17

As someone who mostly uses the other sites on this network, I find myself unsurprisingly appalled at the negativity inherent in the answers and comments on this site.

Questions and answers that are inherently abusive and tilted are closed, but despite efforts, it doesn't seem to have alleviated the impression that the users are writing "with their fists up," so to speak.

To be fair though, there is a dichotomy of questions on this site:

  • Questions that are related to the United States
  • Questions that aren't.

At the risk of making an unfair generalization, answers and comments for questions related to the United States (esp. people and groups of people) tend to be filled with snark, cynicism, and the appearance of venting, which I believe is not appropriate for a Q/A site.

These writings foster negativity, and I would like to avoid having yet another platform act as a vehicle for amplifying the "scorekeeping" and "brand war" between popular ideologies.

As far as I can tell, the policy of this site hasn't evolved to meet the expected level of negativity and abuse inherent to the US election cycle. How can we best define the minimum standards of objectivity and emotional detachment to questions, answers, and comments?

12
  • 3
    Do you have some examples of such problematic comments? You should be safe in paraphrasing or partial quoting without linking to them or providing named attribution, if that is a concern. – TylerH Oct 21 '20 at 15:05
  • 13
    I upvoted because I think this is a discussion we need to have, but I think that resolving this problem is likely impossible, short of a major reworking of the site to ban current events and focus solely on political theory, history and trivia. American politics is just too polarized and, yes, emotional to discuss without causing conflict and offense – divibisan Oct 21 '20 at 15:12
  • 2
    Fortunately, less popular questions have much higher quality answers and comments. I picked this segment out of an answer: "Because there is a significant portion of people in the USA that have a very strong tendency to discard any fact that inconveniences them." Which gives me the impression of snarkiness, venting, and the impression of being "holier than thou." – I'll Eat My Hat Oct 21 '20 at 19:50
  • @divibisan - when I joined on Area 51 (back when proposal was for Libertarian SE before someone unwisely folded that into Politics), that was what I was hoping the site would be - political theory and history. Unfortunately, a decision was made to deviate from that :( – user4012 Oct 22 '20 at 4:42
  • 3
    @divibisan - ... the only solution I can think if is wholesale banning of anything that speaks about groups of people that is not based on a poll or an organization's formal statement; as well as banning ANYTHING related to motivation (again, except stuff explicitly backed by polling/research). – user4012 Oct 22 '20 at 4:43
  • 7
    @user4012: that's unworkable: politics is about groups of people, and both polls and mission statements can be self-serving lies. Nobody would be able to say anything meaningful on the site at all. – Ted Wrigley Oct 22 '20 at 19:04
  • 2
    As it stands there is no way to know what you mean by negativity. What do you consider examples of this happening ? As it stands it could simply being you expecting too much abstraction. It is, ultimately, about politics and in politics it is perfectly possible for two groups to honestly have different conclusions based on the same evidence. What is cynical and negative to one person may be factual and precise to another. – StephenG Oct 22 '20 at 21:18
  • 2
    To the contrary, I think there is a pro-US bias. Here, merely asking if the US has a basis for accusations against China gets my Question closed: "The primary purpose of this question appears to be to promote or discredit a specific political cause, group or politician". But this Question inviting speculation on China's secret malign motives is OK by politics.SE standards. – Keith McClary Oct 26 '20 at 3:05
  • 1
    @user4012 Exactly! Thank you for the spot on example of the negativity being asked about in the question! – CGCampbell Oct 26 '20 at 17:08
  • @I'llEatMyHat And yet, that except you quoted is factually provable. – Ian Kemp Oct 27 '20 at 15:26
  • 1
    @IanKemp It's factually provable for any sufficiently large and aggressive group of people, let alone two major parties of a large country. However, using a statement like that as the introduction to an answer indicates a lack of objectivity and the beginning of a rant. – I'll Eat My Hat Oct 27 '20 at 16:36
  • @KeithMcClary - that question is fairly easy to make at least somewhat objective - either make it restricted by statements from CCP, or explicitly ask what notable Western geopolitical/defense analysts think. Yes, both sides' positions would be biased but the answers would have to cite them instead of speculating, and would be clear that they are respective sides' opinions. I agree that in current form it could be improved. – user4012 Oct 30 '20 at 12:06
7

I personally don't think we need to prepare a list of things that are banned in advance, there's no way such a list could be comprehensive and would need to always evolve in order to encompass whatever the newest transgression of the day is.

