EchoEkhi's Blog

#EndOTWRacism: Why It’s So (Needlessly) Controversial, and What Should Be Done

One would think such an established social movement such as anti-racism and racial equity would not generate much controversy and backlash, especially in a community that is as left-leaning and progressive such as fandom, but over the past two weeks, I have observed much discourse surrounding this well-intentioned social movement, so much so that I have come to question whether if there are indeed some problems with the EndOTWRacism campaign.

To put things in context: EndOTWRacism is a protest campaign launched against the Organisation of Transformative Works (OTW), the parent non-profit that manages the Archive of Our Own (AO3), a fan-fiction platform.

Obviously there is the question on whether if the OTW is racist in the first place, a point made very often by many critics of the movement. You can’t ‘end’ racism if there isn’t any racism to begin with. Indeed there has been no example where the OTW or someone at the OTW was accused of racist behaviour; The Org is not inherently racist in and of itself. The accusations made by the movement is rather that the AO3 provides a platform for racism, and the Org should address those problems.

Which brings me to my first point: EndOTWRacism is a comparatively poor choice of name. It implies that the OTW is racist, rather than the fact that only a small subset of its users are racist. No doubt the accusation of racism against the Org, beloved by many fans such as I, would evoke a strong reaction in some people. ‘EndFandomRacism’ would be a better name, as it better addresses the root of the problem, although it could be argued that the OTW is racist simply by allowing racists on its platform, so I digress.

At first glance, the message is quite simple: the OTW needs to be less racist, and it needs to do the following things to make the AO3 less racist:

  • Speed up the process of hiring a diversity consultant;
  • Update the site’s policy on harassment;
  • Create a content policy on ‘extremely racist and bigoted content’.

Most of the controversy centres around the third demand. Indeed it is hard for many to accept that AO3, famous for being a safe-haven from censorship on the likes of Wattpad and, should ever institute a policy to bar any kind of (legal) content on its website, an opinion and concern that I share. It is predictable that many fans immediately perceive EndOTWRacism as an attempt to censor content on AO3, accusing them of ‘anti’ behaviour and book-burning, making them out as a threat to our hobby. They then speak out against EndOTWRacism, denouncing it as an attempt to bring censorship onto the AO3, and dismiss the (very valid) concerns the movement raises.

This is where most of the drama comes from: dissidents accuse them of censorship and suppressing the creative freedom of artists; EndOTWRacism accuses dissidents of being anti-anti-racist (which funnily enough, cancels out to become racist); Dissidents accuse the movement of operating under the guise of anti-racism to bring conservative censorship policies onto AO3 with the slippery slope argument, and so on, and so on. But quarrels such as these miss the fundamental point, which is why I have not participated in any such arguments.

The point is, the problem EndOTWRacism tries to fight against is too vague; It is ambiguous in who is racist to whom, via what means. This turns the issue at hand into a five-part problem:

  1. Users are racist to other users, via AO3 social features (such as comments, tags, bookmarks etc.);
  2. Writers are racist to readers, via the contents of their work;
  3. Staff are racist to users, via moderation abuse (which is potentially possible, although I could not find any precedent);
  4. Users are racist to staff, via harassment;
  5. Staff are racist to their fellow staff, via internal communications (or lack thereof).

The problem being that although all of these 5 problems are all linked to racism, they are fundamentally different problems, and have their own fundamentally different solutions. EndOTWRacism is at fault for not being specific enough, leading some fans to misunderstand their cause and actually become hostile to them, even though it is clear that most of the demands of the movement is sensible and reasonable. If you read some of the online threads of the two factions arguing against each other, and you go in with a levelled head and an open mind, you’ll find that the two sides are in fact arguing two different, but very similar, topics. Of course they are! And it’s because they have different understandings of what the movement is fighting for: the dissidents are fighting against censorship of racist fiction (point 2), while the supporters of the movement are fighting against racist harassment (point 1).

So, let’s not make the same mistake as EndOTWRacism, and instead try to address these problems individually.

User-to-User Racist Harassment

It is important to note that harassment on AO3 is already banned in the terms of service. No one is allowed to harass anyone on AO3, regardless of it being racist or not. EndOTWRacism takes this one-step further: they ask AO3 moderators to take off-site harassment into account when policing the site. They cite the harassment against Dr Pande as an example: even though Dr Pande was harassed on Twitter, no action was taken by moderators on the grounds that the harasser’s activity on AO3 did not constitute harassment in and of itself.

Obviously it is not very reasonable to expect AO3 moderators to regulate users’ activity that is not on AO3, but I think there could be a discussion about whether if AO3 should be able to take action against a user if it can be proven that the account holder did harass someone off-site.

This is essentially the long-arm law enforcement problem: how long should the long arm be?

