Great Escape

The Perils of Being a Facebook Moderator

I didn’t ask for the job, but I didn’t quit it, either

Illustration: Glenn Harvey

II was at the grocery store when my phone started blowing up. I already knew what it was. Anytime I got more than a couple notifications in a row, I could almost guarantee it was a group chat of moderators overseeing a small, private Facebook group for sharing memes.

As I stood in the cereal aisle, scrolling through the discussion, I tried to skim the rehash of something big that had just happened in the group. Our friend and fellow moderator, whom I will call Gabby*, left the group after being antagonized by a man I’ll call Drew, one of the members. I tapped away from the moderators’ private group chat and checked out the offending post. Working my way backwards, I pieced together what had happened.

As is so often the case on the internet, the descent into mudslinging and drama had been quick. Someone had posted a pretty innocuous meme of various terrible musicians (Justin Bieber, Nickelback et al.) on an alignment chart. Someone else responded with a reaction GIF. Drew (who is black) called out the use of the Issa Joke GIF as an example of “digital blackface.” Gabby (who is also black) thought that was a little extreme and said as much. That’s when Drew called Gabby a particular C-word that’s sometimes lobbed at people of color who are accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes. Gabby was so upset that she left the group. And the moderators agreed to ban Drew for bad behavior.

By the time I got home from the grocery store, I was already emotionally drained. I felt sick. How long until this blew over? How long until the next dramatic incident? Were we awful moderators for banning someone without allowing him the opportunity to explain himself? I didn’t exactly feel qualified to be judge, jury, and banisher. I wasn’t even quite sure how I’d found myself with this kind of responsibility in the first place. It certainly hadn’t started out that way back in the summer of 2016, when I’d first joined the group. I was just there for the memes.

“Your Facebook friend Noah has added you to [actual meme club name redacted].” That’s how it started. I clicked over to the group and saw there were about a dozen members, all college friends of mine. It had been a few years since I’d moved away from our sleepy college town of Santa Cruz, and just as long since I’d seen some of their faces.

Scrolling through those first few posts, I felt a bubble of joy in my chest. This was proof that my college friends and I hadn’t grown apart as much as I’d feared we would. We could socialize with each other more intentionally than if we were just stalking each other on Instagram or Twitter. Here was a way for our diasporic friend group to continue engaging in shenanigans and exchanging wisecracks.

It was around that time in 2016 when I noticed a change in how I was using Facebook. Instead of posting to my timeline or other public surfaces, I was retreating into groups: a fan group for my favorite podcast; a group for members of my gym; a political discussion group; alumni and neighborhood and music-scene groups. To me, these seemed like a more intimate and authentic way to interact with people on the internet. If posting a Facebook status was like shouting aimlessly into the town square, then posting to a private group was like chatting with your book club.

But this wasn’t a book club. My friends had created the group to share memes. It was a destination for absurd content: bizarre photos of hot dogs staged to look like fingers; baby animal videos dubbed to “Mr. Sandman.” One friend thought it was particularly hilarious to spam the group with Ray-Ban ads — which is not funny at all except as a sort of meta-joke about the type of clutter that litters our social media feeds. It was a private corner of the internet where I could bond with my friends, knowing we were laughing at the same dumb thing, even if we were all hundreds of miles apart.

Soon, though, the group began to grow. People invited people, then those people invited more people. Suddenly, we had a few hundred members. This exclusive clubhouse had become a raging house party. And as with all things internet, the bigger the group got, the harder it was to police.

It was inevitable that someone, at some point, would go too far, posting something that would require the judgement and intervention of the team. The team, in this case, included me, because as the group grew, the founding members took up the mantle of moderation.

We agreed to assess incidents on a rolling basis and adapted a growing list of rules based on our verdicts, including no bestiality memes (yes, it needed to be said), no punching down (meaning sexism, racism, homophobia, and bigotry), no ad hominem attacks. Those were the rules of engagement, and it was our job to make sure people abided by them.

The original appeal of this silly meme club was that it was removed from the political hellscapes of my Twitter and Facebook feeds — but then it became just like them. I could no longer escape nasty arguments anywhere online. Not only that, I also had to adjudicate them.

Social platforms have given us new tools and means of communication, but they haven’t lessened the need for thoughtful human facilitation. Earlier this month, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts banned Alex Jones for violating their terms of service, reigniting the debate about the responsibilities of a platform’s moderation team.

Like it or not, some of the most meaningful and plentiful conversations we engage in now take place through the great amplifiers of social media platforms. But just like at debate club or Thanksgiving dinner or the courtroom, sometimes humans need a little help coming to terms.

It was tempting to remove myself from the equation altogether. To throw up my hands and write off any foul play as a personal opinion that will work itself out. Making judgment calls on others’ behavior online is difficult, but few things worth having are easy to get. Maintaining spaces for safe, civil, and productive conversation feels worth it to me. That’s why this reluctant moderator isn’t walking away from her role. Progress is not made by the shrugging of shoulders.

*All names have been changed to respect the privacy of the people mentioned.

writer and editor // Ⓥ // Heavy weights, heavy music, words of all size

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