Comments

That said, my answer to this question is that the policy for such comments should be the same as the general policy for all comments. If there's a comment somewhere that rubs you the wrong way for any reason, flag it for moderator attention and let them deal with it. Comments themselves are already meant to be ephemeral, and are supposed to be severely restricted in scope (at least in theory).

Answers

Similarly to comments, the tools we need to address this are already available. Is the post just generally negative and strike you as off? Downvote and move on. For particularly egregious answers, vote to delete if you have enough reputation. If enough community members agree, it will be resolved in due time. For anything rising to the level of a CoC violation, flag it for moderator attention and let them make the call.


I do think that drive-by up/down votes related to the HNQ may cause some answers to have an inflated (or deflated) score relative to how someone perceives the quality of the post. But this is the system we have, I don't think there's anything specifically this site can do besides opting out all together or on a question by question basis. I personally think the proposal from user4012 posted on the main meta site is a good one, but discussing changes to HNQ is a bit out of scope here.

7
  • This answer neglects to account for the possibility of less scrupulous factions exploiting the existing tools, (designed for for relatively scrupulous engineers and programmers), to game the system. – agc Oct 27 '20 at 13:51
  • 1
    @agc If less scrupulous factions can use the tools, more scrupulous ones can, also. How do we tell one from the other? How can I, or you, lay claim to being in one group versus the other? This is a consequence that follows from being in a community. Whether you choose to label someone scrupulous or not is immaterial, they have the same right to utilize the platform as they see fit, and the tools were built in to the platform to give other individuals in the community a check on abuse. – Jeff Lambert Oct 27 '20 at 13:57
  • @Jeff_Lambert, How do we tell? Method. "Scruple" (from L. 1/24oz.) is akin to particular, careful, cautious, etc. It's about what people with certain standards don't and won't do. (Whereas the unscrupulous go ahead and do that stuff.) Individually it entails a certain loss of personal freedom, but those losses are more than offset by a powerful collective gain in the resulting emergent phenomena of trust, honor, and good will. Again, the present platform's tools we have were not built for, and are as of yet not well adapted for, political abuse. – agc Oct 27 '20 at 15:07
  • 2
    @agc The problem with your hard and fast definition is that one person's unscrupulous poster is another person's freedom fighter. Neither you nor I get a monopoly on sorting people into those categories. The tools of the platform were built with the idea of consensus in mind. 5 delete votes = a post gets deleted. 5 undelete votes = post restored. – Jeff Lambert Oct 27 '20 at 15:13
  • @Jeff_Lambert, No, think of it like the rules of, say a board game. An unscrupulous player cheats at the rules, or attempts to get an inch so they can take a mile. For example, an unscrupulous SE-er might assume various avatars, or collude with others to game the voting, or raise pointless disputes, or pretend to object and denounce pointed ones. It's not about sorting people, it's about describing and sorting methods, or programmatic anti-patterns. – agc Oct 27 '20 at 15:27
  • 1
    "If there's a comment somewhere that rubs you the wrong way for any reason, flag it for moderator attention and let them deal with it." That's a really bad suggestion on a site dealing with politics and therefore emotion, because you're just going to end up with comment flag wars. – Ian Kemp Oct 27 '20 at 15:33
  • 1
    @IanKemp And it's the moderator's job to sort the wheat from the chaff, your opinion notwithstanding. It is well within the moderator's prerogative to just nuke an entire comment thread if it gets out of hand, since, as I pointed out, the existing policy doesn't lend much credence to comments anyway so people shouldn't be too attached to them. If someone has something to important add to a question they should add an answer, since that allows the community to not only upvote but also downvote (something that is lacking with comments). – Jeff Lambert Oct 27 '20 at 15:36
4

Politics is naturally contentious. People depend a lot on their political context; they want things like stability, safety, liberty, healthy environments, opportunities, etc, that can only be granted by and through the other citizens around them, and thus can only be effectively regulated and structured by a government. So all decisions that might incur political or social change — i.e., all political decisions — create stress and conflict. The political realm (as Arendt pointed out) is the one realm where we cannot exert sure control, because we have to rub shoulders with other people who also want to exert sure control. It is inherently risky and threatening, so people will get emotional about it.

Negativity is part of that; it can't be avoided.

What can be avoided (or at least moderated) is personalization: that ad hominem tendency to make dispositional statements about a person or group, instead of talking about issues or behaviors. This kind of personalization comes in two problematic forms:

  • Statements of bias, in which someone imposes innate characteristics on a person or group
  • Statements of offense, in which someone claims they are being personally attacked by a factual or otherwise non-biased statement

The core of both these points is the Fundamental Attribution Error: the well-documented tendency for people to interpret the behavior of psychologically distant people as matters of disposition or personality, while interpreting the behavior of psychologically close people as matters of situation or context. Thus, when someone hears about a stranger shoplifting, they might say "Pah! What kind of a person steals from stores?" (a dispositional assessment), whereas if their best friend gets caught shoplifting, they'd say "Oh, he's not that kind of person; he was just doing it for a lark." (a situational assessment).

Attribution is an important part of our lives; we are always looking to attribute a cause to the events we experience. For instance, if we wake up one morning and discover that a brick has gone through the windshield of our car, we naturally want to know whether that brick fell off a passing truck (attributing the event to misfortune) or whether it was thrown by an angry neighbor (attributing the event to malice). However, short of an outright confession or a description by a witness, we generally can't know what the cause was, so we have to make our best assessment. It's in this moment of assessing the situation that the attribution error can creep in.

A forum like this is ripe for attribution error. Almost everyone we encounter is psychologically distanced; most people have a 'side' they've already picked; lots of people are more interested in 'scoring points' than in formulating a proper question or answer. Some people are unaware that they've made an attribution error, while others explicitly make attribution errors, because they are upset, or malicious, or otherwise trying to harm people for their own satisfaction. But interestingly, these too are attributions about the other posters on the site that we should be wary of. Things can get very tangled if we're not careful.

The best thing to do is avoid dispositional claims. We can make inferences from behavior — we need to make inferences from behavior, or we can't talk about anything at all — but we have to make the behavior and context clear, so that the inference is natural. This is true whether we're writing the content of a question or answer, or writing a response to another poster. Many (if not most) people will overtly try to make the discussion about dispositions, because it's easier to argue in the black-and-white world of innate dispositions than in the gray-scale world of contexts and inferred attitudes. All we can do with that is refuse to play the game: keep drawing it back to behaviors and inferences, and sooner or later the other person will either get it, or get so frustrated that they cannot provoke an argument that they'll go away.

I could say more, but I already feel like I'm wandering a bit.

3
  • Ironically, the second point on personalization is the actual problem leading to people posting these types of questions - they just aren't honest enough to admit it. – Ian Kemp Oct 27 '20 at 15:29
  • 2
    @IanKemp: many times, yes. But we can't discount the possibility they are pointing to a valid concern. In a war of egos, often everyone is at fault. – Ted Wrigley Oct 27 '20 at 16:59
  • 1
    @IanKemp disagree strongly: hostile media effect is a well-known cognitive bias. People regularly perceive objectively neutral content as being against their side. We should be respectfully explaining to people why they're wrong, not shaming them for being human. – Jared Smith Oct 31 '20 at 11:24
2

I am unwilling to answer your title's question (what is the policy). I have my own personal opinion, but it's colored by distribution of site's demographics and voting (including highly upvoted popular opinions that are literally contradicted by statistics or examples in real life).

