As social media companies increasingly face public scrutiny over their moderation of hateful content, a number of Jewish writers on the question-and-answer platform Quora are calling on the company to stamp out the spread of antisemitic misinformation and harassment, often disseminated by pseudonymous users.
A California-based Q&A website founded in 2009, Quora prides itself as “a place to share knowledge and better understand the world.” Having since added blogging and social features to its offerings, several hundred million users come to the platform every month to ask and answer questions on nearly every conceivable topic, seeking the kinds of productive discussions not always found on other Internet forums.
To help make those conversations happen, the platform also has a content policy requiring users to be “civil, respectful, and considerate to other posters,” and a system for content moderation. But as on many other social networks, some users say those procedures have not succeeded in preventing bad behavior, virulent hate speech, and harassment from percolating on the site.
“Quora earned a reputation as a platform for serious and informative discussion and advice,” Josh Korn, a longtime and active Quora user, told The Algemeiner. “But over the past four years, it has become a den of unchecked hatred, notably Jew-hatred, not just Israel-bashing.”
September 12, 2021 10:33 am
“It seems obvious that the system has several fundamental flaws,” he argued.
One example he cited — “How did the Jews suddenly become so powerful?” — was first submitted in February 2017, and was recycled as recently as last week.
Another is the “Holocaust Forensic” space on Quora, run by Mark Sims, a researcher who calls himself a “Jewish human rights activist” who “debunks historical hoaxes.” Sims alleges that the “Holocaust is the most misrepresented group-tragedy in human historiography,” and casts doubt that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime or that many were killed in gas chambers disguised as bathrooms.
Sims, whose profile has almost 400,000 content views to its credit, uses the space to distribute “evidence and research” regarding “long-standing Holocaust hoaxes.” According to one such theory, Sims alleges that “no homicidal gassing occurred at any concentration camp, it was a false legend.”
According to Quora policy, Holocaust denial is “prohibited” if it is “created with the intent of spreading false or misleading information.” And the platform allows users to report the questions and answers of other users that they contend violate Quora policy. Questions and answers can be “collapsed” if a high enough number of users report them, regardless of whether Quora has reviewed the reports and determined them to be legitimate.
But Korn charged that even when he and other users do flag posts, the site rarely responds.
“Neither Quora’s human moderators nor its bots ever learn what constitutes virulent Jew-hatred. Those bots are machine learning algorithms, and are supposed to learn,” Korn argued. “No other identifiable group is subjected to this level of incessant hatred.”
Until recently, the website allowed people to post questions anonymously about topics they felt were sensitive. According to Korn, those anonymous questions had in recent years been abused as a vehicle for the propagation of “vicious hatred” — even though the site requires that “all anonymous content will be reviewed for spam and harassment before receiving distribution” and does not violate its “Be Nice, Be Respectful” (BNBR) policy created to make users “feel safe.”
Last month, Quora announced a change for users to employ pseudonymous accounts instead of anonymous when they’re seeking to feel safer asking a question. The move came after Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo said in April that the platform will no longer take moderation action against people for using pseudonyms, as he expects most people to use their real names. At the same time, D’Angelo emphasized that Quora will not allow “misuse of pseudonymity to harass, troll, or impersonate, and we will continue to moderate names according to existing policy for things like hate speech, explicit content, or profanity.”
Asked about criticisms of the site’s content moderation, William Gunn, head of communications at Quora, referred to the July policy change.
“The complaints you refer to focused on the anonymous question feature, which was used by a small minority of people to post policy-violating content, and were made obsolete by deprecation of that feature,” he told The Algemeiner. “Whether anonymous or not, such questions have always violated Quora policy and we remove them.”
Yet critics argue that the new regime hasn’t done enough to stamp out content.
“What’s taking place is just a cosmetic change,” Korn said. “Someone bent, for example, on spreading Jew-hatred will have no problem adapting to using a pseudonym,” he said, arguing that questions containing classic antisemitic tropes are still being submitted without challenge.
Other prolific contributors to Quora have also shared the frustration at combating antisemitic content on the site, reporting pseudonyms and sock puppet accounts whose main mission on the platform appears to be to spread misleading and false information, as well as bullying.
“Quora has an impossible mission. The site is becoming incredibly toxic, and it shouldn’t be,” said Elke Weiss, an Israeli-American lawyer and historian. “Quora needs to find a better way to moderate more than 250 million accounts. They can’t keep up. If every person reported once a week, even if 10 percent of people reported policy violations — you would need an army.”
“So Quora relies a lot on bots. And a lot of times they ignore it, they kind of have this very libertarian idea, they let it work itself out,” she told The Algemeiner.
Weiss, who has 27,000 followers, said she is currently locking down her account to take a break from writing on Quora, after being bombarded with a barrage of hateful comments, including a death threat.
“Once you become associated with Israel, you are putting a target on your back,” she recounted. “But one attack on Quora was so bad that I did not leave my house for three days out of panic.” It read in part, “You have got a white high IQ, but that doesn’t justify treating Palestinians as animals, and torturing them every day. You white scum belong to Europe. Someone must gang rape you and then kill you. Heil Hitler ready for the real Holocaust.”
Weiss lamented that she has given up relying on Quora’s content moderation system after reporting thousands of comments in which she says she was attacked personally.
“Nothing much has happened. It’s not a transparent system. We can’t really speak to people; I have had to repeatedly reach out to them. It took months to get a response,” she said. “Sometimes Quora has been amazing and I have been in contact with a human person, but there are just not enough of them.”
Gail Ellis, another Quora writer, said that she and Weiss were harassed by one pseudonymous user — who created a list of accounts that they alleged to be “racists, propagandists, apologists of genocide or terrorism, religious fanatics,” and are only on the platform to “hurt people” or “lower the quality of the forum.”
Another user called out Quora for “coddling racists and lying bigots,” linking to her profile by name, she told The Algemeiner. Ellis said she had complained to Quora and in forums on the platform, but without much success.
“The content moderation bots work on how many people report something, so in a way this works to our disadvantage — because once these things get left up and the other types of hate get taken down,” she explained. “It’s like saying, ‘this kind of hate is okay. Jews are a justifiable target.’”
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Quora Writers Say ‘Unchecked Jew-Hatred,’ Holocaust Denial Persist on Popular Q&A Site