Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic whom I think I could absolutely describe as a “Dingus Supreme,” has a new idea for an online platform. This is very important to Peterson because he and his largely alt-right fan base need a safe space online to share controversial opinions and practice free thought. So Peterson is launching Thinkspot, self-described as “a collaborative community where individuals can explore and exchange ideas in a thoughtful and respectful manner. The platform is an intellectual playground for censorship-free discourse.” It will also shadowban users.
The grand idea of Thinkspot, as far as I can tell, is that it’s a place for people who know how to be racist and sexist in a more dog-whistle-y way, not in the more direct way you might see on Twitter — or on Gab, the platform for people who are somehow too racist for Twitter.
On his podcast this week, speaking with guest Joe Rogan, Peterson outlined how he planned to keep Thinkspot from spiraling out of control: a minimum word count. “If minimum comment length is 50 words, you’re gonna have to put a little thought into it,” Peterson said, as recapped by the right-wing site NewsBusters. “Even if you’re being a troll, you’ll be a quasi-witty troll.” I’m maybe a little more skeptical that Peterson and Rogan’s crowd — the one that spends hours at a time watching men yell into a microphone on YouTube — will have trouble coming up with 50 words to fill space.
Even weirder was Peterson’s reveal that the site will hide downvoted comments. “If your ratio of upvotes to downvotes falls below 50-50, then your comments will be hidden. People will still be able to see them if they click, but you’ll disappear,” he said. What Peterson described is a completely valid form of site moderation. The tactic is also what conservatives have often misconstrued as “shadowbanning.”
Shadowbanning used to mean that a user’s posts would remain visible to the user but were otherwise entirely hidden from the website. It’s a way of getting people to leave on their own by removing the feedback loop of getting reactions from other users.
But a sloppily worded Vice News article about Twitter from last year has muddied the definition. The report pointed out that certain members of the GOP weren’t showing up in Twitter’s auto-suggest function. Everywhere else on the site, though, these accounts were visible, and users could see their posts. Vice erroneously labeled this process “shadowbanning,” and the term made it all the way to the president’s tweets.
In reality, Twitter was doing the type of quality control that nearly all websites practice: gating certain users a little bit more, based on feedback and signals from other users. Thinkspot, by Peterson’s own admission, appears to function the same way, which is ironic given the professor’s stance as a free-speech absolutist. Making bad comments and bad users just a little bit harder to find in order to improve the user experience is apparently censorship on major platforms. On Peterson’s own site, it’s just quality control.