Editorial: Tumblr’s moderation efforts miss the mark

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Editorial: Tumblr’s moderation efforts miss the mark

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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Tumblr announced a drastic change in its community guidelines on Monday. Any and all “photos, videos and GIFS of human genitalia, female-presenting nipples and any media involving sex acts, including illustrations” will no longer be allowed as of Dec. 17 as a push to “keep the community as safe as possible.”

It’s more likely that this controversial move is a desperate attempt to reinstate the platform in the Apple App Store.

Just two weeks before this decision, the popular blogging platform was removed from the iOS App Store after child pornography concerns. Apple is known for its efforts toward excluding adult content in the App Store, but has left platforms like Reddit and Twitter alone — despite porn frequently being posted to both.

If Tumblr’s removal from the App Store is indicative of a failure to match Reddit and Twitter moderation efforts in differentiating between criminal content and adult content, the cracks in Tumblr’s moderation tools are certainly coming to light. Almost immediately after the removal, Tumblr purged numerous blogs that produced erotic content but had nothing to do with child pornography.

This new content policy instituting a blanket ban on adult content seems to be a continuation of Tumblr’s bid to return to the App Store. While Tumblr claims the new policy has nothing to do with Apple’s move, it’s unlikely these decisions occurred in a vacuum, considering the new policy’s glaring contradiction with Tumblr’s long history of defending adult content.

“We’ve taken a pretty hard line on freedom of speech, supporting our users, creation, whatever that looks like, and it’s just not something we want to police,” Tumblr founder David Karp said in 2013.

“When you have … any number of very talented photographers posting tasteful photography, I don’t want to have to go in there to draw the line between this photo and the behind-the-scenes photo of Lady Gaga and like, her nip,” Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in 2013, after acquiring Tumblr.

Tumblr chief executive Jeff D’Onofrio wrote that the content policy was aimed at “creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community” but the results of Tumblr’s current moderation efforts seem to contradict D’Onofrio’s claims.

A Tumblr search of the word “butt” leads to an empty page stating “your search returned nothing, nothing, nothing.” A search of Neo-Nazi slogan “Blut und Boden” (a popular phrase among Neo-Nazis meaning “Blood and Soil”) turns up no shortage of Nazi propaganda, despite Tumblr’s prohibition on hate speech.

Tumblr admits its moderation efforts are not perfect and that the use of automated tools to identify adult content “versus say, a political protest with nudity or the statue of David, is not simple at scale.”

But if incorrectly flagging the statue of David is the worst mistake the automated algorithm could make, that would be a monumental upgrade over its current performance. The algorithm has flagged countless innocent posts like dinosaur drawings, a cartoon cat and a picture of Washington Capitals player Alex Ovechkin sleeping with the Stanley Cup.

A January 2017 study found that almost a quarter of Tumblr users were on the platform primarily for adult content. But instead of making the investments to improve their moderation tools or to redesign user features to make it easier to combat criminal content, Tumblr has chosen to turn completely on its user base. With no signs of Tumblr’s mistakes slowing, the platform’s days may be numbered.

Tumblr claims the new policy was instituted to build “a better Tumblr.” Perhaps the backlash to this content policy — and not the policy itself — is what will encourage Tumblr to achieve that.

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