concerns
Date: 2010-04-08 18:43:59

Red Dog to Community
show details Apr 13 (1 day ago)
"We have a mandate to moderate"
Really? From who? Have you ever solicited the input of your users? I've been on the site since it launched and I don't recall ever seeing any discussions or solicitation for feedback about the policy.

I think this is what bothers me the most, that there is no discussion about the censorship policy. And any comments about it get censored! I think you should have an article posted by you or Ariana or your CTO describing where you are and where you are going and encouraging people to give their opinion.

Thanks for the reply.

Red Dog
- Show quoted text -

Community to me
Apr 13 (1 day ago)
The mandate is from the corporation. I wasn't aware Huffington Post needed anybody else's permission for how it moderates comments stored on its servers and displayed on its website.

& again, changes are coming. I'm not trying to frustrate you--and you may even be happy with how it works out--as I said.

Again, they will let users know about these changes--and hopefully address some/most of your concerns when they are ready to--and they are working on it.

There is nothing more I can say at this point, and there is nothing I can accomplish by agitating but slow things down--so I'm letting them do their work.
Thank you,

Rob S.
Senior Moderator, Administrative
Huffington Post
=== End Email Thread ===

There you have it folks. The mandate is from the corporation and Huffpo is not aware that they need the opinions of their users. Quite a mindset for a progressive blog.

Welcome to Banned From Huffpo

This blog is meant to address censorship on The Huffington Post. I’ve been a Huffpo user since the site launched. Just about the same time I cancelled my cable subscription and stopped buying a daily newspaper because I was so sick of the incessant corporate lies and distortions purveyed through them. Since then Huffpo has been my main site for news.

I had noticed for a long time that comments I made to Huffpo often were never posted. For a long time I didn’t pay much attention and just assumed it was growing pains of the site as they scaled up their technology to support their exponential growth. Then I also began to notice more and more users w0uld c0mment l!ke th1s. Much to my dismay I noticed that when instead of crap I said “cr@p” my comments had a much higher chance to make it through. At this point I should point out that I’m not the type of blogger to use curse words or even words like “crap”. I’m also not the type to engage in personal attacks. I don’t see the point in comments like that. I comment because I like to exchange ideas and I like to argue. However, in my experience nothing makes you look worse in an argument than descending to name calling. I always prefer to debate based on reason and facts and when its clear my counterpart is just name calling I simply stop replying. So if this were about having to type “cr@p” instead of “crap” or refraining from other naughty words I wouldn’t care. However, just when I thought I had the Huffpo censorship system figured out I noticed new kinds of censorship.

The next example was on a column someone wrote about Internet security. I forget the details now but it seemed to me there were several fundamental errors in the article (I’ve worked most of my career in Information Technology). I posted a very polite comment pointing out the errors. I was amazed when it didn’t get posted. I tried several other versions and again none of them were posted. This was the first time I got seriously pissed off. Its one thing to censor comments that have “naughty” words. I think that’s foolish but not that big of a deal. It is quite another to censor comments that show an author to be wrong. Once we start to censor those comments it seems to me we’ve really destroyed a fundamental characteristic of blogs that differentiate them from traditional media. The whole point of comments is that readers can talk back and engage the authors.

From that point I started paying more attention to the censorship. I noticed there were at least four types of censorship:

•Bot censorship. There appears to be an expert system or “bot” that pre-screens posts and either removes or puts in a queues for further scrutiny comments that it deems to be inappropriate. How this bot works I have no idea. All I can say is that it is incredibly arbitrary and in my experience screens out many perfectly reasonable comments.

•Author censorship. Comments that are overly critical of an author, especially comments that point out bias that the author may have are often censored. For example in my experience any comments critical of Depak Chopra are always censored.

•Censorship censorship. Comments that ask questions or critique the censorship policy itself are very frequently censored. I’ve personally left several comments on various articles authored by Ms. Huffington hoping for some type of response and those comments never make it through.

•Huffpo censorship. Comments that have to do with the internal workings or bias of the Huffington Post are almost always censored.

So why does this matter? I’m not opposed at all to some degree of moderation. In fact at times I wish there was more moderation on the site. I often see spam, racist comments, homophobic comments, anti-semitic comments and countless comments that are off topic or simply pointless. I would be happy if more of those comments were moderated out. What makes this something I think worthy of concern is that the censorship has gone from being mildly annoying to a serious suppression of free speech on the site.

For one thing I increasingly find myself wondering how to word things to “sneak past the bot” and using juvenile alternative spellings for various words. This seems moronic. What are we afraid of? The bot isn’t actually screening out truly offensive comments anyway. Its possible to get past them using alternative spelling and yet it often screens out totally reasonable comments. As an example, I had a comment on gun control with the word “shot” in it. I wasn’t threatening to shoot anyone or anything even mildly offensive. I took out that word and the comment got posted. To spend time creating a serious post and then see it vanish and to have to consider what word or phrase the automated system objected to seems to me to be an insult to thoughtful bloggers on the site.

Beyond the bot issues I increasingly find that true discussion and criticism of various authors gets screened out. This is especially true for authors who have article after article that says more or less the same thing and promotes their books or other commercial enterprises.

For me the last straw however was when I tried to raise this issue with the Huffington Post itself. The replies I received said that the site wasn’t interested in what the users thought regarding censorship. “The Mandate is from the Corporation” for moderation and the site will do it without input from the users. So that’s why I created this blog.

What to do Next?

Click here to go to the petition against out of control censorship at the Huffington Post.

Please see the greatest hits page. The blog has been up for a while now and on that page I have links to some of the examples I think are most interesting.

If you would like to join the informal group trying to address the censorship issues at Huffpo please email me at: