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Moderator Hell: Regulating MMA forums in the era of disinformation and far-right propaganda

Karim Zidan delves into the far-right content and disinformation available on mixed martial arts forums, and how forums are addressing the ever-changing internet landscape. 

Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“Well folks. Just when you thought you’ve seen it all with Drag Queens asking little boys to twerk on camera. Why stop there??? The leftists in CA are pushing to allow special exceptions to registering sex offenders to Gays who use little 14 year old boys.”

These are the words that kickstarted a thread titled ‘CA driving a Bill to protect gay child sex offenders.’ And while one would expect to see something like this on 4chan, 8kun, BitChute, or even Facebook, the thread actually started on Sherdog, a pioneering mixed martial arts (MMA) website founded in 1997 with a longstanding forum and discussions page for topics surrounding the sport. The website is part of the CraveOnline network and once provided MMA content for ESPN.

The thread is one of many examples on the forum of members discussing topics such as QAnon, conspiracy theories, and violent far-right groups such as the Proud Boys. While not all members adhere to these views, the forums provide a space for some members to propagate disinformation and conspiracies to a wider audience under the guise of social discussions.

In this particular case, the thread is a reference to SB-145, a bill passed by the California State Senate on August 31, 2020. Despite the claim suggesting it is an attempt to “legalize pedophilia,” the bill is actually intended to reform the state’s sex offender registration with the goal of making all statutory rape cases, regardless of what kind of sex they involve, equal. The claim, which first appeared on Facebook and spread across various social media spaces, was fact checked by Reuters and confirmed to be false.

While social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have taken steps to ban content related to conspiracy theories and far-right activity, few have considered the role of sports and entertainment forums such as those in the MMA space, where a significant amount of fans continue to espouse their controversial worldviews.

“Proud Boys! How to Join?”

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States in 2016, there has been a steep rise in far-right activity across the United States and various other countries around the world. Among those groups are white supremacist militias and far-right organizations that use violence to deter protestors.

In the United States, these groups include the Rise Above Movement (RAM), a white supremacist fight club that refers to itself as the “premier MMA club of the Alt-Right.” Others that arose in 2016 include the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights (FOAK), a group of young, pro-Trump white men who claimed to serve as the “tactical defensive arm” of the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s organization started by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes. Kyle Chapman, the founder of FOAK, revealed that his group plans to “protect and defend our right-wing brethren when the police and government fail to do so.” Similar groups have since sprouted in Italy, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Poland.

The aforementioned Proud Boys make several appearances as discussion topics on MMA forums, including a thread titled Proud Boys! How To Join?, where a member with more than 3500 posts sought out information on how to join the far-right group.

“I would like to join. I would love to go down to MLK boulevard and whup some fucking ass.”

While some of the other members responded by making fun of the thread, others promoted the Proud Boys ethos and posted disinformation regarding Black Lives Matter and Antifa and shared upcoming events and ways to contact the group.

A second The Underground MMA (UG) thread on the Proud Boys sparked a discussion about whether or not the group should be described as “racist,” leading some posters to respond with statements like “No, BLM and Antifa are however.” Another UG thread shared an interview with Enrique Tarrio, a convicted felon who is also the chairman of the Proud Boys and director of the Latinos for Trump organization. He also attended the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

There are countless examples of MMA forums such as Sherdog and UG platforming far-right commentary and conspiracy theories. A UG thread started last week by a member named SpunQ – whose social media is filled with Q-related conspiracy theories – laid out various messages from recent Q drops littered with unverified information and accusations against media outlets who report on the QAnon movement.

QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory turned virtual cult that claims a cabal of elite pedophiles made up of Hollywood actors, Democrats, and other high-ranking officials are behind a global child sex-trafficking ring. The group asserts that Trump is currently fighting the cabal and is planning a day of reckoning known as “The Storm.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation has labeled the movement a “potential domestic terror threat.”

Another recent Sherdog thread claimed there was an “arrest at bill gates home,” which turned out to be a reconstructed report based on old news from 2014. It should be noted, however, that several members were quick to point out that the news was dated. There are also counter-posts that balance out the deluge of false information, including this Sherdog thread titled “The Fox News Effect,” which goes on to explain the reasons why FOX news viewers are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories.

And yet, it is far too easy to stumble upon a thread like “Are we on the path to rational fascism?” which is filled with statements such as “You’ve gotta love the modern approach to fascism . “ you’re a victim, so we’ll make these laws to protect you”. The universal order of all things requires a bit of ruthlessness. By forcing the weak to thrive, we are destroying our own species.”

In an attempt to understand the issues facing MMA forums, Bloody Elbow spoke with leading figures responsible for managing the Sherdog and UG forums, and have elected to publish their responses in full.

Kirik Jenness (UG founder):

The site since its inception has had Terms of Service that prohibit the use of racial slurs, copyright infringement, and that kind of standard stuff. But although I find some of the content on the site personally abhorrent, for a number of reasons, to answer your question directly, I have not tried to institute processes to address disinformation or xenophobia as have Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.

The simplest reason is that I am a mom and pop shop, and lack the resources to address the issue adequately. It’s a massively complex issue, as evidenced by the regular failures by multi-billion dollar corps. Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook are worth billions; I’m worth about 50 cents. That’s not the primary reason, however. I don’t believe that, for the significant issues of the day, there is an objective truth. The British I think have it figured out more rationally. The Guardian and the Financial Times are going to offer alternative facts, relatively speaking, and citizens of that nation get it. The idea of unobjective news is, I think, a myth. NY Times tries to be; FOX calls itself, of all things, “Fair and Balanced.”

So on my site, people can and do cheer on those BLM protests that turned violent, arguing that riots are a natural and rational response to oppression, much like the founding of the USA. Jeff Monson can, as he has, argue on the UG that Communism is the most appropriate form of government. “The Snowman” has apparently amended his views, and could now (but hasn’t) argue that Russia’s violent encroachment in Donbas, Ukraine is appropriate, and should be defended at gunpoint, as he has. People on the site can and do advocate for joining The Proud Boys, or for joining ANTIFA (who the f is not against fascism, anyway). Thabo Mbeki fans can argue that AIDS isn’t caused by a virus, but ultimately by poverty. A family member is a longtime advisor to Mbeki, and my grandma (through marriage) grew up with Nelson Mandela, and I have family in SA, which is why that one came to mind. I understand that the result of bad information can be catastrophic - The Guardian reckoned Mbeki’s stance caused 200,000 deaths. Or 300,000, I forget right now. And Donald Trump fans can champion whatever the f no-mask-wearing, hydroxychloroquine-taking “cures” he is pushing at the moment. Khabib fans can argue that “The Eagle” is right in criticizing Macron for his response to a beheading for putting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a classroom. Others can be outraged that Khabib’s stance is shared by many in the Muslim world. It’s a big, complex world. I grew up in various parts of it, and have been to 50+ countries. I’m the son of an anthropologist. I’m not completely ignorant. And I don’t think that censorship is how we get less ignorant.

I’m not without hope. I do believe, to quote MLK, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But as I said, I don’t believe censorship is how we get there. I think censorship on the social network is very, very counterproductive - and fuels Trump’s argument that the mainstream media is out to get him. Getting Tweets censored by Twitter is great for Donald Trump. And fuels the rise of Parler.

Jay Pettry (Sherdog Forum Administrator):

We have our forums split up into many different subforums by subject, with a combat sports section that is distinct and isolated from political discussion. Many years ago, we realized that there was substantial interest to have a separate outlet for our posters to discuss politics, and breaking this section apart from general discussion allowed us to moderate it with its own subset of rules and regulations. When combat sports and politics intertwine as it does frequently, it is standard for the discussion to be relocated to our political subforum to be monitored there.

The forum itself has several rules against flaming other users as well as offensive posts of various natures. In particular, we prohibit racist/xenophobic threads, posts and images across the forum, and state this explicitly in the rules. Some of these subforums have more narrowly tailored rules depending on the subject matter, and our political subforum posts certain rules like the following:

Racism/Xenophobia: Refrain from using racial/xenophobic/gay slurs. Just like above, if you stick to arguing for/against an ideology, religion, philosophy, and avoid dehumanizing the group or person that holds that view, you should be fine.”

Earlier this year, the staff as a whole took note of the growingly hostile political climate. In an effort to preempt several types of problematic posts, we enacted a more specific rule that every member has to read when accessing the political subforum:

Violence/Genocide: Do not condone violence or genocide on a person or group of people. You are free to attack a person’s or group’s ideas but you are crossing the line when calling for violence. This will be heavily enforced in threads with breaking news involving victims.”

We keep a small but effective crew, and some designate most of their time moderating our political subforum titled “The War Room.” In addition to our forum staff that works tirelessly for the love of the site, we also rely on a form of community-oriented policing – meaning, we understand that it is logistically impossible for a small team to read every single post in detail, so we ask that the posters help bring problematic posts or threads to our attention to review.

We have a specific post in our “War Room” rule thread that addresses this concern directly:

Reporting: If you find a post to be breaking the rules above, please use the report button. The mods cannot see everything posted and just because a mod may be in the specific thread does not mean we necessarily saw and ignored it. Do not assume that a specific infraction is now tolerated if you see it done and go do that same thing yourself. Also give some time for a reported comment to be addressed. Modding isn’t instant and many times I see people refer to a comment being allowed that was deleted AFTER they saw it.”

When it comes to disinformation and conspiracy theories, the moderation team typically deletes the thread outright or relocates it to an isolated subforum to be discussed elsewhere. Individual posts that break rules, whether for something mentioned above or others like “derailing the thread” to try to change the subject, are handled accordingly.

Finally, hate groups or hate speech are not welcome on the Sherdog forums, and persons associated with those groups or posting hateful rhetoric are asked to stop or are shown the proverbial door.

A Deep Demographic Divide

Forums have long been a cesspool of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia.

But that is not how they started.

Forums such as Sherdog began in the late 1990s, when the internet was limited to dial up modems, bulletin board systems (BBS) and the Netscape browser. This was long before the current social media age, where smartphones allow us to connect with friends or strangers around the world and access an abundance of rapidly evolving information in a matter of seconds.

Back in the 90s, chat rooms and message boards were a popular means of communicating with like-minded individuals around the world. These spaces created a sense of virtual community, where members could discuss topics such as sports, music, fashion, religion, politics, and gaming. The forums tended to have hierarchical structures, where there were administrators, moderators, and user groups divided by specific criteria (post count, privileges etc).

The very first software dedicated to forum protocol was WIT, which was developed by the W3 Consortium in 1994. Since then, there have been hundreds of forum software packages, including phpBB, Invision, vBulletin, MyBB, and others. At first, these spaces were reserved for more tech-savvy people who could navigate the convoluted structures. This limited the amount of members to people actually interested in said topics. As access to the internet and simplified technology became more readily available, the pool of potential forum members expanded greatly, which led to a rise in xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, racism, and other forms of hate.

Since that time, message boards have suffered a significant decline as social media became the most prominent form of online communication. However, social media spaces are not communities but networks driven by metrics and lack the intimacy of old-school forums. As a result, they mainly appeal to Millennials and Gen Z youth who grew up in the tail-end of the glory days of message boards. Naturally, this applies to MMA fandom, as modern fans flocked to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to express their opinions on fighters, while some older fans remained on their beloved forums like Sherdog.

Virtual World Logos Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Many of those who continue to flock to forums are users who are less comfortable with social media. Forums remain a more intimate setting for discussion, which could potentially empower some to express controversial views with like-minded members. It is also a place where users are given more freedom to express their views, as well a far less restrictive word limit to share their opinions.

While MMA forums do feature some members who feel empowered by their shared hate, it should also be noted that the vast majority of threads are sports-related and relatively harmless. The key to maintaining a civil online space lies in the moderation tools implemented by the sites, leaving little room for racism, sexism, or other forms of hate. However, these forums have struggled to keep up with the waves of disinformation and far-right propaganda that land on their sites.

As the internet continues to evolve, so should the moderation tools implemented by forums .

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