When people think of content moderation and political debates, they may not think about knitting. However, the knitting community at the online site Ravelry has become a fascinating place to explore content moderation questions. This actually goes back many years, as Ravelry’s content moderation practices (handled by dozens of volunteer moderators) were studied for a PhD dissertation by Sheila Saden Pisa that was published in 2013, entitled: “In search of a practice: large scale moderation in a massive online community.”
Knitting and Ravelry have also been quite political at times. All the way back in 2009, a blog post was written by someone who was kicked off of Ravelry, and she believed it was because of her conservative political views. After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Ravelry was where the initial plans for the now famous “pussyhats” (for the Women’s March protesting Trump’s Presidency) were first released and shared. Ioana Literat and Sandra Markus studied Ravelry’s role in online participation, civic engagement and “craftivism.”
Still, it caught many people by surprise, in late 2019, when Ravelry declared a new policy, saying that it would no longer allow any posts supporting Donald Trump. From the announcement:
We are banning support of Donald Trump and his administration on Ravelry.
This includes support in the form of forum posts, projects, patterns, profiles, and all other content. Note that we will not destroy project notebook data. If a project needs to be removed from the site, we will make sure that you have access to your data. Even if you are permanently banned from Ravelry, you will still be able to access any patterns that you purchased. Also, we will make sure that you receive a copy of your data.
We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy. Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy.
The Community Guidelines have been updated with the following language: “Note that support of President Trump, his administration, or individual policies that harm marginalized groups, all constitute hate speech.”
The company noted that this was not a statement of support for other candidates, nor was it saying that it would ban people who (outside of Ravelry) supported Trump. It also made clear that it was not banning other political topics or statements in support of other candidates. Instead, it said: “We are definitely not banning conservative politics. Hate groups and intolerance are different from other types of political positions.” The decision created quite a lot of attention with many supporters and detractors.
Decisions to be made by Ravelry:
- How do you decide when one politician’s positions are so problematic to your community that you ban any support of that candidate?
- How will this policy be enforced? Should it apply to earlier statements of support or just future ones?
- How will attempts to get around the ban (such as with hints or euphemisms) be dealt with?
- Can volunteer moderators be supporters of Trump?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
- What are the pros & cons of banning support for Trump v. banning all talk of politics?
- Would other approaches — such as moving all political talk, or all talk about Trump, to a specific area — work as effectively?
- If, as has been suggested in some Section 230 reform bills, the laws change to require “political neutrality” in content moderation, how will Ravelry’s moderation practices be impacted?
Resolution: After Donald Trump left the White House on January 20th, Ravelry reiterated that its policy remained the same, even though Trump was no longer President. A year and a half after Ravelry’s decision, the New Yorker published a long, and detailed article about the decision to ban Trump support on the site and how it is going, entitled “How Politics Tested Ravelry and the Crafting Community.”
On the day of the ban, Kim Denise, one of the volunteer moderators, told me, “I was, like, I’m so psyched. I’m so proud to be part of Ravelry.” Then the ban happened. “And it was, like, Oh, my God. I wish we’d thought this through.” Right-wing trolls began signing up for Ravelry accounts and spamming threads with anti-Ravelry or pro-Trump sentiment. Denise described it as “hordes of screaming people lining up to sling feces at us. . . . It was terrible.” Users scurried to help moderators by flagging posts for deletion. They recruited a retired moderator to help deal with trolls. Within a couple of months, most of the activity generated by the Trump ban had subsided. Conservative users banded together, in a movement hashtagged #RavelryExodus, deleting their accounts and shifting to other platforms to sell patterns.
The company’s founder also admitted that after the ban was announced, she realized the difficulty in figuring out the exact boundaries of enforcement:
Jessica admitted that Ravelry has struggled to pinpoint exactly what constitutes inappropriate content. “Some of this stuff is so nuanced,” she said. “Think about what tweet got Trump banned. It was not about attending the Inauguration.” She went on, “We went through some pretty crazy rabbit holes: ‘O.K., this is an eagle, but it isn’t really the Nazi eagle. Or is it?’ It’s just, like, ugh.”
Written by The Copia Institute, March 2021