Mod Notice about Election Discussion

by Vaniver2 min read29th Jan 202016 comments

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PoliticsSite Meta
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TL;DR: Posts discussing the presidential election may be hidden, not appearing in recent discussion, on the home page, or on the allPosts page.

Ben Landau-Taylor wrote The Four Year Locusts to describe the periodic problem of politics consuming everything within reach. From it:

While the swarm is too big to defeat entirely, local defense is possible. Some areas can be kept clear. What is precious can be guarded. The swarm is temporary; you need only outlast it.

Even in the best of times, Less Wrong discourages posts on politics; Politics is the Mind Killer, as the saying goes, a post that turned into a norm a bit more expansive than the original post suggests. We are not currently in the best of times.

I see three main reasons why this matters:

  1. Object-level harms to the discourse from using political examples. It's both harder for people to discuss politics, and harder for them to agree on the right abstractions. If you discuss the abstractions directly, you can avoid those issues.
  2. Pull factors for the wrong crowd. Suppose some people care 100% about rationality, and discuss rationality things; people who care 80% about rationality and 20% about politics join in and talk about rationality. But if the people who care a little about politics start discussing politics with each other, then they pull in people who care 60% about rationality, and 40% about politics, and perhaps things spiral out of control, especially if it's somehow easier or more rewarding to talk about politics.
  3. Push factors for the right crowd. Suppose people want to avoid politics, because of disinterest, reputation harms, or the increased surface area for enemy action. Then if your forum becomes about that thing, people who would otherwise be interested in your thing will leave, or be harassed.

So back to the locusts. How to respond? People like Bryan Caplan take a social media hiatus. Here on LW, we're going to try to minimize the visibility of political discussion, especially with regards to presidential politics. We're interested in raising the sanity waterline more broadly, but also in picking our battles, and presidential politics is a battle we definitely are not interested in picking.

We're considering several different ways of minimizing visibility, and will deploy them as they seem necessary. You'll still be able to write personal blog posts on topics as you see fit with the normal restrictions, but those posts might not show up on the main page and their discussion might not show up in recent discussion. (If you want to make sure you see all posts by another user, subscribe to their posts by clicking on their username and then hitting the "subscribe to posts" link.)

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I somehow missed all of the previous locust infestations. (I was already pretty uninterested in politics, and LW further encouraged that disinterest.) Given my newfound interest in the intersection between politics and epistemology, I'd like to observe one first hand to see what it was like. I (wrongly?) inferred from this post that LW was affected 4 years ago (and that's why mods are taking precautions now), but couldn't find much using the obvious keywords. Does anyone have links they can share of past "mind-killed" political discussion during election cycles, preferably in Rationalist or EA spaces so I can more easily compare to normal behavior?

I also don't recall ever seeing locust swarms here. Occasional isolated locusts, but they're OK when there are only a few. I too would be interested to know whether there are specific reasons for expecting a troublesome locust influx this time around.

Last time we didn’t have the personal blog infrastructure in place, so I think there was basically just a ban on politics stuff. Now that ban isn’t in place on personal blogs, so I think there is a good chance a lot of people would go and start writing about that on their personal blogs, and transform the overall site culture. 

Ah, that makes some sense. It'll be interesting to see what happens, though of course the best outcome is that this announcement deters people from entering locust mode and nothing ever needs to be done, after which of course everyone says "see, there was no need to do anything!" :-).

I'm expecting this mostly to be a "the status quo more or less stays the same", but with more clarity about how multiple site principles intersect.

I don't recall there being a hard ban, and there is some election-related political talk that I can find in the archives, so I think it was more people voluntarily following an implicit norm.

BTW, has the LW mod team given any thought to how to make political discussions here safer, instead of discouraging them? It seems like we (meaning most people interested in rationality) can't avoid politics forever, and I already regret not learning more about it earlier.

We definitely talk some about it. I don't currently have any super precise takeaways that aren't highly context-dependent, but could try writing up some things. 

I do also want to note that the goal is not necessarily to discourage the discussion in a blanket way. I generally think that political discussion between long-time members with lower visibility is good and productive, and some of the goals here are to allow that to happen, without deteriorating in predictable ways.

To clarify, in case my intended meaning didn't get across, by "how to make political discussions here safer", in addition to "not deteriorating in predictable ways" I also mean "how to not get LW embroiled in controversy and associated with politically incorrect ideas in the minds of outsiders (and thereby drive away members who are legitimately afraid of being associated with a place that is associated with politically incorrect ideas) just because we argue in good faith about them instead of loudly denouncing/banning them".

I posted my reply to this as a post. Can you ping users on posts?

You mean tag people so they get notified, like on FB? I don't think you can. Just send them a PM with the link, I guess.

It seems to me like it would be good to have an easy way to only make posts (and maybe also comments) visible for logged-in users with >10 karma for those political discussion that we want to happen.

Object-level harms to the discourse from using political examples. It's both harder for people to discuss politics, and harder for them to agree on the right abstractions. If you discuss the abstractions directly, you can avoid those issues.

I don't quite follow what this is trying to say. It's harder to talk about politics if you use political examples?

As a general rule, if you want to communicate clearly, it's better to give examples than to only use abstractions. I can understand an argument that it's undesirable to talk about politics except in very abstract terms, because it will tend to interfere with other discussions. But I'm confused by the apparent claim that even if you want to talk about politics itself, using examples is bad.

(If that even is what the quoted bit is trying to say. I'm having trouble parsing its sentences.)

Suppose I want to talk about how ideological factions often align themselves on epistemic grounds instead of moral grounds. To give an example, I talk about how you might expect factions to be the "prefers strawberry" faction and the "prefers vanilla" faction, but in fact when you look at the world the faction membership tests are "thinks vanilla causes cancer" and "thinks vanilla doesn't cause cancer." And perhaps the actual cause is upstream, and is closer to "doesn't trust agribusiness-funded research" vs. "does trust agribusiness-funded research."

I could have instead given the example that had me actually thinking about ideological factions, and how much they are based on epistemic grounds vs. moral grounds. But likely the discussion then would be about the object-level point, of which faction is more correct, or perhaps even about which faction can consider LW part of its territory, independent of which is correct.

When Eliezer talked about this, in Belief as Attire, he used a real example, although one that was not quite contemporary at the time, and was called out for it in the comments.

And if your goal is to figure out whether LW is territory for faction A or faction B, this rule is here to say: Don't.

Ah, I see what you mean. This kind of discussion is not what comes to mind from the phrase "discuss politics", though. I think that was the source of confusion.

If the goal is to discuss abstract patterns that come up in politics (vs what I would think of as "discussing politics", namely discussions about politicians and policies and elections, etc), then I agree the non-loaded, made up examples are better.

I think this is a bad compromise. If the motivating example is political, your abstraction will either bring it in by association, or be far less compelling to discuss. Just keep politics off the site, and that includes abstractions whose best examples are political.

If it's a more general abstraction, it'll be easy to find better examples.

Can we have a visible thread to watch that gets a lightweight pointer whenever a post is hidden this way? I'm intensely curious to find out if we successfully defended against a swarm, or if the swarm is just mostly elsewhere.