Consider this hypothetical scenario: A multinational company was caught conducting serious fraud in country A. The victims submit proof that they were scammed by the company to country B, the company’s home country, and asks country B to prosecute the company. Should country B prosecute the company? After all, the fraud didn’t take place in country B, and the company is a perfectly law-abiding company in B, so why should country B care? Why should country B spend its time and resources to validate the proof and go through the trouble of prosecuting a company, when country A is perfectly capable of conducting the prosecution by itself and fining the company? Is it fair that the rest of the company in country B should be affected by the actions of the company in country A?

Obviously this is not a perfect analogy, but it illustrates some of my sentiments on this problem. It isn’t very fair for someone to be banned from a forum because of something they’ve said on another forum, just like it isn’t fair for Dr Pande to be fired from her work for harassing a fanfic author on Twitter. It’s outside of their jurisdiction, and I feel that AO3 should respect things outside of its jurisdiction.

You might disagree with my judgement on this specific example involving Dr Pande, but let’s remember that this isn’t about what has happened in the past – the ToS is about what might happen in the future. There is a matter of principle involved, that laws should not be enforced beyond their jurisdiction.

Writers Being Racist to Readers Through Racist Fictional Works

This one has an obvious answer: It is not acceptable for AO3 to censor works of fiction, no matter its content. That’s the whole point of AO3 and its maximum inclusivity policy.

For the sake of argument, let’s make the assumption that the “racist works” are bona-fide fanfics and not part of a larger harassment campaign.

One may try to argue that allowing racist works actually goes against the maximum inclusivity policy, as POC are prevented from reading on AO3 because they are exposed to triggering racist fan-works or otherwise “made to feel unwelcomed” due to the content on AO3. It is important to remember that the policy of maximum inclusivity was originally drafted for writers, not readers. The idea of AO3 was that everyone could write whatever they want. The inspiration of the concept dates back to 1929, when “A Room of One’s Own” was published, which advocated for safe spaces for female writers, and it is where AO3 got its name from. It is generally accepted that readers are responsible themselves for what they read and don’t read, and I don’t think POC are an exception – it would be patronising to single them out as a group to ‘protect’, and being patronising to POC is a form of racism in itself.

There are, however, less invasive methods to make POC feel more welcomed on AO3, such as clearer tagging of potentially triggering works, as well as a muting feature to hide users and works permanently – something I advocated for most fervently and ultimately implemented myself.

Some people have suggested that “Bigotry” should be added as one of the major warnings on the Archive, thus granting the tag a compulsory status (unless the author specified “Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings”). This has problems with enforceability, as it could be difficult for Policy & Abuse to tell if a work is bigoted or not, because the concept of bigotry is a spectrum, not a clear yes/no unlike other Archive Warnings. It also brings about the question of what to do with the 11 million works already posted on the Archive – should they be retroactively tagged, or simply marked in some way as untagged? Is this really going to be effective, given that PAC (Policy & Abuse Committee) can only add the “Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings” (CCNTUAW) warning to works, so there would be a sea of CCNTUAWs and readers would not be effectively warned anyways? Finally, is the new compulsory tag really necessary, given that optional additional tags already exist and are already being used?

There is also the suggestion of permanent tag blocks, such that users would never see works with a certain tag on search results. Technical challenges of this aside, if lots of readers block a particular tag, would writers simply not use the tag, in the hopes that their works would show up on more people’s search results? That would place AO3 in a worse position overall – works would not only be unfilterable, but no warnings would exist at all. We should be careful not to create a site feature which actively discourages writers from tagging their works accurately, as it would undermine the effectiveness of the tag search system AO3 is renowned for.

So here are my suggestions:

Extend the muting feature to mute individual works, as well as authors. Often someone just wants to get rid of that one work that shows up on their search, but doesn’t want to mute the rest of the works by that author. This is very technically feasible and it would have minimal impact on the performance of the system. Currently, this is possible through custom site-skins, but I feel it should be made more accessible and user-friendly.

Run an information campaign about racial sensitivity through official OTW channels, encouraging authors to pay special attention to the tagging of works involving racist themes or stereotypes. A tip could be added in the work edit page to say something like “Make sure to tag any potentially triggering content in your work, such as sexism, racism etc.”

Moderation Abuse

It is an extraordinary feat that over the past 15 years since when the Policy & Abuse Committee (PAC) was first formed, there has been no large-scale allegations of racist moderation abuse – or any kind of abuse for that matter – against AO3 moderators. This is especially impressive given that all the moderators are volunteers, and there is very little extrinsic pressure for the volunteers to behave in the proper manner. I, for one, applaud the neutrality and sensitivity of PAC members, and thank them for their hard and honest work.