However, I can answer your body's question (what should the policy be).

The only solution to the dilemma that I can think if is:

  1. Wholesale banning of anything that speaks about groups of people and generalizations, that is not based on a poll or an organization's formal statement.

  2. Banning ANYTHING related to motivation in ALL answers and most questions (again, except stuff explicitly backed by polling/research).

  3. Skeptics.SE-style explicitly banning "original research". Anything that cites a confirmable fact is OK. Anything that draws conclusions from those facts is not.

  4. Fixing the bloody HNQ policy that allows randoms to upvote bikeshedding questions without knowing OR caring about site quality, ideas and policies. This has been a perpetual request to SE as a company that they continue to blissfully ignore like most requests on Meta that would improve public SE sites. Example: my own proposal


P.S. Somewhat unrelated to the core point, but just to address the "dichotomy" you observed; I suspect that this issue you raised is not strictly speaking specific to American politics policy wise - this site merely doesn't have enough of an audience size that would care about non-US politics topics enough and be invested enough. I suspect if the network was in Hindi, Indian politics would be covered in nearly identical way. If it was in Spanish with enough users of "correct" origin, Catalonia related questions, or Latin American countries questions would get the same effect. If there were enough Russian users, Russian politics would get same treatment - as a Russian native speaker, I know how polarized those discussions can get from first hand observation.

There are countries where people literally have physical fights between members of legislature, or where large scale political violence with mortal outcomes is not uncommon. The passions arising in politics is a rather universal constant.

