July 30, 2007

Arguing Principle

Arguing Principle From Convenience Is No Principle At All

The harshest language I’m going to use in this article is to mention Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. There may be different times and places where, creatively used, harsh language is more or less appropriate. It’s one thing to be respectful of the sensitivities of others. Watching one's language in some circumstances and being free with it in others is an example of a single principle that can lead to different behaviors according to those circumstances. But today I want to talk about the use of different principles that are used selectively, according to circumstances. Which principle being advanced depends on whether some advantage is to be had, or because it’s easier to mask one’s true motives behind some more defensible principle.

To summarize Frankfurt’s excellent article, most folks believe they can spot bullshit when they see it, but what exactly is the difference between a liar and a bullshit artist? For one, a liar at least believes the truth matters. There’s no point in trying to deceive others so you can benefit from having them operate under false assumptions unless you think there’s a meaningful difference between the truth and the lie. If it’s all opinion, there’s no need to lie. A bullshit artist, on the other hand, need not tell any lies at all. I don’t remember who said it, and have not easily found the source, but I read somewhere that honesty isn’t simply a matter of telling the truth but a willingness to let people know where you stand. That’s what the bullshit artist is dishonest about. He doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not, he’s more interested in getting away with something.

In short, he has less respect for the truth than a liar does. The bullshit artist is willing to argue principle, however, if it suits his purpose at the moment. He operates under the principle from the Jean Giraudoux quote, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made.” I’ve been reading thru the YouTube editors’ blog recently, to get a better idea of how they operate. And I feel comfortable saying that the staff at YouTube is nothing if not sincere. They started out with a kind of ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show in Farmer Brown’s barn!’ vibe going on, and they’ve been trying to keep up with the phenomenal growth of YouTube ever since.

But if we at Operation YouTube Smackdown try and deduce the operating principles for how they handle flagged videos, it’s hard to escape the feeling that they are not above arguing certain principles out of convenience more than conviction. Now, there’s a whole article to be written on YouTube’s history of deleting (and in some cases where they got bad publicity restoring) videos that were more ‘politically incorrect’ than they were violations of stated policy. And at least once, they even deleted a video of a squirrel dodging a tossed rock on grounds of cruelty to animals. I kid you not. Now, it’s probably a good idea to mention another famous quote here. I quote the version I learned, “Never attribute to malice that which is more reasonably explained by incompetence.”

I’m prepared to accept evidence for either conclusion, but if you want to argue neither applies to how YouTube operates, you’ll need to offer me a third option at this point. People are inclined to judge the statements of those they disagree with more harshly than those of folks they like, whom they will often grant far more leeway, or benefit of doubt. Maybe YouTube is just left leaning as their reputation has it, but they still mean well. Well, let me offer a corollary to the quote above: Never attribute to a failing in another person’s ideology that which is better explained by a failing of the human nature we all share. Up to a point, it’s understandable that some videos would slip through the cracks, and it’s not going to be incontrovertible evidence of ill intent or gross negligence in YouTube’s flag review process. But we need some explanation for what we’ve learned so far at the Smackdown.

As of this writing our Operation YouTube Smackdown efforts are yielding about a 15% successful takedown rate. That averages out at just over 2 removals from the average Daily Dozen we put up for people to flag. Initially, the ‘Strong Stomach’ videos seemed to come down more easily, but recently it seems to be evening out a bit with the ‘IED/Hate Speech’ types catching up. If you find yourself wondering maybe the ones that got removed were worse than the others, remember the squirrel. And then go watch some of the videos still on YouTube, which we keep links to in our Archives. You don’t need to watch many to see my point, or notice that a great many of these videos are just recycling footage from other videos or identical sources from elsewhere. They are, in short, no different in any appreciable way than the few that do get removed. Maybe the different staffers apply their own standards, and operate with little oversight or regard for official policy. The only clearly (and repeatedly) stated operating standard YouTube gives out is that they don’t delete flagged videos unless a YouTube staffer has reviewed them, and that they have folks on staff 24/7 doing just that. They don’t say how many people are there at one time, and most YouTube users go to the site to watch what they want to see, and aren’t likely to flag anything they don’t like, even if they stumble across it by accident. Millions of videos get viewed every day, and the number of flagged videos may be small or large, we just don’t know.

We have tried to come up with possible reasons some videos are taken down while others just as bad and often worse remain up. The whole premise behind YouTube is that computers can take care of the details and let humans have all the fun. It’s reasonable to assume there’s some automated procedures to help YouTube staff handle complaints. Maybe it takes a certain number of viewings or a ratio of flags to viewings that get a human’s attention. The squirrel story linked above argues against even that, however. And we’ve seen videos up for less than 2 days and 125-150 viewings get taken down.

So, what explains the jihadi death cult style videos that have been up for a year or longer and have been viewed thousands of times or more? Now, if you read the various policy statements over at YouTube’s Help Center (see our How YouTube Operates) you’ll see lots of high-minded statements about making YouTube not only a user-friendly place, but also a Friendly Place for its users. Read the blog by their editors and you’ll see almost nothing but ‘niceness.’ In fact, it’s as if they aren’t aware the world is filled with anything but nice people, and the occasional troll posting unflattering comments about the videos other people upload.

I have found no mention of controversies about videos being taken down for less than even-handed and principled reasons. They were proud to announce the day they add ‘hate speech’ to the list of reasons to ‘flag as inappropriate’ any video people find objectionable. No mention of jihad videos being posted in large numbers preaching jihad and death to infidels, taking advantage of our culture’s free speech traditions to advance a cause that would deny the same considerations to others if they only could. It’s as if the nice folks at YouTube can’t imagine such things. Well, let’s help them get a clearer picture of the kinds of videos they’re hosting. Let’s make them choose every day between squirrel’s dodging rocks, white guys using ‘the n-word’, and jihadis blowing up Humvees with IED’s. If they want to delete all of them, so be it. Pick a principle and stick with it.

But I will not accept them protecting the tender sensibilities of animal lovers, or the rest of us from harsh language aimed at hurting the feelings of different races, sexes, ages, weights or whatever, and then turning right around and leaving up the vast majority of jihadi hate speech and anti-war death-and-gore fests in the name of free speech. I can see principled arguments for each of those standards (not to mention the public relations reasons YouTube might adopt some of them, as any ‘broadcaster’ would). But playing different Principle Cards every 2 minutes like it’s a game of Magic: The Gathering? That’s just a little too convenient. And arguing principle from convenience is no principle at all.

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