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Dealing with controversial & sexual fan fiction (May 2007)

Summary: Sexual content can be challenging for content moderation on a number of different levels -- especially when it involves fictional content about taboo, controversial, or even illegal activities. Literary fiction around these topics has been controversial throughout history, including books like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which focuses on a story told (somewhat unreliably) by a middle-aged male English professor who becomes obsessed with a 12 year-old girl.

But while there have been widespread public debates about whether or not such written works have artistic merit or are obscene, the debate becomes different when such content is hosted on social media platforms, and raises questions about whether or not it complies with terms of service.

LiveJournal, the very popular blogging platform in the mid-2000s, faced that question in 2007. A religious group called “Warriors for Innocence,” that was ostensibly set up to track down child abuse online, launched a public campaign accusing LiveJournal (at the time owned by another blogging company, SixApart) of harboring people promoting child sexual abuse. In response, LiveJournal suspended approximately 500 accounts. Many of the suspended accounts, however, hosted fictional writings, including fan fiction about the Harry Potter universe, as well as a (Spanish-language) LiveJournal that hosted a discussion about Nabokov’s Lolita.

Many of the LiveJournal users were upset about this, and argued that even if they were writing about taboo sexual content, fiction about criminal behavior is quite different than supporting or engaging in the same criminal behavior.

However given that all the material in question is fiction and artwork it seems preposterous to censor these communities. If works of fiction that address illegal or immoral activities are going to be subject to this treatment surely crime thrillers and murder mysteries should be censored just as heavily as erotic material. Part of the reason I use livejournal is because of the freedom it allowed for writers such as myself who deal with difficult and unconventional subject matter. If this purge continues I will be forced to leave livejournal find another outlet for my writing and I am sure I am not the only lj user who feels this way.

Decisions to be made by SixApart:

  • How do you distinguish fictional stories that describe criminal activities from supporting or encouraging such activities?
  • How responsive should a website be to public campaigns that seek to condemn certain content online?
  • Should the company be judging the literary merit of written works?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Where, if anywhere, is the line to be drawn between fictional works depicting abuse, and policies against abuse?
  • Different people may view these works through very different lenses. How do you handle concerns raised by some, as compared to the creative outlet it provides others?

Resolution: SixApart’s CEO later apologized, saying that they screwed up the removal process.

For reasons we are still trying to figure out what was supposed to be a well planned attempt to clean up a few journals that were violating LiveJournal's policies that protect minors turned into a total mess. I can only say I’m sorry, explain what we did wrong and what we are doing to correct these problems and explain what we were trying to do but messed up so completely.

Many of the suspended journals were put back online, after each was manually reviewed by the company. He admitted that they struggled with some content that “used a thin veneer of fictional or academic interest” to actually promote that activity, and the company sought to shut down those accounts.

Another issue we needed to deal with was journals that used a thin veneer of fictional or academic interest in events and storylines that include child rape, pedophilia, and similar themes in order to actually promote these activities. While there are stories, essays, and discussions that include discussion of these issues in an effort to understand and prevent them, others use a pretext to promote these activities. It’s often very hard to tell the difference.

It is also worth noting that approximately six months after this incident, SixApart sold LiveJournal.
 

Written by The Copia Institute, November 2020

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