But just because such incidents haven’t taken place in the past doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen in the future. After all, even the most well-intentioned volunteer make mistakes, and there should be mechanisms in place to prevent those mistakes from causing unintended consequences.

I would like to propose an appeal mechanism: anyone who is unsatisfied with the judgement of PAC can choose to appeal against the decision with an appeals committee, regardless if the decision is to sanction someone or not. The appeals committee would be independent from PAC, to ensure its decisions are not under the influence of PAC. This would create a kind of ‘law court’, where both sides can propose evidence in a back-and-forth debate, leading to a mature and responsible conclusion.

The solution has a certain elegance in it, as it would complete the trinity of governance: The executive (PAC), legislature (Legal Committee), and finally the judiciary (Appeals and Justice Committee).

User-to-Staff Harassment

In 2022, there was a campaign of malicious email attacks against AO3 volunteers, in which emails including CSEM were sent to members of staff, causing great distress. It was revealed afterwards that the internal support mechanisms for staff members were totally inadequate: there were some amateur emotional support from other volunteers, a list of help line numbers, and practical advice on locking down their social media accounts. There were no well-being counselling, mental health aid, safeguarding mechanisms or even just a dedicated person to talk to within the organisation.

I propose the OTW establish a new Staff Wellbeing Committee, with the responsibility of maintaining morale and the mental health of the volunteers. Their role could be to check up on front-line volunteers like PAC and Support members regularly, to ensure those most affected by outside forces are being accounted for. In case of a crisis like the 2022 incident, they could also serve as a central hub of coordination to keep everyone safe, like coordinating with systems to pre-filter incoming emails before they are delivered to volunteers. It would also mean that volunteers have someone independent to talk to when they feel uncomfortable speaking with their seniors. They don’t necessarily have to be professional, they just have to exist.

Internal Racism

The OTW has recently been accused of internal racism against its Chinese volunteers, where senior members of the Org has taken the decision to close official Chinese social media accounts on Weibo without consulting with Chinese volunteers. Source

This is fundamentally a communication breakdown, and it illustrates a very prominent problem in the large 900+ volunteers Org: Siloing. One part of the Org has no idea what is taking place in another part of the Org, because there is very little cross-committee communication. The OTW even admits this in their 2022-25 Mission Statement in the Challenges section, but the solutions proposed in the Statement are vague at best and superficial at worst.

I propose a specific and practical solution: launch an internal social media platform. It would be exclusively for OTW staff members, much like how Facebook was exclusively for Harvard students when it was first created. It would allow easy communication between any members of staff, and there could be “tweets” about what a committee or member is working on at the moment, so other members can provide opinions and support. After all, the size of 900+ people more than enough justifies a dedicated social media platform.

It wouldn’t even be technically challenging. Just deploy an instance of Mastodon and turn off all the federation features! Mastodon is open-source and easily deployable, they can get this up and running over a weekend.

So, What Happens Next?

It just so happens that we are nearing the election season of the OTW. This year is especially important, as there are 4 open seats as compared to 2 in a normal year, due to 2 resignations in the past year. Bearing in mind the board has a nominal 7 member quota, so for the first time in 12 years, a single election will determine a majority of the members on the board. The last time there were 4 vacancies was in 2011. Therefore, this election has serious consequences on the future policies of the OTW, and it is vital that you cast your vote to the correct candidates, so if you haven’t donated $10 to be an OTW member, please do so before the 30th of June, so you can obtain the right to vote in the election in summer.

I will be looking out for candidates with the following qualities:

  • Firm stance against the censorship of fanworks, on anti-racism grounds or otherwise;
  • Maintaining the ToS’s position of not extending the long-arm enforcement to other third-party platforms;
  • Commitment to expanding the muting feature to individual work muting;
  • Campaigning for more accurate voluntary tagging on potentially triggering fanworks;
  • Supporting the creation of an appeals mechanism independent of PAC;
  • Policies to address the problem of staff wellbeing;
  • Specific and detailed solution to the problem of ‘siloing’ within the OTW, such as creating an internal social media platform;
  • Disclosing and pushing progress towards selecting a Diversity Consultant from either within the Org, or hired externally.

I would just like to take this last chance to encourage people to vote sensibly: the policies proposed by candidates have to be a) practical, b) sustainable, c) specific and d) have limited and manageable side-effects.

A vague “We will improve internal staff training” is not adequate; the result can’t be observed; there is no clear action plan; and it is not likely going to be sustainable unless more people are reassigned to training new recruits.

A promise like “We will introduce tag blocking” may cause some authors to deliberately under-tag their works and make AO3 worse for everyone.

This election is going to have lasting impacts over the next 3 years; we simply cannot afford to elect people who make false and empty promises, or we will lose 3 years of progress. The stakes are too high. So please, vote sensibly.


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