13
  • 2
    I can, at least, agree 100% with you on point 4. I don't know if the HNQ works better on other sites, but here it seems to specifically highlight the most partisan questions. Since I think the odds of SE making any changes on behalf of a small site like this are basically 0, I think our best bet is to make use of the moderators ability to manually remove questions from the HNQ if they're likely to result in highlighting low quality answers or sparking a flamewar – divibisan Oct 22 '20 at 17:49
  • @divibisan - I saw negative effects of HNQ on other sites (including non-controvercial ones like SciFi), but here it's positively site-breaking. And when I explicitly complained about a bad answer on HNQ, moderators took a day to confer and did nothing in the end. – user4012 Oct 22 '20 at 21:15
  • I've had luck using the "in need of moderator attention" flag. It's quiet and doesn't make drama, but it lets them take action if they think it's merited without having to fight a battle or choose partisan sides. – divibisan Oct 22 '20 at 23:45
  • 6
    Why is this being downvoted? Everyone should be able to agree that unsourced opinion essays have no place here. Instead, I see them all the time. – SurpriseDog Oct 22 '20 at 23:50
  • @divibisan Current HNQ is a plague on all sites (well: those I use anyway). Almost always the votes are permanently skewed to the worse. But mod-removal is a last resort. It is permanent. Much better would be a close (and fixing). This means that absent changes on SE side, the local community itself is producing the undesired effect be knee-jerk upvoting of sub-par stuff. I fully agree on algo needs a fixing, complained to that effect on MetaSE, but another angle is: how to educate the local community to not upvote quickly predictably awful posts? – LаngLаngС Oct 22 '20 at 23:55
  • 4
    @LаngLаngС I don’t think that people are entitled to HNQ upvotes, so it doesn’t bother me if a borderline question permanently loses the opportunity to be in the HNQ. Nobody needs those votes and the rep you get for a HNQ post skews the site by giving you lots of privileges for just a single post – divibisan Oct 23 '20 at 0:03
  • 2
    The whole problem with the HNQ is that most of the upvotes, any many of the worst answers, don’t come from the community. So it’s impossible to educate them, since they don’t visit the site regularly. The only option is to prune, since the algorithm is never changing, and if it did the changes would be geared towards SO, not us – divibisan Oct 23 '20 at 0:04
  • @divibisan Yeah. But there are 2 problems at once: an algo that rewards speedy answers, with systematic and almost inevitable total disregard for quality; and it is us, the regulars, sending those threads into HNQ heaven. While I haven't analysed SO for this, I doubt that these criticisms do not apply also 'over there'. Since SE is reluctant to change: how do we get regulars to exercise prudence in upvoting fresh Qs, quicker closing of sub-par Qs (to optimally largely avoid mod-removals)? – LаngLаngС Oct 23 '20 at 0:17
  • 2
    @LаngLаngС I’m going to have to disagree with you that mod-removals are bad. I believe strongly that there are plenty of questions that are valid and not off-topic, but which are likely to attract highly-partisan and opinion-based answers if exposed to the HNQ. I think it’s much better to keep these questions open so they can get answered, without throwing on some HNQ gasoline – divibisan Oct 23 '20 at 0:39
  • @divibisan MR mod-removals are the last resort, and bad as such in principle (mods should exercise minimal mod-hammer actions whenever possible, and here it is non-reversable). I also maintain that with 'close' I strongly imply 'to fix it up with edits so they get reopned' (before potentially invalidated later As roll in). The speed criterion needs to get some brakes. CV is much better than MR: community driven, reversable etc. (Plus: If MR is really called for, then I'm fine with it as well, esp if the community keeps sending BS into orbit). – LаngLаngС Oct 23 '20 at 0:45
  • @divibisan feel free to write an answer to this question. Without good guidelines, I don't think it would be a good idea to let mods choose which questions should be removed from HNQ. How do you propose we make it fair for everyone? – JJJ Mod Oct 23 '20 at 21:04
  • 1
    To your point 1. How would you address something like claims of antisemitism in the Corbyn version of Labour? (sorry to pick on Labour, but I need something controversial). That's not going to be part of the party platform, is it? And polling has its own problems: if you poll people in Israel (sorry to be picking on Israel) is a fact about Palestinians now determined by a poll? Agree though, although I've upvoted the answer motivating this thread, it is a long diatribe that is fairly content-free for most of it - even if the core "government intrusion, oh woe" is correct. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Oct 24 '20 at 17:43
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - devil is in the detail. "Did xxx members of Labour make comments that are referred to as antisemitic by organization zzz?" is answerable. "What is % of UK Jews that consider labour antisemitic" is answerable. "Is Labour antisemitic" is only answerable subjectively (outside of the answer to exact narrow question listed first) - BUT, would likely get subjective answers instead. If you're lucky, using data from first two data points as basis for subjective conjecture, if not, using some random quote. – user4012 Oct 26 '20 at 14:53
1

I could be off-base with this and I would like to see some numbers on it, but I have a suspicion that a lot of the problem comes from HNQ.

Questions that make it into the HNQ sidebar are almost guaranteed to be maximally viral (read: maximally contentious) and so you have a perfect storm of people who:

  1. Aren't regular users of the site and have no worries about it's larger mission or maintain a conversation as opposed to a drive-by snarking...
  2. That have strong feelings about an issue that...
  3. They are mostly evenly split on...
  4. Showing up in numbers too great to easily police.

I don't know that there's a good solution to that problem, but I certainly think it's a part of the problem.

Edit

Apparently I'm not the only one.

-4

To the contrary, I think there is a pro-US bias. Here, merely asking if the US has a basis for accusations against China gets my Question closed: "The primary purpose of this question appears to be to promote or discredit a specific political cause, group or politician". But this Question inviting speculation on China's secret malign motives is OK by politics.SE standards.

2
  • 3
    Firstly your question is no longer closed. Secondly the other question is extremely well-sourced and objective - it does not "invite speculation on China's secret malign motives" because it does not suggest that China's motives are malign. It merely asks what they could be. – Ian Kemp Oct 27 '20 at 15:29
  • 1
    I don't think they were talking about "negativity" in terms of an anti-US bias. What they meant, I think, was that questions about the US elicit strong emotions and lead to trolling, opinion-based answers, and snarky comments – divibisan Oct 27 '20 at 15:52

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .