Akismet Spam Filter for WordPress - The Banning of the Innocent Commenter
Both in Western Mythology and Islam we find explanations of the concept of Kismet.
THE TRIUMPH OF THE MOIRAI
However, as is true so often with men, the explanations given are different in each case.
In mythology, the Super-Goddesses of Fate (or Kismet), known as the Moirai, were feared by both men and Blue Collar Gods alike. At the moment of birth, the Moirai, in famously arbitrary fashion, assigned innocent newborns to futures of glory or tragedy, success or failure, riches or penury, physical health or perpetual pain. Once judged by the Moirai to be worthy of malice, there was no recourse. In effect, the Super Goddesses had spoken.
Within Islam, however, the principle of Kismet, as explained by the vast majority of the followers of Mohammad, is the will of a wise and just God, a God to be trusted as a consequence of the love he has for his creatures.
The reason I am taking time to review the meanings of the term Kismet is because of a phenomenon that has surfaced in the world of WordPress*, one recognized by many, including WordPress users, as dangerous and patently unfair to innocents; one that behaves very much like the Kismet of mythology rather than the Kismet of Islam. [*WordPress is the most widespread blog software, with over 200 million websites running on the platform, according to Wikipedia. -Ed]
I am referring to Akismet, the super goddess of spam filters; the plug-in that relegates innocents to a life of electronic trash bins, ignored and/or blocked from participation in the mainstream WordPress community, and does so because it can.
For the purpose of this short piece, I wish to make very clear that spam filters, used properly, and with safeguards relative to the civil rights of non-spammers, not to mention the common courtesy due to new visitors to blogs, are valuable tools.
In addition, it is my confirmed opinion, that it is the right of any blogger to personally deprive voice on their virtual space for any reason.
Just as we are all free to hang the phone up and cease listening to another person's point of view, and to be as rude as we wish, even to a soon to be ex-supervisor or friend, so too are we free, and should continue to be free, to deprive anyone of the right to disagree with us in our own electronic homes, our virtual electronic houses.
That said, the trouble starts when centrally controlled spam filters, unannounced and unbeknownst to the filter users begin banning individuals and businesses system-wide as a result of the anonymous vote of a small number of filter users.
Akismet, a widely used WordPress spam filter, has been alarmingly guilty of silencing minority voices, not because of spamming violations, which after all is the point of such an application, but rather because those banned were attempting to expand discussion on blogs to include poorly represented points of view.
It would seem to me that blog owners would welcome varied inputs when they introduce topics, so long as the inputs were respectful and intelligent, but such is evidently not the case. (Billy Rose, the band leader, once said "There is only one thing worse than bad publicity, and that's no publicity at all.") However, again, if a blogger wants nothing but "at-a-boys" on his or her personal blog, so be it. I say have at it, and have fun.
Of course, I believe it is rather shoddy of a blogger to invite opinion and then ban an individual for disagreeing with the thrust of the article, but that is the bloggers' right. And, I am sadly straying again from the principal point of this article. So, without further venturing afield, let us return to the subject at hand.
What I am objecting to is the delegation of the power to a handful of anonymous persons to deprive access to blogging platforms, especially to those who have done nothing to merit such exclusion. Banning by anonymous vote from the crowd smacks of the same spirit that was (and to some extent still is) alive and well within organizations founded to "deal" with those who represent other ideas, other races, other political and/or religious views.
With that, let's look at Akismet in as much detail as is available to the public.
Several persons of my acquaintance have been banned from participating on thousands, if not millions, of WordPress sites by Akismet. Among them, I have not found a legitimate spammer, that is, someone expressing views that are vulgar or in some other way in opposition to a general sense of community decency. Nor have the banned used machine generated mechanisms to attempt to secure for the individual an advantage of some kind, the product of a feverishly link-avaricious mind. No, these are ordinary folks just visiting blogs and honestly attempting to share their points of view with others.
Akismet has banned them for this practice in absolute fashion, even more effectively than the Moirai of old were able in their world.
Having contacted Akismet Support (AS) in order to remedy what seemed to them blatant violations of civility, not to say statute, at minimum AS was grumpy when they chose to respond to the inquiries at all. The most common response to a report of improper banning was a simple, "We are just doing what the bloggers want." So says Alex Shiels and Matt Mullenweg.
Akismet Plugin: A Virtual Firing Squad
Let's see what actually is happening.
Lack of User Involvement
To a person, the folks my acquaintances have contacted relative to how their spam filter is behaving, champion Akismet, even though, when questioned further, it becomes embarrassingly obvious that the users have no idea how or why persons attempting to comment on their blogs are being trashed without recourse, sent along with pornography and other easy greasy targets to dwell in the outer darkness of their spam folders, or, worse, blocked totally, that is, deprived of the ability to participate at all on their site.
Attacking the Defenseless
Donning white sheets, for anonymity's sake, has, of course, become a hopeless cliche in the United States. However, it is still a useful reference here. Today, instead of the white sheets, Akismet uses what are called "white pages."
The way of the white page is interesting. By simply using a different algorithm, Akismet can escalate the shunning of undesirables. This would be the equivalent of stomping on the toe of one of the Moirai after finding out they had condemned one to a life of losing at cribbage.
After an Akismet banned individual's or business' comment has been written on the Akismet "protected" site, and the Enter Key pressed, a blank white page appears. Access denied. Why? Because Akismet can. It's all done clinically. "We are just doing what the bloggers want."
One can easily imagine the surprise it is for a non-spammer to discover that he or she has been excluded from near universal participation on WordPress platforms which in turn use the public airways, satellites, and ground lines.
Personal Philosophies of the Powerful Powerless
There are some personalities who use the anonymity of the Internet to press back or compensate for their otherwise powerless personal lives.
This is the same sort of person who will use his or her automobile to horn blast octogenarians too slowly exiting off ramps, or the middle digit to express multi-faceted opinions to the occupants of church buses.
Such personally bankrupt individuals are more than happy to "snitch" to Akismet, basking in the power they have been granted to exclude. After all, Akismet is, "Just doing what such bloggers want." A small number of these complainants, most having gone off their meds, is sufficient for Akismet to ban for all eternity those who dare to darken their virtual doorstep.
Illegal, Unethical, Unfriendly
Of course, the kind of anonymous banning of the innocent is really the same kind of error we in the US have been attempting to correct for the past sixty years while others have been making the same run at fairness for all of recorded history. That is, we have been trying hard to prevent an unwell minority of persons being able to disadvantage a healthy majority. So far, Akismet has gotten away with turning back the clock in the US and elsewhere.
Akismet has been reported on several occasions to the American Civil Liberties Union. What, if anything, is happening at that level, I have no idea.
However, legality aside, this is an appeal to the good hearts in WordPress land.
Do you really want a spam filter with this kind of non-existent sense of community being responsible for making judgments in your name? Can you abide an organization such as this to decide who will be welcomed or condemned in your personal virtual house?
~Guest Contributor J. Powers