Tech

Commenters Cry Foul After Popular Silicon Valley Forum Bans Politics

Hacker News, the forum run by Y Combinator, is trying out a "Political Detox Week." Commenters are crying foul.

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Earlier today the moderators on Hacker News, an influential online discussion forum run by Y Combinator, the startup incubator, announced that this will be "Political Detox Week" on the forum, and encouraged commenters to flag both political stories and political threads in non-political stories. "We'll kill such stories and threads when we see them," wrote Daniel Gackle, head of community for Hacker News, who goes by the handle "dang" on the site.

In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, Gackle said the experiment in moderation was prompted by "an increase in accounts that have been using HN primarily for political purposes."

In a post outlining the rules of Political Detox Week, Gackle wrote said this experiment was meant to honor Hacker News values of "intellectual curiosity and thoughtful conversation," instead of the flame wars that happen "when political conflicts activate the primitive brain."

When commenters asked how moderators intended to judge what was "political," Gackle elaborated: "The main concern here is pure politics: the conflicts around party, ideology, nation, race, gender, class, and religion that get people hot and turn into flamewars on the internet."

But many Hacker News community members objected to both the idea of censorship and the impulse to secede from politics, especially given the tech industry's inextricable role in national debates over job loss and automation, the way that social media can amplify political propaganda, and the fact that Silicon Valley is still largely dominated by white male gatekeepers.

The most upvoted comment on the site came from a user who goes by the handle tarikjn, who found the experiment troubling:

I find this experiment a bit strange/disturbing, avoiding political subjects is a way of putting the head in the sand. HN is a community of hackers and entrepreneurs and politics affects these subjects one way or another wether we want to avoid it or not, and are an important component of entrepreneurial and technical subjects. It might be fine if HN was a scientific community, but it is not the case, and even then politics do interact with science, as one can conduct scientific experiments on government decisions, or politics can attack scientific community positions (e.g. climate change).

Hacker News was first launched by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham back in 2007 and still functions as the tech industry’s very own Reddit.

Y Combinator took a much different position on politics this year, when billionaire investor Peter Thiel, a part-time partner at YC, wanted to promote his views. In response to calls to cut ties with Thiel, who is now helping to run the transition team for President Elect Donald Trump, Sam Altman (president of Y Combinator's parent company) wrote, "Diversity of opinion is painful but critical to the health of a democratic society."

6) Diversity of opinion is painful but critical to the health of a democratic society. We can't start purging people for political support.

On Twitter, some commenters called bullshit on the idea that banishing the political was the best way to promote thoughtful discussion:

Silicon Valley routinely makes impacts on race, gender and class—but discussions of those things is forbidden on Hacker News for a week 🤔

HN admin explicitly says that stories about race and gender fall into the set of things that will be blocked:… https://t.co/yZAgEf2WvB

HN moderator: okay to talk about software patents during “no politics” week, mass deportation talk will get flagged. https://t.co/reUAZS1xBD

@mjg59 @vogon sure sucks when your life and body is "politics" and other people's aren't

Matthew Garrett, a security developer, pointed out that the detox diet silenced discussion around important topics, like a story about why diversity has stalled in major tech corporations:

So we're unable to discuss https://t.co/jzTqVhOOIE on one of the most popular discussion forums in the industry

@_danilo I was told by a moderator that if I agree to "be civil" (i.e., not call people racists) then I would no longer be rate limited.

Other Hacker News users, like commenter chrissnell, commended the experiment as an effort to promote objectivity.

I'd rather see HN go politics-free forever. Political discussions do not enjoy the same level of objectivity that technical and business discussions do. Frankly, it may be impossible to expect objectivity within political discussion because our political feelings are so deeply-held and tied to our individual upbringings, culture, and locale.

Another commenter, who goes by the handle ben0x539, noted that "racist, misogynist, fascist hackers" already feel safe on Hacker News, so this detox would end up marginalizing minority voices:

I feel like trying to ban discussion of these conflicts will lead to the same outcome that reddit's weird "free speech" policy had, if more subtly. If Hacker News is the place where racist, misogynist, fascist hackers can feel particularly safe, that's going to be the kind of people you attract, at the expense of marginalized hackers.

There is no neutral option around this kind of politics and I'll be sad to see HN throw marginalized people under the bus to ensure the comfort of the privileged.

Danilo Campos, a software engineer who has been documenting abuse on Hacker News under #HNWatch for years, had little patience for forum members who argued that Political Detox Week was designed to keep out hate speech on the site:

No shit. I've been documenting this for years on #HNWatch and lobbying YC to fix it. Chickens coming home to roost https://t.co/sv8oFMMDJ5

When BuzzFeed asked Campos if Hacker News had ever responded to his campaign, Campos sent this interaction with Altman from 2014:

.@_danilo thats why we pay a bunch of people to work on it. the twitter flamewars i do for free! :)

Here is the full text of the statement sent to BuzzFeed from Hacker News:

What prompted it was an increase in accounts that have been using HN primarily for political purposes. Politics are inextricably mixed with a lot of the topics that get discussed on the site, but it's important that HN not turn into just another a political battlefield. We thought a one-week abstention from politics might be an interesting thing to try. Our hope is that it will help clarify what kind of site Hacker News is/isn't. On HN, most flagging of stories is done by users, not moderators. For the purposes of this week, the idea is to flag all stories that are mostly political and to err on the side of flagging rather than not. But that's just for this week. In general, we encourage users to err on the side of not flagging.

Nitasha Tiku is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Nitasha Tiku at nitasha.tiku@buzzfeed.com.

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